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What Heritage Town in Pondicherry can reveal about Madhuca Trees?

Heaven is where there are Mahua trees and hell is where there is no mahua tree to make wine – a popular Gond saying.

Art by Anaga N

Mahua trees (Madhuca longifolia) are considered sacred among the Gond communities of Central Indian plateau of Chota Nagpur region. It is widely popular amongst them as ‘Kalpavriksha’ - Trees of Life.

During childbirth, Mahua oil is applied to the child after cutting the umbilical cord. As a tradition, newlyweds hold the sticks of Mahua tree, during marriage. Also, Mahua drinks are served as well. The dead corpse is tarnished with Mahua oil. Hence, right from the birth to death, the part played by Mahua trees in Gond culture is irreplaceable.

Majorly found in Central India, Mahua trees are also spotted all the way down south. In fact, ancientSangham literature mentions about the significant relationship between mahuaflowers and bears.

Project Madhuca

This culturally and environmentally significant tree is found in Puducherry as well. While its presence in the outskirts are largely unknown, we decided to do the status check of the number of trees present in the most prominent tourist-rich heritage town aka White Town. By ‘we’ I meant a bunch of like-minded free-spirited people united by nature and conservation. And Project Madhuca was kick started.

We took a stroll, early in the morning, along every street of the heritage town of Puducherry surveying the Madhuca longifolia species. Walking along the neatly constructed pathways and well-erected buildings in Indo-French architecture is pure bliss. We selected only the French quarter (east of the canal) of the heritage zone, from the public toilets in the north to the old port in the south.

While everyone adores the unique architecture of yellow-painted buildings, we plotted these wonderful Madhuca trees screening the streets.

After about a month, we counted 97 species present in the French quarter zone of Heritage town. We identified two different species of Madhuca – Iluppai in Tamil Madhuca latifolia & Madhuca longifolia. While there were 91 Madhuca latifolia, there were 7 Madhuca longifolia.

Later did we realise that there was an error in identification of species. We mistook Canophyllum inophyllum for Madhuca latifolia. We came to know of this only after interacting with the people and community of the area.

Phase one – Counting and plotting

We did this survey in two phases. In the first phase, we did the counting and marked it using a mobile application, GeoTracker. This free android application helped us to plot the coordinates of the species present in the area. Also, the outcome can be viewed as a map, both satellite and schematic.

Once the counting was completed, we analysed the plotted coordinates of the species in the schematic representation of the French quarters of Heritage Town. There were some clusters in a few locations, where large number of species are found. For example, a lot of species Canophyllum inophyllum are found on Manakula Vinayagar street and Bharathi park.

Manakula Vinayagar street with more Punnai trees

A lot of Punnai trees are found in Bharathi park

Phase two – Interaction with public

We considered it as hotspots and went for interaction with people and community, which is phase two. This phase helped us realise our mistake. It was only after the interaction with the flower sellers, tea sellers, temple priests and a few localites, we realised that it is Canophyllum inophyllum and not Madhuca latifolia we had been counting.

People corrected us by telling its (Canophyllum inophyllum) local name Punnai in Tamil. Its common English name is Alexandrian Laurel or Indian Laurel. It is native to Africa and South Asia and made a mark in our culture through its religious significance. “We used to collect its flower for Diwali worship,” said a tea seller near the secretariat.

We have witnessed such practices ourselves, one day. One elderly person was leaning over the fence of Bharathi Park from outside and plucking the Punnai flower. When enquired he said, “It’s Diwali season right. We used to keep these flowers in front of the lord and worship.”

Phase two also brought to light some facts that it was the Ashram people who planted Punnai tree in Manakula Vinayagar street and Bharathi Street. “Some Ashram inmates got together years ago and planted these trees here,” said an age-old flower seller who sells lotus flowers outside Manakula Vinayagar temple. He has been selling there for more than 20 years now.

While their work is appreciated as a lot of trees survived in this concrete jungle, the reason for selecting this species is unknown. Speculation is that they assumed Punnai as a native one due to its religious association. Yet, we are prying into the reason.

Project Madhuca at French quarters of Heritage Town, Puducherry

Our learnings

This tree counting project was initiated to count Madhuca trees and it’s upsetting to note only seven species were spotted across the Heritage town. But all trees are in good health and maintained well, which is promising.

Although it was a small project of just counting trees during the morning walk with friends, the amount of learning we could draw from this was enormous.

  1. Interaction with the stakeholders, which in this case are people and community. Other potential stakeholders were Municipal corporation, Ashram trust and NGO who worked in the area of plantation.
  2. Usage of technology for counting the species and marking its coordinates helped us in witnessing the hotspots. We also used PlantNet app to identify the tree species.
  3. Nice productive field time induced positive energy to carry out similar nature-based activities. Less time in field is treasured than more time on books.
We have covered French quarters of Heritage town for now and Tamil quarter is pending. We are contemplating as to continue our project to Tamil quarters or to further enhance the scope of the project by adding others species as well i.e. to do the comprehensive study of trees in French quarter side of Heritage Town. 

~ o ~

It is a volunteer-based participatory project and the team includes Soundarajan, Vimal, Athira, Naveen, Karthikeyan, Pugalenthi, Puviarasan and Gowthama ;-) 


  1. It is relaxing to read this article at the time of pandemic and confinement. I really liked your learnings from the project. Learning list is portrayed beautifully

  2. Very nice work. Would be nice if you could contribute to Seasonwatch by monitoring phenology of these trees.

  3. The link you attached is very informative. With out knowing much about this plant, I recently planted 3 illuppai tree. After planting only, I got curious to know about this plant and came to these article. After reading, I am happy that we have chosen such a significant tree.


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Thank you for reading. Really appreciate your time. Would be great if you could share your thoughts about the article you just read. Will be happy to discuss about it. Little bit of discussion helps! Always!

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