Baobab Tree – iconic landmark in Mannar
By Arundathie Abeysinghe
Baobab Tree (Adansonia), an indigenous tree in Africa is a landmark in Pallimunai in*Mannar located on the northeastern tip of Mannar Island about 1.5 kilometers away from Mannar town. A popular tourist attraction in the town, Baobab Tree in Mannar is about 700 – 800 years old (according to a study conducted in 2003). There are about 40 Baobab Trees in Sri Lanka, but this is the oldest as well as the largest tree in the country. The other trees in Sri Lanka are about 300 – 400 years old.
A strange looking tree with a short stubby trunk of enormous girth, trees attain heights of around 5 – 30 meters and the trunk measures about 7 – 10 meters. It is estimated that these trees live up to 2000 – 6000 years.
The outsized trunk of a Baobab Tree is capped by a small crown of branches similar to spindly roots almost projecting towards the sky and the tree is leafless for nine months of the year. During the dry months, water is stored in the thick, corky, fire-resistant trunk of the Tree.
Baobab Tree is a native tree of Africa, Australia and Madagascar.
According to legends, the Baobab Tree in Mannar had been planted by ancient Arab Traders who visited Sri Lanka centuries ago to feed camels.
Known as Baoboa, bottle tree and monkey bread tree, Baobab Tree at Mannar is 7.5 meters tall and its circumference is 20 meters.
Popular as “Ali Gaha” (Elephant Tree) among locals as its rough bark resembles the skin of an elephant, the Tree is also known as the “upside-down tree” in Africa as its branches are similar to roots. Some locals call it “Devil’s Tree” also due to its shape and size.
According to scholars, the name ‘Baobab’ is derived from the Arabic name for the tree ‘buhibab’.
Early British travelers had been impressed with these trees.
Sir James Emerson Tennent has described about several Baobab Trees he had seen in Mannar in ‘Ceylon-An Account of the Island’ (1860):
“The fort at Manaar, built by the Portuguese and strengthened by the Dutch, is still in tolerable repair, and the village presents an aspect of industry and comfort. But the country beyond is sterile and repulsive, covered by a stunted growth of umbrella trees and buffalo thorns. The most singular objects in the landscape are a number of the monstrous baobab trees, whose importation from the western coast of Africa to India and Ceylon is a mystery as yet unsolved.
The popular conjecture is, that it was the work of the Portuguese; but the age of the trees, as indicated by their prodigious .dimensions, is altogether inconsistent with this hypothesis, and their introduction is probably referable to the same early mariners who brought the coffee-tree to Arabia, and the cinnamon laurel to Malabar.
The huge and shapeless mass of wood in these singular trees resembles a bulb rather than a stem. One of the largest, at Manaar, measured upwards of thirty feet in circumference, although it was a very little more in height.”
Henry W. Cave in his book ‘The Book of Ceylon’ (1908) has also described about Baobab Trees:
“Manaar is scarcely worth a visit. It represents a dreary aspect in comparison with the rest of Ceylon, notwithstanding that in earlier times it was regarded as a place of considerable commercial importance from its proximity to India and the yield of its pearl fisheries. It is now famous only for its baobab trees (cidaiisonia digitata), which must have been imported many centuries ago from the coast of Africa, but by whom and for what purpose is a mystery. The peculiarity of this monstrous tree is in its shapeless massive stem, whose circumference is equal to the height of the tree ….”
W.T. Keble has also described about Baobab Trees in ‘Ceylon, Beaten Track,’ (1940), (page 101), “On the (Mannar) island grow the mysterious baobab trees, natives of Africa, and brought to Ceylon no one knows when”.
According to scholars, during the past, there had been many Baobab Trees in Jaffna and Puttlam too.
Although, Baobab Tree is an introduced species, it is protected due to its rarity and antiquity.
As the weather is hot and sunny in Mannar, it is advisable to visit the location early morning or late evening to avoid harsh sunlight. The best period to visit Mannar is from December to February or from July to September as during the other periods, it is very hot and sunny\
- Mannar – Situated in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, Mannar consists of an area which is part of the mainland as well as Mannar Island, the largest islet in the country. Situated in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka, the landscape of Mannar is varied; wooded jungles to paddy fields and palm trees. According to legends, Mannar Island had served as a connection to the southern tip of India in the past.
Directions: Travel along Thalvupadu-Mannar Road and Pallimunai Road when entering Mannar Island from the causeway and proceed about 500 meters.
Image Courtesy: moha.gov.lk