Sunday, 22 March 2015

The Botany of Mamallapuram

Mamallapuram is famous for its sculptures and monuments of the Pallava era, but its botany is quite interesting.
The native vegetation around Mamallapuram‬ (better known as Mahabalipuram, also called Mallai) is of a category called Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF). This is a special kind of forest found along a narrow strip of the coast of Tamilnadu.
Most evergreens are temperate - this is one in the Tropics!
Most evergreens are in rainforests. This one is *dry*, it only rains a couple of months in these parts. The original vegetation had evolved to absorb moisture from the coastal air in the dry months. These trees never - or rarely - shed leaves. One leaf of a specific tree was marked with ink and it was still on the tree fifteen years later!
Prof Swaminathan remarked in 2010 that Mamallapuram has the only creeper (not tree) of the ficus family that he knows of. There are a few other TDEF along the coast of Tamilnadu.
Other vegetation has invaded these regions though.
Udaykumar, a professor of botany from Presidency college, Madras, explained these during the first THT Site Seminar. In this photo, behind him is a creeper called "yaanaikodi" wrapped around a neem tree. "Yaanaikodi" translates as "Elephant creeper" - it is the only vine strong enough to hold an elephant - usually that needs iron chains.
Yaanaikodi - elephant creeper - யானைக்கொடி
The dwarf palm in the centre of the picture below, called ciRReecal in Tamil, is about 150 years old estimates Udayakumar! You can see several of these in Mallai.

Dwarf palm -  சிற்றீச்சல்

"korai" கோரை
 The tree here is called "eerkolli" which can be translated as "LiceKiller" or "Dandruff killer". It's timber is wonderfully sculptuable, and used to be made into combs with very fine teeth, used to crush lice and eggs of lice in hair, before plastic combs and medical shampoos reduced its popularity.

"LiceKiller" ஈர்கொல்லி மரம்

சோழமண்டல தாழம்பூ
This photo is of the last of the Coromandel Thazhampoo (screw pine?) at Mallai.

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