By Bernard VanCuylenburg
The year is 1954. The place, standard 4 in the lower school of St Anthony’s college. The protagonists, a stern Mr P. B. A. Weerakoon taking the English lesson, a schoolboy standing before the class trembling in his Bata shoes, and the rest of the students, this writer included, quaking in their seats anticipating the coming firestorm!
Mr Weerakoon, our English teacher had given us the task of learning the poem, The Village Blacksmith, by H. W. Longfellow for homework, and he was now putting us to the sword. The hapless student who was called upon to recite the poem had a mental block after the first three lines, which were:
Under the spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smithy, a mighty man is he …
Thereafter he stuttered, stammered and unable to continue gave up in resignation subject to the penetrating stare of Mr Weerakoon, awaiting his chastisement.
This poem mentions a tree which is not indigenous to the land of our birth, while in the lower school stood a tree which was an iconic landmark at college – a tree, the roots of which penetrated the bowels of the earth, whose trunk and branches soared to the heavens. A tree, the image of which planted itself in the mind and psyche of a generation of Antonians. This was the tamarind tree which stood in solitary splendour behind the college hall. Before the hall was built, this majestic denizen of the botanical world was a welcome sight to anybody entering the gates of St Anthony’s.
It was no ordinary tree. Its dense foliage by way of its sturdy branches broken by beams and nuances of radiant sunlight gave it an image of reverential beauty. Its very height, thickness of girth and regal bearing commanded admiration. We marvelled at the longevity of the old tamarind tree. One could hear a sighing and a singing as the wind wafted through its branches…
It was said that this giant tamarind tree was a sapling during the reign of the last king of Kandy, a statement I can neither confirm nor refute due to lack of any historical references. The science of dendrochronology could have defined the age of the tree, but in the waft and web of life at St Anthony’s, finding out the age of a tree was not a priority. Dendrochronology has been used the world over to establish the age of ancient trees such as the cedars of Lebanon mentioned in the Old Testament, and the giant redwoods of Northern California.
The bristlecone pines of the Patriarch Grove at the timberline of California’s White Mountains are almost 5000 years old. The oldest bristlecone pine below Wheeler’s Peak in central Nevada was nearly 5000 years of age when it was cut down in 1964 and sectioned for study and display. These trees were mature during the golden age of Athens, and took on the appearance of old age as Rome rose to power.
On a tour of China three years ago I visited an ancient Buddhist temple where the oldest tree in its gardens was dated to 2000 years. In the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem, a priest showed me an olive tree which he said had been there since the time of Christ. When I questioned him as to the veracity of his statement, he assured me that dendrochronology had been used to find out the age of the tree, further adding that in the case of olive trees, the thicker the girth, the older the tree. The girth of this particular tree was enormous.
The tamarind tree was a rendezvous for junior boarders in the Rainbow Cottage. We used to lounge around the huge gnarled roots at its base and feast on the succulent ripe tamarind which lay strewn all around. Just by the side of the tree was a cricket pitch of sorts where many a cricket match was played with test match fervour! During the breaks of these matches, when money was not always available for a quick trip up the road to the tuck shop for bread and tea, some vadais and a lollipop, refreshment was always at hand. A few well-aimed stones at the pods of tamarind resulted in a veritable feast. The brown shell prised open, the tangy sharp taste of the ripe tamarind was like having a party in your mouth.
To a junior boarder it was manna from heaven. Some preferred to eat it raw, while the flesh inside was still green in colour. We would consume the fruit seated amidst the roots of the tree which seemed to hold a child in its warm embrace. Nature nurtures.
The tamarind tree in solitary splendor seemed to maintain a silent vigil on life as it was played out at St Anthony’s College. It “witnessed” the entrances and exits of generations of students as they passed through the college gates. They entered as children, and left as men.
With the passage of time the old tree began to show its age. Some branches began to decay, but the sturdy warrior of the plant world held forth. And then came the day when the authorities decided that the old tree would have to go, to make way for a playground, or as I was informed, a car park. There was some protest against felling a tree that had stood even before St Anthony’s College had begun to function, but ultimately progress won. And progress always has a price. There are many songs which refer to “the day the music died”. The day that the chainsaws, or whatever tools were used to kill the giant tree, were brought to college and went about their deadly work, was the day that something “Antonian” died in every schoolboy who was familiar with the tree. With each branch that was hacked, life’s sap (I cannot use the words life blood) was drained from the hoary giant until finally, all that remained was a massive stump, a painful reminder and all that remained of this specimen of natural beauty.
When the world-famous Sigiriya frescoes were defaced by a vandal in 1963 the then Minister of Education, Mr I. M. R. A. Iriyagolla, speaking in Parliament said: “This act of barbarism was tantamount to stabbing one’s mother in the heart …” I would not equate this graphic statement with the felling of the old tamarind tree, but there were many who mourned its passing.
The tamarind tree disappeared to the chagrin of many nature lovers, just as biologists and conservationists watch in dismay today as the forests disappear at a time when humanity cannot afford to lose its natural heritage.
In this story of the tamarind tree that once stood in the lower school of St Anthony’s College lies a connection with the splendour of trees everywhere – trees that have imparted a lasting beauty to the life of mankind for centuries.