In this blog Haripriya Rangan describes the genesis and development of her co-written article with Karen Bell on African baobabs in India and the human story to be glimpsed behind the movement across the Indian Ocean of these charismatic trees – ‘Elusive Traces: Baobabs and the African Diaspora in South Asia’. The article, originally published in Environment and History (Vol. 21/1) in 2015, a Special Issue on Transoceanic Exchanges, is available Open Access for a limited period (until 1 July 2018).
Fifteen or so years ago, after finishing a field research trip in southern Africa, I went to visit my sister who was then living in Indore, a city in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. During my stay, she had arranged for a family trip to Mandu, a historic fort and settlement some 100 kilometres away. Mandu sits atop a ridge roughly 650 metres above sea level and about 400 kilometres inland from the western coast of India. As we drove through the countryside and approached Mandu, I was startled to see baobab trees scattered amidst the patchworked farming landscape. ‘This is amazing’,I exclaimed to my sister, ‘these are African baobabs! I wonder how they got here!’
There were many more baobabs within the historic town and several roadside traders selling baobab fruit pods to tourists. What do you call this fruit? I asked, as I purchased a pod from a trader. He said, ‘Khorasani imli’. In the past, Khorasan referred to a region of Central Asia that included parts of western Afghanistan, northeast Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. And ‘imli’ in Hindi means tamarind. The baobab was a tamarind tree (and fruit) from Khorasan!
Another man standing nearby was selling tourist booklets in Hindi about Mandu. I flipped through one of them to find a few sentences mentioning that one of the rulers had heard of this African tree and ordered it to be brought from Africa and planted in the city. That story seemed more plausible but not enough to explain the mystery.
Several years later, when my colleagues and I applied for an Australian Research Council grant on movement of trees across the Indian Ocean into pre-British Australia, I succeeded in convincing them to include the baobab as one of the case studies. The presence of the baobab in the Indian subcontinent and northwest Australia was indeed an enigma. They were in these regions well before the British arrived and established colonial rule. The baobab had arrived in Australia far back enough in time to have evolved into a separate species (Adansonia gregorii), but not so in India, where it was predominantly the African species (Adansonia digitata). This was a charismatic tree and offered a great opportunity for the kind of interdisciplinary research we wanted to pursue by combining genetic analysis, written history, oral narratives and cultural traditions associated with the trees.
Our research yielded fascinating insights about the human agency involved in the introduction of baobabs from the African continent to Indian subcontinent (and the spread of Adansonia gregorii in northwest Australia). We conducted fieldwork in eastern Africa and in various parts of India, including Mandu, to collect a wide array of material and cultural information about the presence of the trees and stories about them. The findings from the genetic analysis were enormously exciting on several fronts. First, they showed without doubt that the baobab species in India was indeed Adansonia digitata and had been introduced from Africa. Second, they showed that the baobabs in India were not simply from a single region, but from different regions of origin, of continental Africa. Third, they showed that some of the baobabs in India displayed genetic features that indicated minor mutations or differences from the sampled origin populations in Africa. This finding pointed to a few possibilities: an introduction from some other part of Africa which we had not sampled; an introduction from Africa far back in time to allow small mutations to occur in response to the local environment; or a combination of both.
When we matched these findings with the available historical information on trade and movements between Africa and India, we discovered that the genetic analysis of the baobabs corresponded with historical periods extending over two or three millennia of interactions with eastern, southern, and western Africa. The stories and folklore about the baobabs in different places in India showed connections with the cultural beliefs and traditions in these parts of Africa as well as their adaptations to local beliefs and customs. Words for baobabs in some indigenous African languages were transformed into place names for settlements near large baobab trees. Our research showed, quite clearly and for the first time, that the baobabs in India revealed the different histories of the African diaspora in the subcontinent, ordinary histories that had never been written down and almost forgotten.
It has been immensely rewarding to see the enthusiastic response and interest in our research in India and around the world. People from the African-Indian diaspora community have been delighted to learn about the ancient connections between their migrations, cultural traditions, and these charismatic trees in the Indian landscapes. We now have baobab spotters contacting us to share the locations of trees that they have come across in India. What pleases us most is how our interdisciplinary research has opened up the opportunity for non-scientists and lay naturalists to see and share stories about the plants and people whose histories and cultures are inscribed in enigmatic ways in their everyday environments and landscapes.