Turning off the four-lane Bangalore-Hassan highway, built after axing thousands of trees, you reach Kudoor, a small town 40 km from Bangalore. From Kudoor to Hulikal is a 3 km distance traversed under a canopy of tall trees. The trees, mostly banyan, rise from both sides of the asphalt road to form an arc, as if in salute to the old lady who planted and nurtured them. The woman in question, celebrated environmentalist Saalumarada Thimmakka, lives in a house painted green at the end of the stretch. ‘Saalumarada’ is an honorific in Kannada. It means ‘one who planted rows of trees’.
Thimmakka claims she is 101. If one goes by the age of the trees she planted—averaging between 50-70 years—and that they were planted after trying unsuccessfully to have children for 25 years of her married life, the math adds up. “I planted 1,000 saplings then, and save a few, all of them have grown to be strong trees. They are like my children,’’ says the diminutive Thimmakka, sitting in front of a cabinet full of awards, citations, trophies and certificates presented to her.
She and her husband, the late Bikkulu Chikkaiah, raised stem-cultured banyan trees and planted them on both sides of a 3 km stretch of what was then a mud road. They had the foresight to plant them at a distance from the road. So when the road was widened and asphalted, there was no need to cut the trees.
Her story has travelled far and wide. She has a US-based environmental organisation named after her, the Thimmakka’s Resources for Environmental Education, which seeks to help environmental students in their research. Sixth grade children in Karnataka read about her in school textbooks. After reading about her in school, BN Umesh from Hassan was inspired enough to join her, looking after the trees she planted, and help take her mission forward. Umesh, 26, adopted by Thimmakka as her son, often chaperones her at various felicitations and events.
Thimmakka’s face lights up when asked how she thought of planting trees. She says she and her husband were an ordinary couple living off daily wages when she started. “As we were unable to have kids, we thought we should leave something behind as our memory. What better than trees that could give shelter to humans, birds and animals?’’