Portrait

Amaltas: Golden Shower

Amaltas: Goldern Shower
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The amaltas reminds a sweltering Delhi that hope still blooms

MONUMENTS TEND TO be the prime attractions in cities. The first to-dos on most traveller lists are a roundup of the buildings to be looked up, and traversed through. Occasionally, however, a city’s highlight, could be something altogether different, but as meaningful. It could have to do with flowers. If late March to early April announces the papery cherry blossoms of Washington DC, then the waxen, molten tulips tell us spring has arrived in Amsterdam. If DC has its cherry blossoms, so does Japan, and if Holland has its tulips, so does Kashmir. The endemic yet inter-national nature of these blooms makes them seem exotic, yet familiar.

But haven’t you ever wondered if these cities have their flower specialties, why doesn’t Delhi organise amaltas spotting tours? The glory of the amaltas (also called Indian laburnum, golden shower and pudding-pipe tree) in the capital is that it erupts into bloom in the hottest and driest time of the year. Once the branches have gone bare and the ground rendered grassless—that is when the yellow blossoms cascade down from the trees. When the temperature outside is 45 degrees, when the possibility of succor, let alone beauty, seems impossible—the amaltas reminds us wearied Delhiites that hope blooms. To be outdoors is to be punished by the elements, but then those same elements (heat and drought) combine to create something magical.

The Japanese tradition of flower viewing (hanami) provides a chance for people to appreciate the beauty and transcience of nature, of life itself

In the best field guide to the city, Trees of Delhi, author and naturalist Pradip Krishen writes of the amaltas, ‘In danger of becoming (like the peacock) so common that we stop noticing it.’ But that seems impossible. For one, the blooms are short-lived. If you haven’t traversed Chanakyapuri, Shanti Path or Amrita Shergil Marg from late April to mid May, you are at risk of missing the sight altogether. The amaltas tree like the peacock, might be easy enough to spot in Delhi. But the amaltas flower is like a peacock dance, you have to be dead inside, for it not to give you pause to ponder.

The Japanese (who else could it be) have a term for flower viewing. Hanami is defined as the ‘Japanese custom of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers’. To make the most of the cherry blossoms, the Japanese pack lunch (or dinner) baskets, lay out a mat, listen to music, sing songs, drink sake, and spend time under the flower-studded skies. The tradition dates back many centuries and provides a crucial opportunity for people to appreciate the beauty and transience of nature, and life itself. One moment the flowers bask in the collective, tango in the breeze, and the next they flutter to the ground, only to be a quashed by a passing boot, squelched into the mud and swept away by the broom.

Given the summer temperatures in India, it is, perhaps, harder to hanami. But on a cloudy night, wouldn’t it be lovely to have a desi version of hanami —eat samosas and sing boozy songs—under the amaltas tree? And in that moment to appreciate the fragile beauty that blossoms and dies around us.