It is probably the oldest living tree in the capital, rising upwards from within a 14th century dargah, offering shade to anyone who stops by.
For those unfamiliar with the winding lanes of Chirag Delhi in Greater Kailash (GK) in the capital, it may be difficult to see the connect between this tree, a Sufi saint and the 14th century Chirag Dilli dargah, that gave birth to the village of Chirag Delhi years ago.
Rarely crowded, the dargah that gives the Chirag Delhi village its name, and is home to the tree, is the shrine of Sufi Saint Hazrat Nasiruddin Mahmud Roshan Chirag Dilli. Hazrat Nasiruddin or Chiragh-e-Delhi left Ayodhya at the age of 40 and became a disciple of Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. He stayed here for the rest of his life, and, after Nizamuddin Auliya’s death, became his successor. The last of the Sufi saints of the Chisti order in Delhi, his tomb was built by Firuz Shah Tughluq.
But this khirni tree (Manilkara hexandra), said to have been planted by Nasiruddin himself, is believed to have existed before the dargah was built in 1356 AD. In fact, it was years after he planted the tree, that Hazrat Nasiruddin was given the title of ‘Chiragh-e-Dilli’. So can it be the oldest tree in the capital? A senior forest department official who did not want to be named, says that it could well be. “A fig tree at Deer park, some Imli trees at Hauz Khas fort, a Salvadora at the Qutub complex are among the oldest. But this khirni tree could well be older. Cultural memory from the village says it was planted before the shrine was built, so by that measure, it’s 662 years old,” he says.
The most common way of measuring trees is by counting the annual tree rings that it creates. But present day scientists can measure the age of a tree without killing it, by taking smalls cores from within. However, no one in Delhi so far has bothered with the khirni tree. As per the forest department, there are no plans to do so either. Asked why, the forest official says, “In 1994, the Tree Authority was formed for the preservation of Delhi’s trees. But they have hardly met.” The Tree Authority, as per the CAG report presented in the Assembly earlier this year, met just once, in fact, between 2014 and 2017, instead of the mandated 12 times. The apathy, clearly, doesn’t seem exclusive to this tree.
Rajkumar Sharma, a 42-year-old businessman, who grew up one lane away from the dargah, says, “When we were young, we played here. We ate its fruits and when our parents had some work, they’d leave us here and ask us to not venture out. The tree was like my family,” he says. For Saksham Singh, a 26-year-old IT professional who lives nearby, says, the tree has been a reassuring marker of his roots: “We didn’t want to remain an old village when we were young, even as we saw all the development that was happening around us at Saket or in GK2. But the tree reminded us of who we were. An ancient community, as old as the village itself.”
In many ways, the khirni tree echoes the life of Delhi’s original residents, those who fell outside the margins as the city moved on. Native to south Asia, with a dense bark and edible fruits, the tree gave shade to those who came to Delhi over the centuries. A 2012 study by National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources published in the journal, Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution classified the tree as an “underutilised” species, arguing that if the khirni could return to its former glory, countless families across the temperate northern India could benefit. Once abundant in Delhi, Khirni trees are rare in the capital, and the DDA-run Yamuna Biodiversity Park classifies it as a “locally extinct species”.
Both the tree and the shrine have, in recent times, faced threats from other quarters. In January last year, the Aam Aadmi Party had presented a report in the Assembly, citing the alleged sale of a portion of the dargah to a south-Delhi based property developer, and alleged collusion between the officers of the Waqf board and the dargah caretakers. The BJP alleged that by targeting an officer, AAP was attempting to deflect attention away from MLA Amanatullah Khan, former Waqf Board head and the alleged cases of corruption against him. The shrine was gazetted as Waqf property on December 1970 and a complaint was made in March 2016 for registering a sale deed of the part of Dargah.
Since then, investigations have followed, but little progress has been made on the case. “This shrine is a part of who we are and the tree is like a family member. Having all of this taken away because someone wants to steal our history and make money is unthinkable,” says Ram Singh Budania, 42, a resident.
Chirag Delhi, literally the lamp that lit the capital, seems like a dim glow from a distant past now. Today, neon lights from the shops around combine with the harsh headlights of vehicles that race past its roads. The shrine and the ancient tree watch on, patiently.