For years now, Dr Prabin Saikia has been singing to his plants every evening, harmonium in tow. The garden of five bighas in Lakhimpur district’s Madhabpur town — filled with rare, indigenous plants from Assam and the Northeast — has stemmed not just from Saikia’s predilection for botany, but also from love and affection. “Plants have feelings too,” says the former teacher, who taught Assamese at the Bihpuria College for 33 years.
On October 22, Saikia will be honoured with the ‘Plant Genome Saviour Farmers’ award hosted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, Government of India in New Delhi, for his efforts to protect indigenous flora of Assam. “Nageshwar, Sewali, Bokolu, Moniraj.” Over the phone from Lakhimpur, 64-year-old Saikia rattles off names of different plants he has been growing since 2007. These include plants mentioned in 16th-century scholar-saint Srimanta Sankardeva’s book Haramohan to the plants Saikia’s grandmother told him about as a child.
In Madhabpur, where Saikia grew up, his grandfather had a sprawling garden filled with mangoes, jackfruits, litchis, and lemons. “It was so big that when he passed away, the plot of land was divided among his seven sons. My father, who also had a keen interest in plants, continued to nurture our part of the garden, and I followed suit,” says Saikia.
Even as he went on to become the Head of the Assamese Department at a local college, his interest in Botany, mostly self-taught, remained. In 2004, when he retired, he bought land from his maternal uncle on credit. “It was a pothaar (field) no one had used in ages. It took me two years to just fill the land with earth,” says Saikia.
Today, the plot of land has transitioned into what Saikia calls Banatirtha or a ‘forest of pilgrimage’ filled with more than 500 varieties of plants and trees, as well as birds, bees and butterflies. Among them is the salt-producing flower called the Xotphool, a popular feature in Assamese folklore. “In olden days, Assam did not have any salt but for one place: Sadiya. That’s where the Xotphool grew, with leaves that could be burnt to produce salt. However, in 1950s, the great earthquake resulted in the Brahmaputra washing away all Xotphool flowers and seeds from Sadiya for good,” says Saikia. Today the flower is believed to be found in Morigaon and Sarthebari in Assam. “Not many people know about it but I travelled to these places looking for Xotphool. When I found the seeds, I brought them back to Banatirtha. In a way, this garden is like my temple,” says Saikia.
Like the Xotphool, there is the Domkol, or the ‘traveller’s tree’, long thought to be useless because its fruits were inedible. “But actually, it has great water retention capacity. All you have to do is prick it and pure water gushes out of its leaves,” he says, adding that it is traditionally grown in deserts providing much relief to thirsty travellers. Saikia also has grown 33 varieties of Tulsi — an important plant for the Assamese especially during Kaati Bihu when it is worshipped. “I grew up learning about its sacredness and medicinal properties but now I know that it has great environmental advantages too. It’s one of the few plants that give out oxygen while absorbing harmful gases from the air around us,” says Saikia, whose knowledge has benefitted scores of botanists who visit Banatirtha regularly. On the periphery of the garden, he has opened a childrens’ centre, a library and a museum.
In the museum are contraptions of the yore, collected from friends and strangers alike: ‘jopa baakos’ or a bamboo suitcase people earlier stored their fancy clothes in; ‘kisti’ a slab used to grind leaves; ‘doon’ a storage vessel, among others.
But what’s dearest to the retired professor are his special plants. Among them is the Bhorom phuri, the ‘lipstick’ tree which has leaves that when chewed with taamul (betel nut), lend a colour to the lips. “In olden days, when there was no makeup or accessories easily accessible, Bihu dancers would chew leaves of Bhorom phuri to get the effect of a lipstick, put orchid or kopou to style their hair and design their hands with Jetuka or henna from a Jetuka tree,” says Saikia. Those days might be long gone, but in Dr Prabin Saikia’s Banatirtha, the stories remain.