It fulfills almost all needs in the human basket, has stuck around, literally, in all facets of culture for 3,000 years, and that makes the jackfruit tree the grand master of Indic biodiversity.
What does the veena, a palace of the royal house of Travancore, a pagoda, papad and Ramakrishna Paramahansa have in common?
To answer that question, I first need to brag a bit and though I am not one given to boasting, there are a few things that simply make me puff my chest out with pride and swagger around a bit. And this is one of them.
What I mean to say is that there are biodiversity hotspots; 36 at last count (anyone needing a definition of biodiversity can leave the room). There are also what are known as mega diverse countries, so labelled, because such is their plant and animal diversity that the 17 countries thus classified account for at least two thirds of the planet’s non-fish vertebrate species and three quarters of all higher plant species in the world.
India is one of that Magnificent 17.
And rightly so. The 47,000 (at last count) plant species that are native to India account for 7 per cent of the world’s, which include some of the world’s most spectacular tree species. How many? Well, according to the naturalist Charles McCann’s seminal book — 100 Beautiful Trees of India, at least 60 of them are endemic to India like sal, sheesham, teak, two varieties of sandalwood, four of champa, three varieties of fig (including the peepal), three of silk cotton, two of palm, mango, coconut, jamun and neem.
The mighty banyan, whose mightiest specimen, Kabirvad, towers on a small island in the Narmada river near Bharuch. Its canopy stretches to a breathtaking perimeter of 2,000 feet. Why “Kabirvad”? It is said the mystic poet-saint lived here for many years, but the tree is much older because about 1,600 years before Kabir, Nearchus, a general of Alexander the Great described a banyan tree which was possibly the Kabirvad.
Which brings me to the tree that has testimony of its antiquity in seeds found in archaeological excavation sites in Bihar, dating to the Neolithic period and in references to several ancient texts including the Valmiki’s Ramayana which speaks of its presence in the Chitrakoot forest, (in current day Madhya Pradesh), the Panchavati forest (near current-day Nashik) where Lord Rama spent his exile, and Pampa lake (near current-day Hampi) where Lord Rama met Shabari on his way to Lanka to rescue Sita.
And which is also the answer to my opening question.
The jackfruit tree.
So, apart from the fact that it has been around for over 3,000 years, what’s special about this tree?
For one, it’s a stately tree, sometimes growing up to a height of 80 feet. For another, it bears the world’s largest fruit, some of them burgeoning to a weight of 55 kilograms. A single such jackfruit can feed and sustain a family of 10. So, it is apt that the first part of its botanical name — artocarpus heterophyllus — is derived from the Greek words 'artos' meaning bread and 'karpos' meaning fruit.
In India, we have loved trees from ancient times. The importance of plant diversity and conservation and the concept of revering forests as sacred sanctuaries (abhayaranya) are found in the Rig Veda, the Artha Veda, the Charaka Samhita, Kautaliya’s Arthashastra, Kalidasa's Vikramuurvashiiya, Surpala’s Vriskhaveda and Krishi Prashara, authored by Rishi Parashara, the author of the first purana, the Vishnu Purana. So, no surprise then that all over India, there are at least 100,000 (some experts say 150,000) sacred groves that have existed for centuries. Protected and cared for by local communities and with very deep and equally ancient associations with folk tradition and mythology, these patches of forest are sacred because they are believed to be inhabited and protected by deities, so much so that they were called Deo rahati or Deva rai — Deva or Deo — meaning god or deity.
The Theyyam deities reside in many of the sacred groves of Kerala (which, incidentally, has one of the highest numbers of sacred groves in the country) and are the inspiration for Kerala’s famous 1,500 year-old dance form, also called Theyyam. These deities have a close connection with certain trees and it is believed that they live in their branches. So, along with the banyan, champaka and palash tree, the tree favoured by the female deities is ... the jackfruit. I guess that is why in Kerala, the wood is used for making idols especially in devi temples.
The jackfruit tree is part of another ancient tradition that reflects our deep reverence for trees — the concept of “sthala vriksham” or the sacred tree of temple complexes in many parts of south India. And the jackfruit is the sthala vriksham in many temples, including two of the 108 ancient Vishnu temples mentioned the Tamil hymns of the Alwar saints. One is at Thirukkoodalur, Tamil Nadu. The other is in Thrikodithanam, Kerala, and it is so old that it is affectionately called Ammachi Plavu or the Mother Jackfruit Tree! It was in the hollow of another such Ammachi Plavu in the grounds of the Sri Krishna Temple near Thiruvananthapuram that the Travancore king Marthanda Varma hid when he was fleeing from his enemies...
But the jackfruit tree doesn’t just stand outside temples; it goes right in.
When the king of Manipur, Bhagyachandra Maharaj (1763-98 AD) was in exile in the neighbouring kingdom of Assam, his legitimacy as the real king was questioned and he was asked to undergo a test — to single-handedly catch and tame a wild elephant. The distraught king prayed to Lord Krishna for help who appeared before him in a dream, and instructed him how to do this. He also told the king that after his victory, he should have his image carved from the wood of a certain jackfruit tree growing on a nearby hillock. The grateful royal bhakt complied and the idol still stands in the beautiful twin-domed Sri Govindaji Temple next to the Royal Palace in Manipur.
And the sacred status of this tree is not just in India. The Tay Phuong Pagoda in Vietnam is famous for the 72 statues of the Buddha and the Buddhist deities, Bodhisattvas, Vajrapanis and Arhants made from jackfruit tree wood.
This wood, when boiled, also yields a beautiful golden dye that has been traditionally used for dyeing the robes of Buddhist monks all across south and Southeast Asia. During an ancient annual festival called Kathina, in a ceremony started by the Buddha himself, the laity offers new cloth to the bhikkus or Buddhist monks. This is then cut, sewn, thus dyed and dried to become the monks’ robes.
In Thailand, the jackfruit is considered an auspicious tree. So, the tree is often planted at the back of the house and it is believed that its presence increases one’s good fortune.
The Palace Maker
Not only blessed by the gods, the jackfruit tree wood is an age-old favourite of wood artisans in many parts of the jackfruit’s natural habitat, especially in Kerala and Bali, Indonesia. Perhaps, for two reasons. One that it is disease and termite-proof. The other is that when polished, it changes colour with time, starting off as a yellow-golden shade, then deepening to a rich maroon, making it perfect for palaces and mansions where both longevity and beauty are important.
So, this wood has been used in not just the many of Kerala’s beautiful tharavads, but also in the sixteenth century wood Padmanabhapuram Palace, a UNESCO world heritage site. Built using the ancient science of carpentry called Taccu Shastra (taccan means carpenter in Malayalam), jackfruit wood has been extensively used for the exquisitely carved decorations and pillars, especially in the Thai Kottaram, the oldest part of the palace. But the most spectacular specimen is in ekanthamandapam, or chamber of solitude, where stands a massive single pillar called kannithoonu carved out of a single trunk of the jackfruit tree. It is said to be so massive that its circumference is almost half that of its height.
Finally, Jack The Fruit
Like so many of its tropical kin, the jackfruit is a multitasking food. The unripe version cooks into all manner of deliciousness all the way from chips to quasi kababs, which is why, I guess, right now in the West, it is the wonder meatless meat. The ripe version is ambrosial on its own, but the diehard jackfruit aficionados of coastal Dakshin Karnataka and Kerala convert it into papads, dosas, appams, kadabu, even a jackfruit version of aam papad called kumaandra in Tulu. And so, the very obliging jackfruit grows in many varieties, each especially designed to suit the particular culinary use.
But the jackfruit is not just pretty face, its small-green-misshapen-hippo-with-prickles appearance notwithstanding. There is an old saying in Sri Lanka that “with a jak and a coconut in your backyard you will never starve”. And that’s not just because of its size — which always matters. It’s because this fruit is packed with all kinds of nutritional goodies. Its succulent, golden flesh signals the presence of beta-carotene, one of the most powerful antioxidants and also the raw material which the body converts into Vitamin A.
The jackfruit’s cache of Vitamin A is so high that in Bangladesh, it has been used to combat vitamin A deficiency (incidentally, it is also Bangladesh’s national fruit). The jackfruit is also rich in dietary minerals like calcium, potassium, and iron and an excellent source of complex carbohydrates and dietary fibre, making it a great energy food. In fact, the jackfruit’s nutritional profile — a balanced combination of energy-giving carbohydrates, dietary fibre and micronutrients and minerals—makes it the perfect staple food… which it is in many places, especially among the poor.
The seeds of most fruits are inedible. But not our jack, whose large bean-shape seeds are rich in vitamin B1 (thiamine) and vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin A and C, calcium, zinc, phosphorous, iron, calcium, copper, potassium and magnesium. So, all over coastal Dakhsin Karnataka, jackfruit seeds have been traditionally boiled in salted water and dried in the sun (and called haantani in Tulu) to become emergency rations in that were whipped out on a rainy day and turned into delicious curries and bhaajis, or often munched just as they are, making them the perfect nutritious snack.
I haven’t told you that its leaves are used to steam a special kind of idli called gunda that is made in Dakshin Karnataka for Ganesh Chaturthi. That every part of the jackfruit tree is used in Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Chinese medicine. That according to Mangalam Muthuswamy, a well-known veena exponent, the tradition of using jackfruit wood to make the veena started in ancient times when the wood used was from jackfruit trees that were sthala vrikshams because it was believed that they had absorbed the resonance of the temple bells. That the mridangam, tavil, kanjira, jamidika and Kerala’s famous chenda drums are also made from this wood because its deeply interlocked grain resists cracking.
I could go on....
I must end — with Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Like so many good things in life, the jackfruit makes it difficult to get to its delicious insides because as soon as you cut it, a thick, sticky white gooey secretion oozes copiously from just underneath the skin. Did I say sticky? It’s so sticky that it is used to repair broken earthenware and china and to caulk boats and is now being developed as an alternative glue (incidentally, this bane of every jackfruit lover is used to heal sores and abscesses, even as treatment for snakebite.) And the only way to become unstuck is to liberally anoint your hands with oil before you cut.
So, Ramakrishna said:
Misfortune, grief, misery, sorrow, suffering and the various diseases of the body will disturb the balance of your mind; and the more you will throw yourself into the affairs of the world and trouble yourself about worldly matters, the more your attachment to the world increase. Rub your hand with oil if you desire to break open the jackfruit, else the milky exudation of the fruit will stick to your hands. First rub your soul with the oil of love and devotion to the Lord, then you may come in contact with the affairs of the world...
Actually, that wasn’t the end.
Because how could I go without telling you that of the 38 avatars of the Lord Ganesha, one is Bala Ganapati who, in each of his four hands holds that which represents the earth's abundance and fertility. They are banana, mango, sugarcane and… of course, jackfruit.