It’s six in the afternoon and the hot, dry, summer breeze whistles dolefully through the trees and the shrubbery at Bagh-i-Jinnah (Lawrence Gardens), keeping the stagnant air at bay. The tennis and badminton courts give a desolate sight, the cricket ground empty, with the odd jogger doing his laps in the distance— a typical summer afternoon in the park. In these hours of transition, from a scorched summer afternoon giving way to evening, the world seems at utmost peace. Amidst the cacophony of colour and fragrances, there are subtle signs of harmony to the evening air further being serenaded with the singing of birds.
Within the green quietude of the Peepal and other trees of the shade, the blooming Amaltas invites the eyes with a gorgeous outburst of colour that almost obliterates the bright green succulent foliage of the park. The view is so fascinating that one wonders how one can be oblivious to nature’s visual sequence of colours in the flaming yellows of the Amaltas.
But not everyone is ignorant to these natural chandeliers of yellow and gold gleaming and glistening in a camouflage of fluorescent lush green leaves. In complete solitude, Mohammad Arshad sits under the blazing gold orbs of an Amaltas, staring dreamily at the foot long pods of flowers dangling and swaying in the summer breeze. The 65 years old gardener at the Bagh-i-Jinnah, is so taken with the beauty of the Amaltas in full flower that he couldn’t lay his eyes off from the overnight Cinderella-like transformation of the tree from mundane foliage into a resplendent mass of yellow. He had been waiting for a year, unlike most of us, for the Amaltas to tumble forth in all its glory.
Amaltas has been around for a long time. Being native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, the tree has a mention in ancient scriptures like the Ramayana and the epic Mahabharata. Shy and retiring for most of the year, the flowering Amaltas explodes into bloom in early May and dies down in June, albeit slowly and with spasmodic blooms.
These brief spectacles belie the Amaltas’s reputation as one of best spectacles of nature, obvious only briefly and rarely attracting attention thereafter. It is because of this brief bloom, the native species had to bear the brunt of the massive urban sprawl and development in the city. As the city has become a microcosm for the country of a modern fastest growing city, its green cover has shrunk rapidly, losing out to infrastructure brought on by development projects. The once commonly sighted Amaltas have now become a rarity— martyrs to development as someone once said. It might have been our indifference to ‘commonplace’ beauty that has led to the disappearance of our local species and being replaced by ornamental and exotic species. As the city continues to grow unplanned and uncontrolled; our native heritage like Amaltas are being replaced by fast growing species like rubber plant and conocarpus. Yet, we care less.
“It is so beautiful here that even a steamy afternoon feels hospitable,” said Mohammad Arshad, as I walked closer to the Amaltas tree he was sitting under. Immersed in the beauty of this golden moment, I stepped forward and sat beside him on the soft, moist golden mat spread by the falling flowers. “I wonder how during this invigorating season of amaltas, could there be scarcely anything better or can be more pleasant, than the sight of this golden tree blooming on a fine summer’s afternoon? How can one be blinded not to admire these vibrant hues and colours in this pale season?” he questioned looking up to the dust filled sky of Lahore.
The gardener’s question reflected on our lackadaisical attitude to admiring beauty, resulting in the loss of our fondness to everything that we once had, and the spirit that once valued the nature and experience of that beauty. The Amaltas, like many other native species, has became so common that we stopped noticing it. The answer to the old man’s question might also be our collective failure to celebrate our indigenous species. Given the nature of the world we live in, we might just have lost the art of admiring our local species.
Quite like the city’s resilient Amaltas, the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) is Japan’s metaphor for transient perfection. But, unlike Amaltas, their short-lived bloom has woven itself into the country’s imagination as a symbol of hope over the centuries. ‘Hanami’ — or cherry blossom viewing — is an important feature of Japanese culture, dating back to the sixth century, and is a unique celebration of nature’s fleeting beauty and a meditation on the passing of time. Unlike the cherry blossoms of Japan, or the jacarandas of Sydney, Lahore’s blooming summer trees don’t attract the same sort of attention or local pride. But that is no reason not to get out and share in their celebration of the spectacle of trees bedecked with striking yellow flowers providing relief in the scorching summer whilst nature plays out a visual dance of colours.
I had always imagined that the perfect sunset belonged to cities with a beach or a mountain range. I was so wrong. In the fading light of evening the branches of the Amaltas sheathed in yellow gives out a radiant glow, striving to show us a beauty to which we are blind. The only distraction is a flock of birds flying from one tree to another, as if drunk on the evening. But this is a welcome intrusion helping the tree in diffusing its magical fragrance around. It was during these magical moments I realized the ornamental quotients of the Amaltas and how essential it is and will remain in constituting the city’s ecological heritage and beautifying our urban agglomerations. In complete silence we sat to bid farewell to the brief bloom which in early June is already on the wane. Maybe next year the crowd under the Amaltas tree will increase in number or maybe people will flock the place to celebrate the native tree bloom into flower.