Padma Shri award (2019) recipient Saalumarada Thimmakka has planted 384 banyan trees with her husband Bikkala Chikkayya on a 4 km stretch, of what is now a highway in Magadi Taluk of rural Bengaluru, Karnataka. Silviculturist, environmentalist, ‘mother of trees’ are all titles she’s received so far. The media and awards started following her in 1995 when she received National Citizen’s Award. Despite the laurels, awards, media coverage, organisations honouring her and foundations or groups named after her, she lived in poverty for most of her life. Thimmakka’s fame never translated into a fortune. She lived in a hut till the Karnataka State government built a house for her in 2014.
Reports about her age vary. In the 1990s, she was reported to be in her mid-70s, and today her age is reported between 105 to 107/8. Records of birth were issued at childbirth in hospitals or had to be registered at the local municipality office if there was one, locally. So any questions about her age can not be answered accurately. She was born with no privilege, and this is just another example of that. Saalumarada Thimmakka was a woman born into a farming family in a village and married off at a very young age to Bikaalu Chikkaiah.
They were a happy couple, with a hardworking and comfortable life. Thimakka did not get pregnant after getting married, and each passing year brought more pain and criticism from her in-laws and family. Her husband supported her through the difficult times, and they took up rituals, pilgrimages, and prayers that were suggested to them; as a part of which the husband and wife planted banyan trees. What started as a ritual of planting a tree sapling for a child, turned into a caring relationship with the sapling they planted. They spent their free time and days tending and caring for the 384 saplings. That grew up to be giant banyan trees forming a canopy over a road for four kilometres.
Thimakka’s story is that of a woman who had to deal with a society that devalued women and instigated violence (not always physical) for not reproducing. Thimakka luckily had an understanding spouse who promised to be by her side and that they were together on this path. Chikkaiah would dig the hole while Thimakka would plant the saplings along the way. His death left Thimakka alone, and her life was miserable. Their immediate family hounded her till she sold them the small piece of land, that she and Chikkaiah had tended to, till his eventual demise.
Since the mid-90s, Saalumarada Thimmakka has been written about extensively from local to international newspapers and recognised by environmental groups and agencies. But the language used to write about her since the 90s till 2020 has also evolved. From being referred to as an “illiterate woman whom environmentalists love” in 1999, to “infertile woman” who was healed by trees in 2016, no attention was paid to the language. What started as a ritual for children, ended up with the couple perceiving the trees as their children. This is how the story narrates in Kannada textbooks across Karnataka.
Thimmakka’s Resources for Environmental Education is a now-defunct resource centre started by Ritu Vasu Primlani in 2003. A case was filed against Vasu Primlani for alleged misuse of Thimmakka’s name, and in 2014 the High Court of Karnataka adjudicated in Primlani’s favour. Thimmakka’s adopted son, Umesh claimed that the organisation misused her name to collect donations. Umesh has been taking care of Thimmakka’s affairs, invitations, travel to various award ceremonies, and functions. He was adopted by Thimakka a few years ago. He now acts as her caretaker and supports her in case of an emergency.
Invitations to plant trees in major cities, and to talk to students and other environmentalists about her journey still find their way to her. After receiving the Padma Shri Award from President Ram Nath Kovind, she blessed him by touching his head. This action brought a smile across the President’s face and thunderous applause rang across the hall. The President later tweeted about it, claiming it as his privilege. “It is the President’s privilege to honour India’s best and most deserving. But today I was deeply touched when Saalumarada Thimmakka, an environmentalist from Karnataka, and at 107 the oldest Padma awardee this year, thought it fit to bless me,” President Ram Nath Kovind wrote on Twitter.
A short documentary film about Thimakka’s life was released by a Kannada social media page Namma Kannada Memes, on June 5th to mark World Environment Day. It maps and elaborates on her life’s journey, achievements, struggles and her son Umesh. The film ends with Thimmakka offering her blessings to everyone and followed by contact details.