The Toko Tree of our Adoration
Every tree has a characteristic trait of its own. A tree appears to contribute a great deal to the socio-cultural, religious and economic spheres of human life. The evergreen toko tree (palm tree- family Arecaceae, palmae) is no exception in this regard.
In states like Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland of the North East India toko tree is known to have its particular space in the socio-cultural milieu. The maximum number of toko tree is seen in the North East, that too being area-specific compared to other parts of India. The production of toko is relatively less than other trees. That's why toko tree has been listed under the endangered tree species. The seeds, leaves and fibre from toko tree are used for a number of purposes. In English it is called 'fan tree'.
When electric fans were not in fashion, people made hand fans from the toko tree lives to beat down the heat. The deeply adored and revered Japi( a kind of hat) of the Assamese is made by the leaves of toko tree that rightly stands as the symbol of Assamese pride. For any kind of felicitation ceremony Assamese gamosa and japi are two primary things to be had. Hence toko tree is close to every Assamese.
Being an Assamese, japi is my favorite. In scorching heat or rain the cowherd japi is immensely useful and there are those colorful ones called 'xorudoiya' and 'bordoiya' japi stunning for its beauty. This love for japi took me to an interior village of Golaghat district to some of the japi-making artists. I bowed down in respect seeing them wholeheartedly engaged in the act of japi making.
They let us know about the scarcity of toko leaves. They said they had to fetch it from a distant village in Jorhat district. Likewise, another artist from Lakhimpur said they had to fetch it from Arunachal Pradesh instead. More or less toko trees are seen in every district but in extremely limited numbers.
"Holou uthil toko gosot" (The gibbon has climbed up the toko tree) being a famous rhyme from childhood some might see its picture in the book. Very recently in Upper Assam we have come across a number of toko plantations. From Moran to Naharkatia we just went along aimlessly. Despite overpowering globalisation there are some villages in Assam abundant with utter serenity of nature.
Industrialisation is yet to make its way in these villages. The tea industry being the prime source of livelihood the villages of Upper Assam look like a bunch of glitter in green. The women working in tea gardens with their tukuris (basket) on both sides of the road is a familiar sight.
After entering Tingkhong constiutuency of Dibrugarh district I came across a few toko trees but it wasn't quite impressive until the tree lines became gradually thicker. The roofs of the houses, shops, stalls in the market were all made by the toko trees.
Besides, vehicles were seen carrying toko leaves in heaps. Before long the toko trees became my fascination. It was hard for me to resist the temptation to see the houses from close quarters, so I immediately entered into one of the tea tribe community. Many houses stood together in the least distance.
A bunch of kids came up to pose for photographs. All of them wore a warm smile. Some of the elderly citizens let us know that the mature toko leaves had to be cut two or three days prior to Amavasya. They believe that it can then no longer be affected by insects. Following that they keep the leaves dipped in water for six to seven days. After getting it dried in the sun the roof making process starts.
A hard roof made this way remains solid for nearly 10 years. We reached another village namely Kumari Gaon. It seemed like a green princess standing in the middle of a green ocean. The lines of toko trees together with the tea plants enhanced the beauty of the place in a different level altogether. The production of toko trees was told to be the highest in this village. The villagers of Kumari Gaon became economically independent by planting or supplying toko trees on commercial basis.
A hunderd rupees worth toko leaf's wholesale price would be 400 rupees. The neat households of this village together with the warm hospitality seemed to represent every ounce an Assamese village.
The houses made by bamboo sticks, its roofs made by toko leaves and the walls smeared with red earth and neat floor showed aesthetics in every sense. The skills and artistic perception of the Assamese artists would spellbind everyone.
Every house seemed to be an artist's den. Soaking in the serenity of tea garden all the way we reached the bank of Dihing river. We returned via Duliajan.
All I carried in my mind with love was the amazing toko tree lines and the memories of the artistic houses. I couldn't realise any less from the Japi to the house roof how important toko trees are.
If proper measures are taken for the preservation and production of toko trees it would be a tremendous boost to the cottage industry and usher a huge market for self-employment.
Photo and text - Girimallika Saikia
( Girimallika Saikia teaches in a High School in Golaghat district of Assam. A nature lover, Saikia also loves to spend time with children. She has special interest in photography. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Translation from Assamese – Daisy Barman
(Daisy Barman is a scribbler and translator. She can be reached at email@example.com )