Traversing a Sal forest evokes the feeling of being transported to the fictional world of ‘Narnia’. With towering canopies that allow the dappled light filtering through, I’m reminded of my first visit to Kanha National Park where my gaze struck the grandeur nature of the Sal tress that stirred a sense of wonder, as if I were a part of a fairy tale world of magic.
Range of the Sal
Some of the most notable areas that harbor the gregarious species in South Asia range from foothills of Himalayan in and goes as far as Burma in the east. Then it curves down from eastern edge as it passes through Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh to the southern tip of Madhya Pradesh. A small patch is also found in Pachmarhi Wildlife Sanctuary of the Satpura mountain range due to the adequate rainfall received in the region.
Conditions to grow the Sal
Sal flourishes well in moist deciduous forests and are known to shed their leaves once in dry season and remain leafless for a very short period but they mostly remain evergreen as the regions they grow in receives ample water throughout the year. It is a sociable species that thrives in community of its own, allowing very few other shrubs, small trees and climbers to grow in its vicinity. It needs moist and free draining soil for its growth along with almost 1300 mm of precipitation. The tree can grow up to 45 m in height in the Terai region of the Himalayas. The average height can reach up to 20 m which is common in Central India.
Cultural and Religious Significance of the Sal Tree
The Sal has derived many names through the advent of civilization. In India, it is called Surrei, Sakhua, Sajja tree by the different communities that have coexisted with it. Trees has always been part of the Indian religious culture. Some trees are revered while others are considered an important component for several religious rituals and is also widely revered amongst tribes and rural folk of the country. For example, it is widely revered among the Gonds, Bhils, Baigas and Korkus of Madhya Pradhesh. In Bengal some cultures worship the ‘Sarna Burhi’ as goddess associated to groves of the Sal tree. Hindus believes Sal tree is favored by Lord Vishnu, While Jains believe that their 24th Guru attained enlightenment under the very lap of a Sal tree. Apart from these, several other beliefs are still prevalent among the people of who depend on the tree through the course of their daily lives.
History of the Sal Tree
Although with much reverence has come much destruction as well. Sal forests in the past have undergone extensive destruction. While The native dwellers of Sal forest used each and every part of Sal tree including the seed to extract oil for cooking, the bark for fuel, raisins for making incense sticks, The British Raj capitalized on several forests for industrial purposes. Having discovered its quality for construction, they began using it as timber for ships and railway sleepers. Due to this widespread cutting and felling of The tree, much forests were lost in the process. Some regions in sub-Himalaya were the worst hit like Garhwal and Kumaon where over a hundred thousand trees subjected to deforestation. Even today, the demand for Sal timber is far greater than the supply.
Where to See Them
Sal forest are still prevalent in many of India’s National Parks where they are protected and still exists in strong communities of their own. Apart from Kanha National Park, there’s Jim Corbett National Park of Uttrakhand that is another treasure trove to see a Sal forest. Biodiversity teems in these forests with wildlife such as Tigers, Elephants and a host of their animals and birds. With the ample shade and tree cover these forests provide, wildlife seeks much respite during the heat wave experienced during the summer months of the country. Without Sal, many of these forest tracts and national parks would look drastically altered and perhaps, even Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book would lack the magic that has teleported many readers to the home of ‘Mowgli’ and ‘Baloo’.
Best Time to See them
If one wishes to see the magical world of a Sal forest, visiting Kanha National Park in month of March and April is an appropriate time. That’s when the flowers unfurl and the tree paves way for fresher buds of leaves. Post that, the fruits begin to ripen and drop in June and July with the aid of wind in a helicopter like fashion. There probably isn’t a better time as this also coincides with an ideal time to spot Tigers in the wild. Kanha also offers an enchanting landscape with the most remarkable backdrop of Sal trees to photograph the elusive striped cat.