Right near the southern tip of South India, on the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu lie the Agasthyamalai or Pothigai Hills. Like the rest of the Western Ghats, they harbour a wealth of biodiversity, with rare plants and animals. Among the many remarkable species found here is the Chenkurunji Tree (Gluta travancorica). Growing up to 35 m, the Chenkurunji belongs to the Family Anacardiaceae (to which belong such important plants as the Cashew, Pistachio, Sumac, Mango and Marula Trees). The Chenkurunji, however, is valued solely for its timber, and not its fruits.

Towards the northern edge of the Agasthyamala Hills, lie the Thenmala Hills. In Malayalam, ‘Then’ means honey and ‘Mala’ means hills. These are the Honey Hills of Kerala, a state located on the southwestern tip of the Indian peninsula. Around the Honey Hills lies the Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary. A cursory glance reveals the origin of its name (Shendurney being the anglicized version of  Chenkurunji). So the sanctuary derives its name from the Chenkurunji Tree.

Located in Kollam District, the Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary forms part of the extensive Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve. Other conservation areas included in the reserve are the Neyyar and Peppara Wildlife Sanctuaries, the Thenmala, Thiruvananthapuram, Punalur and Thirunelveli Forest Divisions, and the Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. Taken together they cover a vast stretch of tropical evergreen forest in the Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari Districts of Tamil Nadu and the Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam and Pathanamthitta Districts of Kerala.

Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1984. Covering around 171 square kilomtres, the Sanctuary is one of the few places where people can see the ‘Near Threatened’ Chenkurunji. The tree, which is endemic to the Agasthyamalai Hills, is greatly sought after for its timber. A canopy tree, it flourishes in the rain-drenched hills of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, growing at an altitude of 600-1,400 m asl in regions where the annual precipitation averages between 3,000-4,000 mm.

The Chenkurunji produces a hard and beautiful wood, streaked black and orange that can be used to make high quality furniture. In fact, the timber was held in such high regard that the royal family of Kerala’s Travancore State (which existed from 1729 to 1949, before its merger with the Republic of India) held exclusive rights over its use. Hence, its other name – Rajakeeya Maram (Rajakeeya being ‘royal’, and ‘Maram’ being tree) or Royal Tree. Given below is an extract from an article of The Hindu newspaper (‘The Royal Tree needs Better Protection’ by Ignatius Pereira, dated January 25, 2003) describing its importance:

The nomenclature `Shendurni’ is a corrupted term which owes its genesis to the towering `Cheng Kurinji’ or the red Kurinji tree which thrives only in that particular area. The tree has several unique aspects. Locals call it the `rajakeeya maram’ or the royal tree, for in the past its wood could be used for furniture only by those from the royal family. In bygone days total authority over the tree was the prerogative of the Travancore royal family. No wonder then that the botanical name of the tree is `Gluta Travancorica’.

Today the tree is protected as it has been classified as an endemic and endangered species. Thus it cannot be axed down and hence the Cheng Kurinji wood does not come up for auction in any of the Forest Depots. The colour of the wood itself is a feast for the eyes. It sports an attractive crimson hue which is more profound than the well known `raktha chandanam’ or the red sandal widely used for cosmetic purposes.

It is widely believed that a cot made out of Cheng Kurinji wood would protect a person from at least seven different types of disease including blood pressure and arthritis. And that is the particular reason why the royal family exercised control over the use of the Cheng Kurinji wood. There is also a myth that the wood of the tree has aphrodisiac properties when used as a cot. Since it is not available for auction, the wood of the tree is valued as “priceless”. The State Government has implemented a special project to protect and propagate the tree in the `Rockwood’ area. 

As far as I know, this is the only instance of furniture (being derived from a particular species of tree) being associated with medicinal properties (including those of an aphrodisiac). The timber continues to be in great demand with people still trying to harvest it illegally. As a result, this species of tree, found nowhere else in the world but the southern tip of the Western Ghats, is threatened. But there is a twist in the tale. It seems that the tree, when freshly cut, exudes a resin that is poisonous. Contact with the skin leads to severe irritation while smoke from the burning wood can damage the eyes. Hence, the need to dry the harvested timber in the sun for several years to drive out the exudate.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is the photograph of a Chenkurunji Tree’s foliage. It was upoloaded by PKG Mohan.

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