India’s 105-year-old mother of trees

Story highlights

Woman planted nearly 300 trees in rural India

Adopted a son who is passionate about conservation

CNN  — 

Being unable to have children is a heartbreaking situation for anyone who wants to conceive.

But in rural India, infertility carries an added stigma for women, who can be outcast from their families and society.

When Saalumarada Thimmakka and her husband Sri Bikkala Chikkayya found themselves childless after 25 years of marriage, she dealt with it in an unusual way.

The illiterate farm laborer from Karnataka, southern India, planted hundreds of trees, which the couple nurtured, watered and cared for “as children.”

“It was my fate to not have any children,” Thimmakka told CNN. “Because of that, we planned to plant trees and raise them and get blessings. We have treated the trees as our children.”

Green hero

The woodland is said to number almost 300 trees – a remarkable achievement in an arid, dusty landscape with little rainfall. It stretches for four kilometers both sides of the road from Thimmakka’s village of Hulikal and Kudur, the next.

Her efforts have earned her numerous awards and recognition as an environmentalist, with a foundation created in her name and frequent invitations to tree planting ceremonies all over India.

Never having attended school herself, she’s now even featured in the Indian national curriculum, with a poem dedicated to her honor.

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What’s more, the blessings Thimmakka sought appear to have come her way – though there are no birth certificates to confirm this, the passionate nature lover says she is 105 years old and is “very happy” with life’s outcome.

“I am very happy seeing all my children. We have looked after the trees with love and I am happy and proud.”

Meaning “row of trees” in the local Kannada language, Thimmakka was given her name “Saalumarada” by the local community, where she is considered an environmental hero.

The fruits of her labor weren’t easily won – after a hard day’s work on farms, she had to dig holes, plant saplings collected from the local area and haul water several kilometers from the well to nourish her green offspring.

“Sometimes the rain doesn’t come,” said Thimmakka, who watered the saplings up to four times a week while praying to the rain god, Dev Indra.

Her husband, who has since passed away, helped by carrying water and planting thorny bushes to protect the trees from hungry wild animals.

Their work has bestowed a great legacy to the village and state, as not only are Banyans valuable for firewood and furniture, but the region’s chief minister dedicated a pot of money to continue their eco efforts.

A child

It has also brought blessings closer to home.

Attracted by her outstanding conservation work, then 14-year-old boy Sri Umesh approached Thimmakka to introduce himself.

“I was encouraged by Saalumarada Thimmakka’s thoughts and ways and came to meet her,” he told CNN. “I shared my views with her of conservation with she was very happy and she adopted me. I feel this was a very happy and lucky moment in my life.”

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Passionate about the environment from an early age, Umesh was granted permission for the adoption by his biological parents – “It is a very difficult question. To tell you the truth all three are my parents.”

He has since followed in her path, acting as president for her organization and running a nursery that distributes trees to farmers. “I didn’t want her to be alone,” he said.

Together, the pair now urge others to do the same – plant trees for future generations.

“I have a suggestion to everyone: We are born as human beings and will die as human beings, but to live we need to conserve nature. We cannot live without the environment,” said Umesh.

“How we planted and took care of the trees, everyone from children to the elderly should plant and grow trees,” Thimmakka added. “It will be beneficial for all of us.”