Its botanical name is Phoenix Dactylifera, but difficult as it may be to render orally, it is known to all and sundry as the Date Palm or ‘Khajoor’. Tracing the origins of this wondrous tree is likely to land us somewhere in Iraq and its surrounding regions around 6000 BC, but today the species is widely cultivated in Australia, Southern Europe, Africa, much of Asia and the warmer climes of the United States. This member of the Phoenix family, grows to a height of seventy to seventy five feet from single or multiple stems that sprout from a single root-ball, ending in a circular crown of sharp sword like leaves resembling an exploding firework with a diameter of more than thirty feet. The fruit of the Date Palm, which is referred to as ‘dates’ (no kin of the notorious social activity) grows in clusters beneath the crown. It is very sweet, rich in calories and listed historically as the staple food item of the Middle East and Indus Valley civilizations. In order for the dates to be produced, the tree has to be cultivated in a mix of male and female plants that are generally cross pollinated naturally by the wind. This week’s piece is however not a lesson in botany, but a narrative designed to convey some interesting angles to the ‘Khajur’.

It is said that the nemesis of date cultivators is rain. Farmers in Pakistan’s Southern Punjab therefore use a novel method of ‘scaring’ away rain clouds. They bury a live donkey in the ground from the neck downwards and then beat the poor creature with sticks, so that it brays in pain deterring precipitation. I cannot vouch for the veracity of this activity as I have not witnessed it during any of my frequent trips to the date growing areas of the country. I therefore deem myself exonerated of any reaction by Animal Rights Activists.

The ‘Khajur’ is unique, as its trunk, crown and fruit are all used gainfully by locals. The trunk is composed of well-knit sturdy fibers and makes an excellent column or beam in rural dwellings. The leaves when dried are interwoven into excellent mats and complete fronds can be fashioned into effective roofs, which if properly overlapped can become water tight. Needless to state, the fruit makes a wonderful addition to the human diet.

Culinary experts can use ‘dates’ as the basic ingredient of mind boggling desserts. Dates can be stuffed with cream and almonds or baked into mouthwatering cakes. They can be crushed into a paste and mixed with other ‘supporting’ items to transform magically into exotic fare, for those with a ‘sweet tooth’.

The Date Palm in its vernacular form has embellished the sub-continental vocabulary. For example, the adage ‘Aasmaan se gira, khajur men atka’ (fell from the sky into a date palm) is our very own version of ‘from the frying pan into the fire’. Then there is the term ‘Khajur pe charha dena’ (forcing someone to climb a date palm) that is an equivalent of ‘treeing someone’.

The ‘Khajur’ even figures in funny verse and folklore. I can recall a childhood ditty that began with the words “Khoti Charhi Khajur te, te tuk tuk khaway ber…” and many readers from my generation will remember the story, where the hero charges an enemy horde riding a raging bull and brandishing an uprooted Date Palm like a lance. For those interested in how this could be done, it is necessary to narrate the prequel to the tale. The hero was a tailor by profession and had swatted thirty flies to assume the title ‘tees maar khan’ (the killer of thirty flies). The bull became his battle steed due to a series of accidents and his huge lance was acquired, when he grabbed hold of the tree during his wild ride and wouldn’t let go – uprooting it and carrying it with him. Needless to say, the tailor became a hero and married the local princess.

The writer is a historian.