There is something special about having a tree as the main thing that draws people to a place. The island of Mannar in Sri Lanka is one of the few spots that can make that claim.
The island has a long history of pearl fishing that dates back to at least the second century. Mannar came to be renowned for its pearls, among other resources, and its location on a thriving trade route attracted merchants from Europe and the Middle East. Oral history has it that an Arab merchant brought with him a herd of camels and a supply of baobab fruit as fodder on the shores of Mannar. A seed from this fruit fell on the ground. It took roots and a tree sprouted. More than 700 years later, the tree measures a respectable 7.5 meters (25 feet) in height and an impressive 19.5 meters (64 feet) in circumference.
While the tree’s true origin may be impossible to ascertain, there may be a grain of truth to this story. This baobab belongs to the scientific family Bombacaceae, which is native to Africa, and Arab merchants traveled extensively along the East African coast in the 13th century.
Baobabs used to be cultivated around Jaffna and Puttlam, but there are only 40 baobabs in the entire country now, 34 of which are found on Mannar Island. Needless to say, this particular specimen in Mannar is the most famous. Because of their grey, gnarled bark, baobabs are often referred to as ali gaha, or elephant trees, by locals. Interestingly, though baobabs are not native to Sri Lanka, they have been declared a protected species.
One final curiosity: each baobab fruit contains 30 seeds. Christians in Mannar sometimes refer to this tree as “Judas’ bag” due to the fact that Judas betrayed Jesus in exchange of 30 pieces of silver.
Know Before You Go
The baobab of Mannar is located 1.2 km northeast of town centre.