V Muhammed Koya’s VMK Botanical Garden in Koduvally, Kozhikode, Kerala is unique. The forest has four entry gates — The Shakespeare gate, The Sherlock Holmes gate, The Pather Panchali gate and the Laila gate, named after his wife.
When you enter Muhammed’s garden, be prepared to be introduced to his beloved trees. Christened after famous books, characters and poems, each tree tells a story. Perhaps this is what happens when a literature aficionado plans to plant a forest.
Spread across 3 acres of an erstwhile wasteland, the forest is home to over 250 varieties of trees.
“I did not want to create a forest with random trees so I decided that every tree planted in the three acres must have a story to tell. I collected the names of trees from all my favourite novels and poems and got the saplings,” Muhammed tells The Better India (TBI).
From the Gulmohar in Khalil Jibran’s poem to the Chestnut tree in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, Muhammed has managed to create a museum of trees all from the world of literature.
What’s more, as a result of this forest, Muhammad’s village has not faced any water shortage for the past 10 years.
From a Wasteland To a “Green” Land
“Rome wasn’t built in a day and the three acres of forest which surrounds me was built in 20 years; that’s something I tell my grandchildren to help them understand that nothing in life comes easy,” explains Muhammed, 60.
After working with an electrical company in Saudi Arabia, Muhammed returned to Kerala in 1984 and decided to start a jewellery business.
“My eldest son was just 3½ years old when I was in Saudi and my wife was struggling to manage everything at home. That’s when I returned to Kerala and decided to start something of my own there,” explains Muhammed.
Along with the jewellery business, Muhammed bought 2-and-a-half-acres of land in addition to the 50 cents of land that was passed on to him from his mother and decided to create a man-made forest out of it.
“The land was just above my brother’s home, so for the first six years, I would go there, fetch water from my brother’s well and water all the saplings. Several people criticised me for not putting my efforts into something that did not generate profit, but my aim was to create something even bigger. They all realised it several years later,” he explains.
Finding Support in Friends and Family
Although all five of his children are settled abroad, Muhammed’s wife, Laila, a homemaker, has been his support system throughout the years.
“In the 90s, nobody was really talking about protecting the environment and planting trees like they are today. But my husband has always been a visionary and knew that the forest would benefit us greatly. And even to this day, he hasn’t lost the zeal to work towards the forest,” she says.
The Koduvally panchayat which used to face severe water scarcity in the past has not faced a problem for the past decade thanks to Muhammed’s forest.
“The area in Koduvally panchayat we live in, Arambra, has faced major water problems for a long time. Several of us nearby have had to dig multiple wells to source water. But since the forest started flourishing, we haven’t had any water shortage. I never thought the hilly wasteland area could turn into a forest, but he made it happen,” says Rafael, Muhammed’s neighbour for more than 15 years.
Besides collecting seeds and plants from friends and nurseries, most of Muhammed’s tree saplings were collected from the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation – Community Agrobiodiversity Centre in Wayanad.
From teak, mahogany, neem, the Sarpagandha tree and even gooseberry, the list of trees in Muhammed’s forest is impressive. To ensure that his visitors get an idea about the trees and the story behind them, he has labelled every single tree in the forest with its botanical name, its history and the story behind it.
“I always have visitors to see the forest, from students from nearby schools to scholars from agricultural universities. I take them around the forest and I do all of this completely free of cost because my only intention to create the forest was to make everyone aware of its importance,” he explains.
Up until February, just before the lockdown, Muhammed had almost 100-150 visitors in his forest every month but with the pandemic in place, he has shut down the forest and has taken the time to plant more saplings.
Leaving Behind A Legacy Of Trees
“We’ve definitely had to face financial struggles, especially at the beginning when the saplings needed a lot of care but we’ve managed to pull through because the only focus was to leave behind a legacy of trees for the coming generations,” says Muhammed.
“My husband started planting saplings in 1999. The first six years were the hardest part and the most crucial point for the forest because that’s when they need the most care and attention. After that, the trees take on a life of their own,” says Laila.
For his green endeavour, Muhammed Koya won the ‘Vanamitra award’ from the state government in 2014 and has received several other awards from local panchayats as well.
When people approach Muhammed for advice on how to create their own forest, he simply tells them to be consistent.
“The same amount of determination when you planted the first sapling should be present even after 20 years. Like my wife says, it’s very similar to raising your children. You can’t give up midway when you’re raising a child, it’s the same thing,” he shares.
Although the forest does not garner any profit for him, Muhammed continues to collect saplings from across Kerala simply to see nature in its glory and leave behind a legacy for his grandchildren.
Pictures Source: VMK Botanical Garden/ Facebook
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)