S. Ramasamy introduces me to his old friend. He boasts of the visitors his beloved companion draws: newspapers, TV channels, IAS and IPS officers, and more. He’s careful not to miss any detail. After all, he’s talking about a celebrity, a VIP.

His friend is a 200-year-old tree: the great Aayiramkachi of Maligampattu.

Aayiramkachi is a pala maram , jackfruit tree, and it is wide and tall and fertile. So wide, it takes 25 seconds to walk around it. Over one hundred prickly green fruits hang from its ancient trunk. To stand before the tree is an honour. To walk around it, a privilege. Ramasamy smiles at my reaction; the happiness and pride lift his luxuriant moustache, reaching his eyes. In his 71 years, he has seen enough guests moved by his tree. He tells me more…

“We are in Cuddalore district, Panruti block, Maligampattu hamlet,” he continues, standing in front of the tree in a khavi (ochre) dhoti, a towel over his slim shoulder. “This tree was planted by my ancestor, five generations ago. We call it ‘ aayiramkachi ’, the 1,000-fruiter. Now, actually, it bears 200 to 300 fruits in a year, and they ripen in 8 to 10 days. The pods are tasty, the colour is lovely, and the unripe ones can also be cooked into a biriyani .” And in half a minute, he extols its virtues. His speech, like his tree, has been honed with time and sculpted over decades.

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

S. Ramasamy with his beloved companion, the great Aayiramkachi, a 200-year-old jackfruit tree in his orchard

PARI first visited Panruti block in Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district in mid-April 2022 to meet jackfruit farmers and traders. As the biggest producer of the fruit in the state, this town – especially during the jackfruit season, from February to July – is lined with shops selling tons and tons of it. Vendors hawk split fruit and pods from pavement stalls and traffic junctions. Nearly two dozen shops acting as ‘ mandis ’ in Panruti town do ‘bulk’ business here. Every day, truckloads of jackfruit arrive from neighbouring villages and are sold to wholesalers in Chennai, Madurai, Salem, all the way up to Andhra Pradesh and Mumbai in Maharashtra.

It was at one such mandi , belonging to R. Vijaykumar, that I heard of Ramasamy and his heritage tree. “Go meet him, he will tell you everything,” Vijaykumar assured me, buying me tea from a roadside stall. “And take him with you,” he pointed to an old farmer seated in the next bench.

Maligampattu was about five kilometres away. It took us 10 minutes by car, and the farmer gave precise instructions. “Turn right, go down that road, stop here, that’s Ramasamy’s place,” he said, pointing to a big house guarded by a handsome black and white dog. The verandah had a swing, some chairs, a beautifully carved front door, and many jute sacks brimming with farm produce. The walls were lined with photographs, curios and calendars.

Ramasamy wasn’t expecting us, but invited us to sit down while he went and fetched many books and pictures. As the much sought-after expert, he was used to curious visitors. And on that warm April forenoon, seated on a plastic chair, next to two women selling karuvaadu (dried fish), he taught me a thing or three about jackfruit…

*****

PHOTO • Aparna Karthikeyan
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Ramasamy cultivates jackfruit, one of the world's largest fruits, in Maligampattu hamlet of Cuddalore district's Panruti block. The oldest tree, the Aayiramkachi, was planted in his orchard by his ancestors five generations ago

One of the world’s largest fruits, ‘jack’, as it is colloquially called, is native to south India’s Western Ghats. This name came from the Portuguese jaca . Which in turn was taken from the Malayalam term chakka . The scientific name is a little complex: Artocarpus heterophyllus .

But long before the international community noticed the spiky, green, odd-looking fruit, Tamil poets did. Called pala pazham , this huge fruit made some curious appearances in love poems written 2,000 years ago.

Leaving your big cool eyes teared up
He goes back to his renowned country
Where hills are dotted with jackfruit trees
And their fleshy aromatic fruit
Fall down a rocky crevice
Tearing apart the honeycomb there.

Ainkurunooru – 214 , Sangam poetry

In another verse, which translator Chenthil Nathan calls “Kapilar’s marvellous poem,” the huge ripening jackfruit is compared to a great love.

Like a small twig in which a huge fruit hangs,
her life is tenuous, but her love, immense!

Kurunthokai – 18 , Sangam poetry

Buddhist and Jain literature, around 400 BCE, also mention jackfruit, along with other fruits like banana, grapes and citrus, notes K.T. Achaya in Indian Food: A Historical Companion .

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Inside the orchard, amidst dancing shadows, Ramasamy stops and looks at the world beyond the old trees

Fast forward to the 16th century. That’s when Emperor Babar (a “superb diarist”), “accurately described” the fruits of Hindustan, writes Achaya. He doesn’t sound like he was a big fan of jackfruit, because he compared it to “a sheep’s stomach stuffed and made into a gipa [haggis or type of pudding]” and called it “sickeningly sweet.”

In Tamil Nadu, it remains a popular fruit. The Tamil language is sweetened with riddles and proverbs that pay tribute to one of the mukkani , three fruits of the Tamil country: maa, pala, vazhai (mango, jackfruit, banana). Ira. Panchavarnam, in his excellent and exhaustive book on the jack, Pala Maram: the king of fruits , cites many other proverbs. One beautiful line asks:

Mullukulley muthukulaiyam. Adhu enna? Palapazham.
(A harvest of pearls within thorns. What is it? A jackfruit.)

The fruit has also received excellent press more recently. In a 2019 paper in the International Journal of Food Science , R.A.S.N. Ranasinghe says that “several parts of the jack tree including fruits, leaves, and barks have been extensively used in traditional medicine due to its anticarcinogenic, antimicrobial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, wound healing, and hypoglycaemic effects.” And yet, it is “underutilized in commercial scale processing in regions where it is grown.”

*****

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Left: A baby jackfruit tree planted in Ramasamy's orchard. Right: Prickly green fruits start hanging from the trees and soon cover the old trunks during jackfruit season

Panruti block in Cuddalore district is the jackfruit capital of Tamil Nadu. And Ramasamy’s knowledge – about the jackfruit and its geography – is deep. He explains where the tree grows best. That is, where the water level stays 50 feet below the ground; if it rises with the rain, the tap roots will rot. “Cashew and mango trees can take water, but not jack,” he points out. If there’s inundation, the tree will be “close.” Dead.

In his estimation, fully one-fourth of the agricultural area in a 20-kilometre radius from his hamlet, Maligampattu, is given over to jackfruit cultivation. According to the 2022-23 agricultural policy note of Government of Tamil Nadu, the state has jackfruit on 3,180 hectares. Of which 718 are in Cuddalore district.

In 2020-21, jackfruit was grown in 191,000 hectares in India. Cuddalore district might not be a heavyweight, but within the region, jack is an important crop. And nearly one in every four jackfruit in Tamil Nadu comes from here.

What is the economic value of a pala maram ? Ramasamy explains some of it. A lease value of 12,500 rupees a year for a 15- or 20-year-old tree, he says. “Five-year-old trees won’t fetch this price. They will only bear three or four fruits. Whereas a 40-year-old tree will have upwards of 50 fruits.”

As the tree grows, so does its yield.

The earning per tree, from the fruit, is a little more complicated. And capricious. That morning in Panruti, a group of farmers at the mandi did the math and explained that with every 100 trees they earn between 2 lakh and 2.5 lakh rupees. This includes the cost of fertiliser, pesticide, labour, transport and commission – of 50,000 to 70,000 rupees.

Photographs of the 200-year-old Aayiramkachi of Maligampattu preserved in Ramasamy's archival collection

Then again, everything is a variable. The number of fruits per tree, the price of a single fruit, of a tonne – nothing can be predicted. Take the range: each fruit fetches between 150 and 500 rupees, depending on whether the season has just begun or is at its peak. And on the size. Which swings between the ‘usual’ (for Panruti) of 8 to 15 kilos, with some going up to 50, and rarely, to 80 kilos. The price for one tonne of jackfruit was 30,000 rupees in April 2022. And there are usually, though not always, 100 fruits to a tonne.

And then there is the valuable timber. Ramasamy explains that a 40-year-old tree “fetches 40,000 rupees when sold for its wood.” And jackfruit wood is the best, he says. It is strong and water resistant, “even better than teak.” To qualify as good timber, the tree has to be six feet tall, thick (he holds his hands out a couple of feet), and without defects. Buyers fix a rate only after seeing the tree. If it has good branches that can be used as window frames – “like this,” Ramasamy points to the window behind him – then it adds to the value.

In the house his ancestors built, the main door frame was made of the wood of a jackfruit tree. The ornate one behind us in the new house – where he now lives – is made of teak wood from their own fields. “The old one is inside,” he says. He shows it to me later, two fat door frames, worn with age, notched and scratched and relegated to the back of the house. “These are 175 years old,” he says with some pride.

Next, he shows me an old kanjira , a musical instrument that’s made of jack wood, with cymbals in the frame – the cylindrical mouth covered on one side with udumbu thol (skin of a monitor lizard). Jack is also favoured for other musical instruments like the veenai and mridangam . “This old one belonged to my father,” Ramasamy says, turning the kanjira in his hands. The cymbals clink softly, musically.

Besides his extensive knowledge of trees and crops, Ramasamy is a numismatist. He collects coins. He brings out books in which they are displayed by year and rarity. He points out coins for which he he has been offered 65,000 and 85,000 rupees. “But I did not sell them,” he smiles. While I admire the coins, his wife offers me snacks. There are flavoured cashews and elandha pazham (Indian jujube). They’re delicious, salty and tarty. And like everything else about the meeting, satisfying.

*****

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Harvesting jackfruit is a complex and tricky process. A farmhand climbs on top of the tree to reach a big fruit

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

When the fruits are big and high, they are cut and lowered slowly with a rope

Aayiramkachi is on a lease, to a well-known contact. “But they won’t mind if we take some of the harvest. Or even all of it,” he grins. Though it is called aayiramkachi – 1,000 fruiter – the annual crop is between a third and a fifth of that number. But it is a famous tree and its fruit are in demand. Each medium-sized fruit can bear about 200 pods. “It is tasty to eat and great to cook,” says Ramasamy with much relish.

Generally, the older the tree, the thicker the trunk and the greater number of fruits it can bear, Ramasamy says. “People who look after the trees know how many fruits to leave on each, to mature. If there are too many growing on a young one, they will all remain tiny,” and he brings his hands close, as if holding an imaginary coconut. Typically, a farmer will use some chemicals to grow jackfruit. It’s not impossible – but it is hard – to raise it one hundred per cent organically, says Ramasamy.

“If we leave fewer fruits to grow on a large tree, the bigger and heavier each jackfruit will be. But the risks are also greater – they can get attacked by pests, damaged by rain, fall down during a storm. We don’t get too greedy,” he laughs.

He opens a book on jackfruit and shows me pictures. “See how they preserve big fruits…they make a basket to hold the fruit, and then carefully tie it to a branch above with ropes. This way, the fruit is supported and does not fall. When they cut it, it is lowered slowly with ropes. And carried carefully like this,” he says, tapping a photograph of two men shouldering a gigantic jackfruit as tall and wide as a man. Ramasamy checks his trees every day to see if any fruit stem is damaged. “Then we immediately make a rope basket and tie it beneath the fruit.”

Sometimes, despite the care, fruits do get smashed. These are collected and used as cattle feed. “See those jackfruits? They fell down and can’t be sold. My cows and goats will happily eat it.” The women selling the karuvaadu have made their sale. The fish is weighed on iron scales and taken to the kitchen. The vendors are served dosais . They eat and listen to our conversation and participate occasionally. “Give us a jackfruit, our children want to eat it,” they tell Ramasamy. “Come and take one next month,” he replies.

PHOTO • Aparna Karthikeyan

A neighbouring farmer lines up his harvest in a row at the entrance to Ramasamy's orchard

Once the fruits are harvested, Ramasamy explains, they are sent to commission agents at the mandi . “They call us when a buyer comes, and check if we’re okay with the rate. If we agree, they sell it and give us the money. They take 50 or 100 for every 1,000 rupees the sales bring in,” he says, “and from both parties.” Ramasamy is happy to pay that 5 or 10 per cent, he tells us, as it “saves the farmers of a lot of headaches. We don’t have to stand around till a buyer comes. Sometimes, it can take more than a day. We have other things to do, no? We can’t just wait in Panruti town!”

Two decades ago, there were many other crops in the district, Ramasamy says. “We grew plenty of tapioca and groundnuts. As more and more cashew factories came up, there was a labour crunch. To cope with that, many farmers shifted to jackfruit. “Jackfruit requires far fewer days of work by labourers. And even those it draws, like them,” he points to the two women selling dried fish, “are from other villages.”

But farmers are also moving away from jack, he points out. Ramasamy has about 150 trees spread over five acres. The same land is also interspersed with cashew, mango and tamarind trees. “Jack and cashew are leased. We harvest the mango and tamarind,” he says. He plans to reduce the number of pala marams . “That’s because of the storms. During Cylone Thane, I lost nearly 200 trees. We had to get rid of them...so many fallen ones in this area. Now we plant cashew in the place of jack.”

It’s not because cashew and some other crops are storm proof, he points out, “but because they produce a crop from the first year. And cashew needs very little maintenance. Cuddalore district is prone to cyclones, and we have a big one every decade or so. Jackfruit trees that are over 15 years old, which bear a lot of fruit, are the first to fall. We feel terrible,” he says, shaking his head, gesturing with his hand to indicate the loss.

PHOTO • Aparna Karthikeyan
PHOTO • Aparna Karthikeyan

Left: The extensive collection of literature on jackfruit that Ramasamy has collected over the years includes some rare books. Right: A numismatist, Ramasamy also has an impressive collection of coins

Cuddalore’s District Diagnostic Report offers an explanation : with a long coastline, it says, the district is “vulnerable to the cyclonic depressions and the resultant rains which cause floods.”

Newspaper reports from 2012 document the devastation of Cyclone Thane. It struck Cuddalore district on December 11, 2011, and “brought down more than two crore jackfruit, mango, banana, coconut and cashew trees among others across the district,” according to Business Line . Ramasamy recalls asking anybody who wanted the wood to come and take it. “We didn’t want any money; we couldn’t bear to see the fallen trees…so many people came and took it to rebuild their house.”

*****

The jackfruit orchard is just a short ride from Ramasamy’s house. A neighbouring farmer is cutting and lining up his fruit. They sit like miniature boxes in a children’s park train – one jack behind the other – waiting for the truck that will take them to the market. The moment we enter the grove, the temperature drops; it seems several degrees cooler.

Ramasamy keeps walking and talking: about the trees, plants, fruits. The visit to his orchard is partly an educational tour, mostly a picnic. He hands us many types of produce to eat: cashew fruits that are plump and juicy; honey apples that are packed with sugar; and tamarind that is fleshy and sour and sweet, all at once.

Next, he snaps bay leaves for us to sniff and asks if we want to taste the water. Before we can reply, he strides off quickly to a corner of the farm and switches on the motor. Water gushes out from the fat pipe, glinting like diamonds in the afternoon sun. We cup our hands and drink the borewell water. It is not sweet, but quite tasty – unlike the flat and chlorinated stuff from the city taps. With a big smile, he switches off the motor. Our tour continues.

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Ramasamy in his house in Maligampattu hamlet

We walk back to Aayiramkachi, the oldest tree in the district. The canopy is big and thick, a thing of wonder. The wood, however, shows its age. It is gnarled here, hollow there, but at its base, it wears, for several months, a dress made of the jackfruits that grow around its trunk. “Next month,” Ramasamy promises, “it will look very grand.”

The orchard has many grand trees. “Over there is the 43 per cent ‘glucose jack’. I had it tested,” he points and walks to another corner. Shadows dance on the ground, branches rustle, birds sing. It is tempting to lie down under a tree and watch the world, but Ramasamy is already talking about varieties, and it is all very fascinating. Unlike mangoes – where varieties like Neelam and Bengalura taste so different and can be propagated easily – replicating jackfruits is hard.

“Suppose I want to propagate that tree,” he points to the super sugary one, “I can’t always rely on the seeds. Because even if there are 100 seeds inside a fruit, none of them may be like the parent!” The reason? Cross-pollination. Pollen from a different tree could fertilise another and mess with the variety.

“We take the first or last fruit of the season,” he says, "when we are sure there is no other jackfruit in a 200-foot radius – and use that exclusively for seeds.” Otherwise, farmers rely on grafting to get the same favourable features – like sweetness and firmness of the sollai (pods).

There’s yet another layer of complexity – the same fruit harvested at different times (at 45 days or 55 or 70) tastes different. Jackfruit might not be a particularly labour-intensive crop, but it is a tricky one, given its short shelf life. “What we need is a cold storage facility.” That’s a common refrain of the growers and traders. “Three days or five days. Then the fruit is gone,” says Ramasamy. “See, I can keep my cashew and sell it after a year. This can’t even last a week!”

Aayiramkachi must be amused. After all, it has lasted 200 years…

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Left: An older photograph of Aayiramkachi from Ramasamy's collection. Right: The same tree in Ramasamy's orchard in 2022

This research study is funded by Azim Premji University as part of its Research Funding Programme 2020.

Cover photo: M. Palani Kumar

Aparna Karthikeyan

Aparna Karthikeyan is an independent journalist, author and Senior Fellow, PARI. Her non-fiction book 'Nine Rupees an Hour' documents the disappearing livelihoods of Tamil Nadu. She has written five books for children. Aparna lives in Chennai with her family and dogs.

Other stories by Aparna Karthikeyan
Photographs : M. Palani Kumar

M. Palani Kumar is PARI's Staff Photographer and documents the lives of the marginalised. He was earlier a 2019 PARI Fellow. Palani was the cinematographer for ‘Kakoos’, a documentary on manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu, by filmmaker Divya Bharathi.

Other stories by M. Palani Kumar

P. Sainath is Founder Editor, People's Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of 'Everybody Loves a Good Drought'.

Other stories by P. Sainath