Saalumarada Thimmakka of Karnataka is a legend. She is 107-years-old and was awarded the Padma Shri earlier this year - an occasion where she reached out and blessed President Ram Nath Kovind. Ms Thimmakka and her late husband planted hundreds of trees along the highway near their home in Ramanagara district. Those trees, 70 years old now, stand strong. Ms Thimmakka successfully resisted plans to cut them down for road-widening in 2019. She recently visited a Bengaluru college where she celebrated her birthday with the students and of course - planted a sapling which she blessed.
NDTV spoke to the woman who is possibly the world's oldest environmentalist. She relived the time when she and her late husband first began planting saplings along the stretch of highway between Hulikal and Kudur near her home.
"My husband and I didn't plant the trees the usual way it is done. In the 4 kilometres of highway where we began planting, he dug many small pits, planted saplings and surrounded them with twigs and branches to protect them. Then he went to a potter and brought two pairs of mud pots. We would take water from the well. I would carry one pot on my head and one on my hips to go and we would water each sapling at least twice a week," she said.
When we asked how many trees they had planted, she replied, "We didn't count them. My husband never told me how many we planted. They just grew. Now they are so big that three people are needed to hug it. They are 70 year old trees."
At that time, there was no value for me, no value for my trees. My husband had been dead for 28 years. Then this boy came and showed me in his text book, that they were calling me Saalumarada Thimmakka!"
'Saalumara' is a row of trees in Kannada.
Ms Thimmakka has continued to spread the message of tree planting in the years that followed. Her work was acknowledged with a Padma Shri this year. And even in this ceremony, the gracious senior citizen gave the event a special touch of her own.
"The President was standing there. I took the award with one hand, and blessed him with the other hand," she told NDTV.
Ms Thimmakka does have some unfulfilled dreams.
"I want something good to happen in my village," she said. "It is difficult for pregnant women to go for delivery. I asked for a maternity hospital in my name. But until now nobody has done anything about it. What shall I do? I don't have money to do this myself. I asked something for the good of the people. But so far it hasn't happened - no good fortune after planting these trees. I feel disappointed."
We asked her what she felt about the way trees are cut down for projects. Even the trees she and her husband were scheduled to be cut down for widening of the road. She said, "For those who have grown trees, won't it hurt when they are cut? I said, please don't touch the trees that I have grown. They said don't worry. The newspaper people also came. But then they said they would cut the trees. My son and I said we would lie in front of the trees. They became silent. The minister has also assured me that the trees you planted will not be cut."
At St Joseph's college in Bengaluru, Saalumarada Thimmakka was given a standing ovation by the students. She is gently spreading her message of greening the environment to those around her.