Can you believe that Bengaluru was a rocky, barren plateau just 250 years ago? Since then, thanks to the efforts of first the Tigers of Mysore, and then botanists and horticulture authorities, Bengaluru has managed to become home to one of the greatest collection of trees from around the world.
This is the story Vijay Thiruvady, a Koramangala-resident and Trustee at the Bangalore Environment Trust (BET), tells in his beautiful book, Heritage Trees: In and around Bangalore. An engineer-turned-naturalist, Thiruvady has become better known in recent years for leading the Lal Bagh Green Heritage Walks. To say that he is a walking encyclopedia on trees in and around Bengaluru would definitely not be far from the truth!
A local historian as much as he is a passionate naturalist, Thiruvady has often touched upon the origins of Bengaluru’s rich horticultural diversity. The city, which till almost 250 years ago had been a barren plateau, owes much of its flora to Hyder Ali and the British rule.
Old works by British painters that date back to the 1800s show the city and its environs as a ‘naked and barren land’.
In fact, the Nandi Hills was a totally bald granite rock, devoid of any trees, and the city was a barren stretch of land along a ridge on the Deccan Plateau.
The only notable patch of greenery was a 40 acre ‘rose and cypress garden’ set up in 1760 by Haider Ali. Inspired by the legendary gardens of Persia, the 18th century rulers of Mysore, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, laid the foundation for this layered garden which was later named Lal Bagh.
Prior to them, tree clusters existed in devarakadus (sacred groves) and gundutopus (village wood lots) that were deeply revered by the communities that lived in their vicinity. These communities nurtured them for their spiritual and medicinal value. Rest for weary travellers, grazing ground for cattle, honey from bee hives and a home for a multitude of birds came as additional benefits.
This gundotopu survives today as a 45-acre monoculture of 500- to 800-year-old tamarind trees, an area that has been held for centuries by dynasties like the Gangas, Cholas, Hoysalas and Wodiyars of Mysore. There is another excellent example of a gundotopu at Shivagange, where in an area of about 20 acres is one of the finest collection of ippe or mahua trees.
Interestingly, while sacred groves are found all over Karnataka, the state’s Kodagu district is special because it has a devarakadu in every village. Even today, in areas in Kodagu where patches of forest stand out among coffee plantations and paddy fields, ancients shrines comprising solitary stones, terracotta totems and miniature tridents can be found under canarium or garcinia trees.
The colonial administration saw a series of horticulturists descending upon Bengaluru. Major Waugh, Nathaniel Wallich, Sir Mark Cubbon, High Cleghorn, William New, A. Black and John Cameron introduced a wide variety of exotic trees from around the world.
Apart from Lal Bagh and Cubbon Park, trees were planted on the roadside to provide shade to travellers. This later resulted in Bengaluru having avenues of tabebuias, mahogany, and rain trees, among other serially flowering trees. Thanks to this, the city has always had some or the other flowering canopy adorning its streets from December till the arrival of monsoons in June.
The first authenticated horticultural exhibition was held in Lal Bagh in 1838 when it was under the care of William Munroe, Secretary of the Agri-Horticultural Society of Bangalore. In 1857, Lal Bagh was declared as the Government Botanical Garden on the recommendation of Hugh Cleghorn.
Celebrated horticulturist and landscape architect Gustav Hermann Krumbeigel took over in 1908 and imparted the Lal Bagh the most aesthetic touch. He meticulously designed each of the Lal Bagh’s pathways, glades, fountains, urns, balustrades, staircases, and all that lends it the current shape.
A noteworthy fact is that till the 1960s there were over 300 acres under apple orchard cultivation in Bengaluru that have now disappeared without a trace. Glen Hickey, a British traveller, wrote in 1929: “Locally grown apples are sold in Bangalore in heaps”. According to studies, introduction of the railways brought in apples from Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh which were cheaper and ruined the prospects of the local growers.
After independence, a number of exotic and indigenous trees were planted by the Forest Department in the new extensions of the city such as Indiranagar and Koramangala, with considerable care taken in the selection of tree species. Cultivation of urban forests in defence cantonments, schools, Palace Grounds and IISc also played a major part in greening the city.
IISc’s avenues are lined by gulmohars, large, raintree-shaded bowers, and colourful bursts of laburnum, jacaranda, and tabebuia.
A large number of water bodies, along with its verdant green cover, gave Bengaluru a unique character and a salubrious climate. The 1980s marked the peak of Bengaluru’s greening as well as the beginning of change in the sylvan setting. Stately old trees were felled to make room for new roads, flyovers, high-rise buildings, offices, shops and markets.
Over the years, Bengaluru’s famous green cover has eroded quickly, a price the city has paid for its rapid ‘development’. And that’s precisely why in Bengaluru, a group of concerned citizens have come together to honour trees through a unique festival called Neralu.
Article credit : The Better India
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