In the shades of Lalbagh

Shruthi Rao | Updated on March 10, 2018

Green fingers: There are more than 2,000 species of trees in Lalbagh and it’s common to find nature lovers gather here on weekends for guided walks   -  K Bhagya Prakash

House of heritage: Lalbagh’s Glass House is just one of the many contributions of John Cameron, who took over as superintendent of the garden in 1874   -  K Murali Kumar

Blossom forth: Home to both native and foreign species of flowers, fruits and vegetables, Lalbagh was declared a botanical garden in 1856   -  V Sreenivasa Murthy

A fertile mix of colonial and post-Independence history helped transform a sovereign’s pleasure garden into the “Kew of India”

I stand atop a three-billion-year-old rocky outcrop, and watch as the scene before me sharpens into focus with the rising of the sun. On one side is a metropolis waking up to a balmy Sunday, and on the other, a thick carpet of mighty old trees. It is early spring, and the leaves on most trees are fresh and green, and the effect is heightened by the gentle morning light. As the sun’s rays grow brighter, the flowers stand out — the searing yellow of the primavera, the startling scarlet of the red silk cotton, and the soft mauve of the jacaranda. A 250-year-old garden on 240 acres, with one of the most spectacular collections of trees in the world — and to think this was once a rocky and barren plateau! I marvel at the legacy that has made Lalbagh the jewel of Bengaluru.

Hyder Ali, the ruler of old Mysore, laid the foundation of this garden in 1760. Inspired by the ones created by the Mughals, he designed it as a Persian-style charbagh, a garden divided into four by tree-lined walkways intersecting in the middle. He planted roses and cypresses, and brought in trees and saplings from other gardens in India. In the book Flora’s Empire, by Eugenia W Herbert, there is an account by a Portuguese soldier from Ali’s regiment. He recounts how the ruler walked down the paths of his rose and cypress garden, his concubines with him, each holding a nosegay of flowers.

After Ali’s death, his son Tipu Sultan took charge. He enjoyed horticulture, and at Lalbagh he experimented with crops and plants from Afghanistan, Persia, Turkey, Africa, and the Canary Islands. In Flora’s Empire, Herbert writes that Sultan sent envoys to different countries in his attempt to raise armies against the English. The missions failed politically, but botanically they were immensely successful. On one occasion, the envoys brought back 20 chests of seeds from Mauritius, along with nutmeg and clove trees, which he grew in Lalbagh. Sultan also planted several kinds of fruit trees. One of them still stands — a grand mango tree that produces two tonnes of sour, fibrous, cumin-flavoured fruit each year.

But then, the lovely thing about Lalbagh is that there are dozens of trees that are special, like this mango tree. Many flourish thousands of miles from their native region, and some are lone specimens on this side of the world. However, the question in my mind was — how did it turn from a sovereign’s private pleasure garden to one of the largest botanical gardens in India?

After Sultan’s death in 1799 in the war against the East India Company, the British appropriated Lalbagh as a depository for useful plants sent from different parts of the country. Governor-General Richard Wellesley instructed Dr Benjamin Heyne, the Company botanist, that “decided superiority must be given to useful plants over those that are merely recommended by their rarity or their beauty”. For a while, the garden supplied food to the Company regiment, and this marked the beginning of the next stage in the history of Lalbagh.

After 1812, Lalbagh was placed in the charge of Major Gilbert Waugh, a Company paymaster, who then presented it to Governor-General Warren Hastings. Hastings put in charge Dr Nathaniel Wallich, the superintendent of the Royal Botanical Garden of Calcutta. The appointee reported back to his employer that Lalbagh could be “an intermediate nursery or a depot for the introduction and acclimatisation of fruit trees of England” and that “the climate of Bangalore is eminently suited for the purposes of horticulture.”

In spite of such encouraging reports, nothing much happened between 1831 to 1856, when the charge of Lalbagh was passed between the chief commissioner of Mysore and the Agri-Horticultural Society, before being allowed to run to waste for 14 years. Its fortunes changed in 1856, when Lalbagh became the Government Botanical Garden.

In 1858, William New, a gardener from Kew in London, came to Lalbagh as superintendent. He established nurseries and greenhouses that still exist. Under him, Lalbagh became a centre of scientific research, and evolved from a pleasure garden to a botanical garden. He brought plants from Kew, Africa, New Guinea, Australia, South America and various parts of Asia, grew varieties that were of ornamental and economic value, and, in 1861, also published a census of all the trees growing there. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in Lalbagh that commemorates New’s contribution, except for the cottage he built for himself that now houses the Lalbagh library.

Going by the fact that author Edward Lear called Lalbagh the “Kew of India” on his visit in 1874, it seems that the garden had already come into its own by the time John Cameron took over as superintendent in 1874. Under Cameron, who is called the father of horticulture in Karnataka, Lalbagh grew from 40 acres to 100. Cameron also undertook experimental cultivation of different varieties of cotton, rubber, grape and other fruits, groundnut, potato, dates, coconut, coffee and cocoa. He introduced several vegetables and fruits that were grown and acclimatised in Lalbagh, and disseminated to the rest of the country.

For instance, to popularise the chayote, a South American native, Cameron stood at the gate of Lalbagh and handed samples of the vegetable to passing farmers. He was certainly successful — the vegetable is well-established in Indian cuisine now. As it happens, the name for chayote in Kannada, seemebadanekayi, translates to “foreign brinjal”.

Incidentally, Lalbagh’s Glass House, modelled on the Crystal Palace that housed the Great Exhibition of London in 1851, was also Cameron’s brainchild. It was also Cameron who started the tradition of flower and vegetable shows at the Glass House. It continues to this day, with the immensely popular biannual flower show. Flora’s Empire has an account by a Reverend Norman McLeod in 1870, in which he goes into raptures about the variety of vegetables at the show, and how it evoked memories of his homeland.

Later superintendents, stalwarts in their own right, continued the legacy of Lalbagh, and were also responsible for making Bengaluru the Garden City. Gustav Krumbiegel, a Kew-trained German botanist and landscape designer, succeeded Cameron. After him, towards the late-colonial and post-Independence period, Lalbagh saw Indian superintendents — Rao Bahadur HC Javaraya and Dr MH Marigowda.

History and legacy apart, the true treasure of Lalbagh are its trees — nearly 2,000 species currently. And if you have the time to see them, each tree has a history.

The rare pride of Burma was flowering on my last visit, as was the brownea tree from tropical America, with its pretty handkerchief-like flowers.

The stately kauri pine from Queensland, the araucaria pines from the Pacific Islands and Australia, Moreton Bay chestnuts, Colville’s glory from Madagascar, loquat from China, magnolia, Spanish mahogany, cypresses from Australia, China, Mexico, California and Europe — these are some of the exotic trees present here. There are olive trees, persimmon, oleander, ylang ylang. And also the pod mahogany, native to tropical Africa and a threatened species there.

There are several others like the tabebuia, gulmohar and raintree that are common avenue trees in Bengaluru.

Many trees are endemic to India, like the pines from the Himalayas and Western Ghats, and a fair number from Southeast Asia, like the yellow Ashoka.

I have my favourites, of course, old friends I greet on every visit to Lalbagh. One of those which never fail to make my jaw drop is the matriarch of Lalbagh, the colossal white silk cotton tree, 250 years old. It is 55 ft high, and its dense canopy has a spread of 20,000 sq ft. It has massive buttresses that extend nearly 25 ft in each direction from the thick trunk.

The New Caledonian pine in front of the Glass House stands nearly 150 ft tall. It had a twin on the other side of the walking path, which is visible in old photos of the Glass House. But the twin was felled by lightning a few years ago, and now this tree stands alone, grand despite the asymmetry.

I also love the African baobab, native to Madagascar, that stands next to the aquarium building. Something about this “upside-down tree” — so called because when it sheds its leaves, its branches look like roots — creates the allure of far-off lands.

The century palm, which flowers only once in about 85 years, gives me a sense of timelessness in this era of tearing hurry and speed. And then there is the ficus krishnae, a variation of the banyan, but with endearing leaves that look like little cups. According to mythology, Krishna stored butter in these leaves, and hence its name.

There is a banner at the main gate of Lalbagh with the poet Kuvempu’s words: Devaalayavee hoovina totam (an abode of gods, this garden of flowers).

Before I discovered the green treasures of Lalbagh and the stories behind them, I confess I rolled my eyes at those words; but now, I appreciate the sentiment behind it.

Shruthi Rao is a freelance writer based in San Francisco Bay Area

Published on April 14, 2017

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