A new book, by V.K. Thiruvady, traces the history of the Lalbagh garden in Bengaluru

Print edition : April 23, 2021

The bandstand at Lalbagh, built around 150 years ago, was the early location of the flower shows. Behind the bandstand is a towering Christmas tree (Araucaria columnaris) that can be seen from any part of the garden. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The Glass House is the venue of the annual flower show. It was completed in 1889 and was meant to be a miniature version of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

During the Republic Day Lalbagh Flower Show 2020, in the Glass House of Lalbagh on January 17, 2020. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The Mysore trumpetvine (Thungbergia mysorensis) is a profusely flowering creeper. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

A flower belonging to the Alpinia genus of plants, with its glass-like, translucent petals. This flowering plant is native to the Philippines and Taiwan. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

A flower belonging to the Alpinia genus of plants, with its glass-like, translucent petals. This flowering plant is native to the Philippines and Taiwan. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The yellow trumpetbush (Tecoma stans) is a flowering shrub native to South America. Its bright yellow flowers are full of nectar and attract bees. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The spectacular flowers of the pink poui (Tabebuia rosea) tree, which was originally native to South America. This tree sheds all its leaves in spring, and for around 10 days, its flowers blossom in a glorious outburst. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The flower of the golden chalice vine (Solandra maxima) plant, which is endemic to Brazil. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The spiky flower of the crimson bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus) shrub, which is native to Australia. The stamens, when packed together, resemble a bottlebrush. Bees can be found hovering around its flowers, which are full of nectar. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The last remaining mango tree dating back to Tipu Sultan’s era. This tree is the pride of Lalbagh and still produces up to a tonne of mangoes every two years. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The banyan strangler fig of the Ficus genus, which sprouts from a seed the size of a pinhead most probably dropped by a passing bird. The strangler draws nourishment from its host, in this case a palm tree, throttling it in the process. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

A clump of African juniper trees (Juniperus procera) planted during Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel’s tenure as Superintendent of Lalbagh. The African juniper is the only one of the 45 juniper species to be found in the southern hemisphere. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Vijay R. Thiruvady, the author of “Lalbagh: Sultans’ Gardens to Public Park”. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The book (Bangalore Environment Trust, Bengaluru, 2020, Rs.750) contains rare botanical illustrations from the mid 19th century.

A Buddha statue carved out of a fallen eucalyptus tree trunk and appropriately placed under a massive peepal, or bodhi, tree (Ficus religiosa). The Buddha attained enlightenment under a peepal tree. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

One of the many centuries-old Nandi statues found in Lalbagh. This statue is located at the base of a rain tree (Samanea saman) near the Lalbagh rock. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The goni mara (Ficus mysorensis). This particular specimen of the tree in Lalbagh has a spread of over 160 feet and has just shed its leaves. The tree was named by Benjamin Heyne, an early administrator of the garden. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The traveller’s palm (Ravenala madagascariensis) is a flowering tree originally from Madagascar where it is pollinated by lemurs. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The fruit of the elephant apple (Dillenia indica) tree, which is native to India. This tree flourishes along waterbodies and is a favourite of elephants. Dillenia indica has the honour of being named by Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The talipot palm (Corypha umbraculifera) is found in the evergreen forests of Karnataka. Throughout Indian history, the dried fronds of this tree were used for writing on. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

The 3.5-billion-year-old Lalbagh rock crowned by Kempegowda’s tower, erected in 1537. This granite hill was declared a National Geological Monument in 1975. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

V.K. Thiruvady’s book on Lalbagh, arguably one of India’s best public gardens, provides an evocative account of this fantastic arboreal world in Bengaluru and comprehensively traces its history from its early days.

FOR a long period in its modern history, Bengaluru was known by the touristy moniker “Garden City” as verdant patches of greenery enveloped its fledgling urbanity. Little traffic plied on its long stretches of tree-lined promenades, which were ubiquitous, and residents were proud of their well-maintained home gardens, which evoked a salubrious feeling among visitors who came from hotter climes. Bengaluru’s primary selling point has always been its pleasant weather, and it was because of this and its extensive network of public parks and the toddling pace of life its residents led that Karnataka’s capital city was also alluringly, but tritely, known as a “pensioner’s paradise”.

Over the past few decades, as Bengaluru exploded into a megalopolis and acquired the glitzy honorific of India’s “Silicon City”, its dated appellations have fallen out of use, but several public parks, big and small, still straddle the city’s busy boulevards, harking back to an era when Bengaluru was known for its greenery. Of the many green spaces in the city, the two large public gardens of Cubbon Park and Lalbagh stand out and continue to remain on tourists’ itineraries apart from being valuable carbon sinks for the city’s soaring air pollution, a result of the frenetic activities of its 10 million–plus population.

While the colonial-era Cubbon Park (no one refers to it by its official name, which is Sri Chamarajendra Park) is more centrally located as it swaddles the High Court of Karnataka and lies opposite Vidhana Soudha, the seat of the State government, the 240-acre (one acre is 0.4 hectare) Lalbagh, which lies just a few kilometres away, has a greater claim to being the first garden of the city as its history predates that of Cubbon Park by more than a century.

According to Vijay R. Thiruvady, author of the recently published Lalbagh: Sultans’ Garden to Public Park, Lalbagh, or Red Garden, is one of India’s best public gardens as “it has the most diverse collection of trees and plants in the country from all over the world and includes flora from tropical, equatorial and temperate regions”. In his book, the self-trained botanist and historian has provided an evocative account of the story of Lalbagh that comprehensively traces the garden’s history from its early days.

Thiruvady, who is almost 80, was speaking to Frontline as he led this correspondent on one of his Lalbagh walks, which have become renowned in Bengaluru over the past 16 years. The corporate consultant began to conduct these walks in 2005 and, on most weekend mornings since then, could be found leading a motley group of 15 to 30 people through tree-lined trails in the garden while explaining the fantastic arboreal world that is Lalbagh.

Thiruvady had to cease his weekend sojourns to the park, which he loves passionately, early last year after he suffered a stroke that left him deaf in one ear. The COVID-19 pandemic also ensured that he was kept away from his beloved Lalbagh since his recovery. Stepping into the garden after this long absence, Thiruvady kept glancing around restlessly as he tried to absorb the beauty of the garden.

The walk began at the foot of the “Lalbagh rock”, as Thiruvady referred to the small granite hill crowned by one of the four boundary towers erected by Kempegowda I (1510-69), who is often identified as the founder of Bengaluru. Thiruvady was easily recognisable by his fedora, which looked similar to the one worn by Indiana Jones. He leaned on his colourful walking stick and explained the significance of the “rock” in the planet’s early geological history. What lay in front of us was a Gneiss Complex, and according to Lalbagh, “this rocky plateau rafted on to the lithosphere of the earth and stabilised in its present form” around 3.5 billion years ago after the earth’s tectonic plates moved around like coins on a carrom board over millions of years. Thus, because of its importance, the hill was declared a National Geological Monument in 1975.

According to Thiruvady, the finding of the “stone slabs, referred to as Nishidhikallus and Virakallus” is evidence that Jain and Hindu communities lived in the area around Lalbagh, but the origins of the garden can be traced to the reign of Kempegowda, who laid out a flower garden “in 1537 with a view to growing flowers for worshipping in temples”. The boundary tower has been refurbished “and made to look like a Hindu mantapa”, but when it was originally built, it marked the southern border of Bengaluru.

Lalbagh bestowed on Hyder Ali

In the 18th century, Lalbagh, which was called Kemputhotha (meaning “Red Garden” in Kannada) at the time, came to Hyder Ali as part of a jagir (land grant) that was bestowed on him. Thiruvady writes that Hyder “brought in a talented and skilled community of agricultural labourers and gardeners, the Tigalas from [present-day] Tamil Nadu, to work in these gardens”. Hyder and his son, Tipu Sultan, both avid horticulturists, expanded the garden into what forms the core of modern Lalbagh. Tipu even sourced seeds and saplings from places as far away as Cape Town in South Africa. Thiruvady records in Lalbagh that Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, who surveyed Tipu’s territory after the his death at the hands of the British in 1799, visited the garden and wrote: “I visited the gardens made by the late Mussulman princes, Hyder and Tippoo. They are extensive and divided into square plots, separated by walks, the sides of which are ornamented with fine cypress trees.”

A living remnant of this connection with the Mysore rulers is present to this day: Thiruvady pointed out a giant mango tree that Tipu Sultan purportedly planted in the early 1790s. “Some mango trees were planted during Tipu’s time in Lalbagh, and this is the only one that still remains,” Thiruvady said, looking wistfully up at the clumps of wavy leaves that generously hung from the tree.

After the British advent in Mysore, the control of the sultan’s garden passed to the East India Company (EIC), and in 1800, a German missionary called Benjamin Heyne, who came to the EIC’s employment via the Danish settlement of Tranquebar (modern Tharangambadi), was put in charge of the garden. Under Heyne, the focus was on the “cultivation of economically useful plants, the produce of which would generate revenues to the EIC”. With Heyne, modern botany also came to Mysore, and “he was required to make drawings, particularly of rare plants, with scientific descriptions and collections of specimens”.

After Heyne’s tenure, the upkeep of the garden became the responsibility of Captain Wilbert Waugh, who was “given the designation of Official Keeper of Lalbagh”. During Waugh’s helming of the garden between 1807 and 1819, “he introduced plants, fruits and vegetables from Europe and China. Waugh introduced fruit trees, which included apricots, peaches and apples and trees of interest to a botanical garden, namely junipers, oaks and thujas.” William Munro, another army man, also came to be in charge of the garden and made observations such as “Mauritius sugarcane grew well” and “sheep dung is the best manure by far”. Thiruvady notes in Lalbagh that the “cultivation of hops, mulberry and the production of silk was introduced under his [Munro’s] watch”.

Thiruvady writes that Lalbagh owes a lot to Dr H.F.C. Cleghorn, who was “a trained professional surgeon turned into a forester, botanist, administrator, publicist and philanthropist…” whose advice Sir Mark Cubbon, the Chief Commissioner of Mysore, sought on the setting up of a horticultural garden in 1856. Cleghorn is also the person who named the garden “Lalbagh” and “was entirely responsible for putting Lalbagh on a steady path after the ups and downs in its management in the past”. Thiruvady has sourced for his book rare botanical illustrations made during Cleghorn’s time. A south Indian artist named Cheluviah Raju executed 675 of them. There were others such as “Rungiah” and “Govindoo”, and Thiruvady, on the basis of his research, speculates in Lalbagh: “In the 1830s, Tanjore (Thanjavur) and Trichinopoly (Tiruchirappalli) were the most likely places where botanical illustrators could have come from as these were the centres of South Indian religious art.”

Kew-trained gardners

Cleghorn introduced a certain professionalism in the management of the garden and initiated the tradition of appointing gardeners trained at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, London, as superintendents of Lalbagh. From the appointment of William New, who arrived in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) in April 1858 and was the first Kew-trained gardener, “six Kew-trained gardeners helmed the garden”. Modern Lalbagh is the result of these professional gardeners.

As soon as New arrived in the city, he “organised the introduction and exchange of plants with other botanical institutions in India and elsewhere. He received apples, peaches, vines, lemons and oranges from Ooty [Udagamandalam], a set of spice plants from Coimbatore and cases of plants from North Africa, Tenerife, Madeira and Azores in addition to seeds received from Melbourne and Adelaide in Australia.”

Flower shows

In 1861, New listed all the 1,073 plant species that were present in Lalbagh. He also began organising flower shows at Lalbagh, a tradition that continues to this day. Many of the exotic plant species planted at the time survive in Lalbagh even now. By this time, the garden had regular visitors, and Thiruvady records that between 1863 and 1864, “12,183 carriages and 6,003 equestrians entered the park. Indians also visited the park in large numbers, especially on festival days.”

Walking in Lalbagh, Thiruvady pointed to a Christmas tree (Araucaria columnaris) that towered over all the other trees and could be seen from several parts of the garden. When New’s 1861 survey was done, this tree was already listed, which means that it had been planted before then. “This tree is originally a native of New Caledonia and is the height of a 13-storey building. This could well be the tallest tree in south India,” Thiruvady contended. A more down-to-earth Araucaria specimen stood nearby and the tips of its overlaid leaves stung like needles. John Cameron, who took over as Superintendent in 1874 and remained in this post for 34 years, should be credited with laying the foundation of modern Lalbagh. The massive rain trees (Samanea saman) that stand like Brobdingnagian sentinels in Lalbagh allowing only slivers of sunlight to hit the ground beneath them date to Cameron’s era when they were planted here and in different parts of Bengaluru.

International exchange network

Thiruvady sums up Cameron’s contribution thus: “He largely focussed on improvements and development in botany and horticulture in Lalbagh itself and exchanging seeds, saplings and trees with botanical gardens worldwide while also establishing a zoo.” A 1890-91 report lists 32 botanical parks around the world that received seeds from Lalbagh, which shows how Cameron had expanded the international exchange network of Lalbagh. Recognising the need for a permanent structure for the flower shows that had become wildly popular by this time, Cameron built the Glass House in 1889. A survey of the diverse plants at Lalbagh during Cameron’s tenure showed that the garden had 3,222 plant species, marking a clear increase from the period of New’s tenure. (This seems to have been Lalbagh’s peak period of botanical variety as a 2001 survey put the number of plant species at only 793.)

The German-born and Kew-trained gardener Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel became the Superintendent of Lalbagh in 1908 after having worked in the princely state of Baroda for 14 years, and “in contrast with Cameron, was multifaceted and successfully spread his energies across garden architecture and landscaping, pomology and vegetables, plant propagation, agriculture and town planning”. Krumbiegel focussed his energies on sourcing fruit-bearing trees from “Australia, South Africa, California and the Philippines as the places from where most suitable seeds and saplings could be procured for planting in Mysore”. Most of the plant species planted during Krumbiegel’s time came from Australia.

As Thiruvady walked towards the Glass House, the divine fragrance of the flowers of the sampige tree (Michelia champaca) gently wafted towards him. Breathing in this alluring scent, Thiruvady pointed out the semicircular row of African juniper trees (Juniperus procera) that were planted in 1910 during Krumbiegel’s era. “These trees are native to the Ethiopian highlands,” said Thiruvady.

Krumbiegel was an expert landscape and ornamental gardener and was also responsible for the garden designs at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, the Brindavan Gardens in Mysuru and Jubilee Park in Jamshedpur (Jharkhand) apart from making substantial contributions to the landscape of Lalbagh. Krumbiegel’s services for the princely state of Mysore were marred by his internment during the World Wars because of his German provenance that remains a malevolent footnote in the last 63 years of his life. After he retired in 1932, he continued to live in Bengaluru until his death in 1956.

The first Indian to be appointed as Superintendent of the Government Gardens in the Mysore State was H.C. Javaraya, who “continued the landscaping of Lalbagh” and “added an east wing” to the Glass House, “which made the structure aesthetically more attractive from all directions”. Apart from this, he also made other contributions to structures at Lalbagh. After his retirement, he was employed by the Nawab of Bhopal in whose princely state he was responsible for the development of parks and royal gardens.

Post-independent India

In 1951, M.H. Marigowda became the Superintendent of Government Gardens. Like his five predecessors, he had also trained at Kew Gardens. As Thiruvady writes in Lalbagh: “Marigowda made it his mission to address the needs of the people of Karnataka and of horticulturists through the Departments of Horticulture and Agriculture; horticulture was to be no longer Lalbagh centric…. Knowledge accumulated and concentrated in Lalbagh for over a century has to be dispersed to every single district and taluk in Karnataka.” By the time he retired in 1974, Marigowda had set up “over 400 farms and associated nurseries, when there were only four such farms when he started out”. Marigowda’s efforts at spreading horticultural knowledge throughout the State did not mean that he ignored Lalbagh. It was during his tenure that the premier garden was expanded from 120 acres to 240 acres, its present extent. Several national and international personages visited Lalbagh during Marigowda’s time, and the book has a memorable picture of him with Queen Elizabeth II in 1961.

Taking a break from the more than three-hour walk, Thiruvady sat down on a bench thoughtfully placed in front of a pink poui tree (a Tabebuia species) that was at the peak of its splendour. This tree sheds all its leaves in spring, and for around 10 days, its flowers blossom in a glorious outburst that make it look like delectable cotton candy from afar. The sweet sounds of barbettes hovering in the nearby trees echoed around Thiruvady. As he took a well-deserved gulp of water, the chronicler of Lalbagh said: “Look at this beautiful world of nature that surrounds us. I can sit here for the whole day right in front of this Tabebuia.” Asked about his vision for the future of Lalbagh, Thiruvady said: “Lalbagh must necessarily draw on its strengths as a botanical garden while preserving its essence as a layered heritage garden.” Thiruvady’s implication was clear: for Lalbagh to remain botanically significant, its administrators should focus on its core identity as a repository of diverse plant species from around the world rather than move in the direction of other public parks with food courts, children’s play areas and synthetic additions.