Rani Bagh, Mumbai

Queen of gardens

Print edition : July 26, 2013

Internal gardens within Rani Bagh. The garden has survived because of the work of an all-woman group of activists. Photo: Vivek Bendre

The entrance to the garden, made of Porbandar stone in 1868. Photo: Shubhada Nikharge

The cup-shaped leaves of Krishna Buttercup, a banyan variety that can be propagated only through cuttings and not the seed. Photo: Shubhada Nikharge

The book tells the story of a 150-year-old garden in land-starved Mumbai through a smorgasbord of essays and attractive photographs.

THIS book is many things. It is a record of a triumph—of the survival through the decades of 53 acres (21.2 hectares) of green space in the heart of the city, space that has been greedily eyed for “development” on the land-starved island city of Mumbai. It is a record of the victory of a small group of public-minded women who battled the establishment. And, of course, it is a celebration, not only of those who had the foresight to create a botanical garden 150 years ago but also of those who have ensured the tradition continues.

Rani Bagh records the 150 years of the garden from when it was christened Victoria Gardens to its current, cumbersome name of Veermata Jijabai Bhonsale Udyan and Zoo, a name so lumbering that most prefer to call it Rani Bagh, a Hindi translation of the old name. It is not just easier on the tongue but also more evocative of the garden’s history.

The bagh, or garden, section is truly beautiful and has survived because of the work of an all-woman group of citizen activists —Hutokshi Rustomfram, Shubhada Nikharge, Katie Bagli and others. They fought a long and hard battle with the Mumbai municipal corporation, which wanted to cut into the grounds of the botanical garden to extend the zoo; a double sacrilege since it would have meant destroying trees—some of which are old and rare—and of caging yet more animals, a concept that enlightened administrations the world over have been questioning. With 3,213 trees of 286 species, a total of 853 plant species and a large variety of birds, mammals and insects, Rani Ragh is a biodiversity hotspot in the centre of the city.

The gardens are also a masterpiece of classical Renaissance planning; there are pathways constructed so that smaller internal gardens are created by axial planning.

The most delightful aspect of the book—attractively put together in terms of layout, design and photograph selection—is the smorgasbord of essays, each a gem of knowledge, from the likes of Bittu Sahgal, Vikas Dilawari and Pheroza Godrej, who are passionate about their work.

The city historian Mariam Dossal’s essay provides tidbits from the garden’s early years when it was meant to be in another part of the city and the plan included a vegetable garden to introduce new vegetables because “the vegetable market in Bombay was very deficient both as to the quality and variety of the vegetables which it supplies’.” In the mid-1800s, there was actually a surprising emphasis on the botanical garden producing vegetables and fruits and commercial plants such as cotton, spices and indigo. Clearly, in its earliest avatar, it had a strong commercial streak.

The conservation architect Vikas Dilawari looks at the classical design of the garden as well as the handful of monuments in it. Calling Rani Bagh the “first mega-project undertaken by the colonial rulers” Dilawari says, “Nowhere does one encounter a symbiosis of built and natural heritage on the scale and grandeur witnessed [here].” The most striking is the woodlath conservatory with its ingenious use of steel and wood. An iconic feature of Rani Bagh, it is “a framework of steel covered with latticed woodwork topped by a large cathedral-like dome”.

The chapter on the garden’s “incredible botanical wealth”, by the botanist Marselin Almeida, lists indigenous and exotic plants and trees, some of them rare mutants such as Krishna’s buttercup ( Ficus bengalensis var. krishnae), a “freak” variety of banyan that can only be propagated through cuttings. Using a seed “will most likely yield a regular Ficus bengalensis”.

Hutokshi Rustomfram’s and Shubhada Nikharge’s essays encapsulate their struggle to save the garden by promoting it for its botanical worth as well as its standing as an egalitarian space, a “people’s park”, an idea summed up in Bittu Sahgal’s essay. Sahgal’s essay, the first in the book, actually encapsulates the real need for spaces like Rani Bagh. He writes, “I know from experience that there is no finer way to provide [children] with a sense of well-being and oneness with the earth than to let them discover the joys on offer by nature.”

This, more than anything else, should ensure the preservation of this “queen of gardens”.

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