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Rani Bagh at 160: Celebrating the heritage garden of Mumbai

Print edition : Sep 13, 2022 T+T-

Rani Bagh at 160: Celebrating the heritage garden of Mumbai

The ladies of the Save Rani Bagh Foundation. From left: Sheila Tanna, Shubhada Nikharge, Hutokshi Rustomfram, Katie Bagli and Hutoxi Arethna.

The ladies of the Save Rani Bagh Foundation. From left: Sheila Tanna, Shubhada Nikharge, Hutokshi Rustomfram, Katie Bagli and Hutoxi Arethna.

Five extraordinary women stopped it from falling victim to slipshod renovation plans.

Right in the heart of Mumbai’s old Byculla district, there are 60 acres of calmness, shielded from the noise, heat, and concrete of the city. This is Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan And Zoo, commonly known as Rani Bagh, which is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year. The botanical garden-cum-zoo serves as vital urban lungs that pump precious oxygen into the polluted skies of Mumbai.

In a city where open spaces are at a premium, this botanical garden with 4,213 trees belonging to 256 species is the most-visited park: it records a footfall of 8,000 every day on an average. On holidays, this rises to 40,000. Rani Bagh was the first grand public project undertaken by the British government after it took over the control of India from the East India Company, and the Palladian architecture of its monuments is one of its kind in Mumbai. However, this fine example of natural and built heritage would not have survived for more than a century and a half if it had not been for the efforts of five extraordinary women.

Amherst nobilis (or Pride of Burma) in Rani Bagh
Amherst nobilis (or Pride of Burma) in Rani Bagh

In 2007, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) announced plans for a makeover of the zoo that would match international standards. The very word “makeover” filled regular walkers with dread since it implied the felling of old trees and ugly concretisation. To prevent this, five women—Hutokshi Rustomfram, Shubhada Nikharge, Sheila Tanna, Hutoxi Arethna, and Katie Bagli—regulars at the garden, came together to form the Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Committee. Their aim was to make sure that the expansion and renovation of the zoo did not spoil the garden and its heritage value.

Highlights
  • Byculla’s Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan And Zoo, commonly known as Rani Bagh, is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year
  •  This botanical garden, with 4,213 trees belonging to 256 species, is the most-visited park
  •  Rani Bagh was the first grand public project undertaken by the British government after it took over the control of India from the East India Company
  • In 2007, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) announced plans for a makeover of the zoo
  • The Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Committee was formed to make sure that the renovation doesn’t destroy the garden
  • Rani Bagh is also a wonder of built heritage

The zoo expansion plan was expectedly a mess: there were to be Australian, African, South-East Asian, and Indian zones; an aquarium, restaurants, night safari, and even an artificial Indian Ocean. All this in a space in which 63 per cent was the garden and only 18 per cent was the zoo. The proposed layout planned to demolish all the old pathways, waterbodies, and animal enclosures and create new ones in their place. The digging and construction work threatened to destroy the network of old roots underground. And once completed, the park would have had an entry fee, which would turn it from an egalitarian to an elitist space.

Hugging trees

The Cajuput tree is 122 years old. The bark of is so soft that a finger pressed to it leaves an impression.
The Cajuput tree is 122 years old. The bark of is so soft that a finger pressed to it leaves an impression. | Photo Credit: srinivasan v

With a Rs.433-crore budget backing the makeover plan, the women soon realised the enormity of the task they had undertaken. As a first step, they established their committee as a foundation, of which they all became trustees. Hutokshi Rustomfram sums up the years of effort they have put in when she says: “We have put our case before the BMC, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the Central Zoo Authority, the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee (MHCC) and knocked on the doors of the Bombay High Court. Responding to our protests, the MHCC rejected successive plans for zoo renovation in 2011 and 2014. Our twin stance that animal enclosures should be renovated at the footprint of existing animal enclosures and no tree should be harmed in the renovation process stood vindicated in March 2016 when the Municipal Commissioner directed that the redevelopment plan be modified to satisfy the Foundation’s concerns. Since then, we have closely monitored the redevelopment work to ensure that the renovation does not harm the trees or the garden in any way.”

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They knew well not to drop their guard even when the MHCC issued the directive in their favour. Wary of interference, the trustees decided that the only way to guarantee the preservation of the green space was to have it formally designated as a botanical garden. The 2014-2034 Development Plan has accepted the proposal but is yet to notify it.

Astounding flora

The garden’s botanical wealth is astounding, with rare trees like  Amherst nobilis (or Pride of Burma), Adansonia digitata (or Baobab),  Colvillea racemosa (or Colville’s Glory),  Ficus benghalensis variety  krishnae (or Krishna’s butter cup) , Castanospermum australe and  Strophanthus boivinii—the last two are the only one of their kind in the city. Among the many indigenous species, there is the Sundari, or  Heritiera littoralis, with its crisscrossing root system. A native of the Sunderbans, the Sundari at Rani Bagh is to be found nowhere else in Maharashtra. There is no record of the year when it was planted, but botanists judge it to be more than a century old on the basis of its massive girth. It is also called the Looking Glass Mangrove because of the silvery underside of the leaves.

An aerial view of Rani Bagh. 
An aerial view of Rani Bagh.  | Photo Credit: srinivasan v

One of the star attractions of the garden is the “freak” Krishna fig: its cup-shaped leaves are associated with the child Krishna, who is believed to have scooped out butter with these leaves. The botanist Marselin Almeida writes: “The tree can only be propagated from cuttings as the seed would most likely yield a  Ficus bengalensis and not a Krishna’s butter cup.” And so the Rani Bagh ficus is considered a freak of nature.

“One of the star attractions of the garden is the “freak” Krishna fig: its leaves are associated with the child Krishna.”

Then there is the  Litsea fernadesii, or Mumbai Sugran, which is endemic just to Mumbai island; it cannot be found even in the Borivali national park, which is part of the city’s municipal limits. Moreover, the Rani Bagh Sugran is the sole surviving member of its species. Almeida has suggested that the Sugran be planted elsewhere in the garden so that it continues to live.

Other wonders

Rani Bagh is also a wonder of built heritage. The conservation architect Vikas Dilawari enumerates its features thus: “An imposing clock tower, a stately museum, an exquisite triple-arch screen, an outstanding plant conservatory, a quaint cupola, historical statues, a few old-world drinking fountains, and a bandstand. Imposing gates and a decorative cast-iron railing add the finishing touches.” The overall plan is one of symmetry, with little grottos, gazebos, fountains, small terraces, stairways, bridges, and artificial waterbodies.

Ficus benghalensis variety krishnae, or Krishna’s butter cup.
Ficus benghalensis variety krishnae, or Krishna’s butter cup. | Photo Credit: srinivasan v

One of the most remarkable features of Rani Bagh is the seamless manner in which the zoo and the botanical gardens blend with each other, with no geographical demarcation between the two. The garden is laid out in the Renaissance style, with pathways based on a radial axial plan crisscrossing intricately, creating internal gardens. The radial axial plan works as a decongestion device. The new zoo plan had proposed to replace it with a single pathway, which could have led to stampedes during holidays when the crowds swell.

The 67-foot-high Italianate Sassoon clock tower in Rani Bagh is adorned with Minton tiles and dressings of terracotta from Lincolnshire.
The 67-foot-high Italianate Sassoon clock tower in Rani Bagh is adorned with Minton tiles and dressings of terracotta from Lincolnshire. | Photo Credit: srinivasan v

Rani Bagh was born in 1842, 12 years after the establishment of the Agri-Horticultural Society of Western India. It was initially located in Sewri, another eastern suburb in central Mumbai, but the British government wanted that plot for a cemetery and offered the society in charge of the gardens 33 acres in Byculla. The plants were shifted to the new space, which was christened Victoria Gardens on November 19, 1862.

Shubhada Nikharge says: “The Society spent its own funds to lay out the botanical garden; the monuments were financed through public subscription and donations from merchant princes. Fifteen acres were added in 1890 to establish a small zoo segment, to add to the pageantry of nature there, as it were. Concomitantly, the world economic recession led to the bankruptcy of the Society, which ceased to exist, and the Bombay Municipality took over Victoria Gardens.

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Ever since, the larger botanical garden and small zoo segment have co-existed on the original plot of 48 acres. Additional adjacent plots were acquired after the 1990s, bringing the total area to 60 acres. In 1969 Victoria Gardens was rechristened Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan and it was only in 1980 that the term ‘zoo’ was officially added to its name. In recognition of the importance of green heritage, Rani Bagh was accorded a Grade II-B heritage status.”

The Bright flowers of Colvillea racemosa, or Colville’s Glory. 
The Bright flowers of Colvillea racemosa, or Colville’s Glory.  | Photo Credit: srinivasan v

As its 160th anniversary year draws to a close, there are hopes that it will be officially known as Veermata Jijabai Bhonsale Vanaspati Udyan va Pranisangrahalaya (V.J.B. Botanical Garden and Zoo). The trustees emphasise that having proved its ecological and egalitarian credentials in full measure over 160 years, the least it deserves is the honour of being called a botanical garden.