Text by Gita Aravamudan | Photographs by Pradeep KS
Bengaluru has worn her Holi colours. As spring sets in, the famous flowering trees of this city have burst into full bloom. Purple Jacaranda trees are flanked by delicate pink Cassias and robust pink Tabebuias. In the older localities, the Rain Trees have put out their feathery pale pink flowers. Clusters of brilliant yellow Tabebuias, bright orange Flame of the Forest, red and white fragrant Frangipani, tall, mysterious-looking Nagalinga trees with strange scented flowers growing out of their trunks — they are all abloom.
[Lalbagh: Purple Jacaranda from Jamaica and yellow Copper Pod (peltophorum pterecarpum) native to South East Asia]
Where did all these trees come from? And when? Who planted them? And why? How long will they continue to stand here, giving this Garden City its unique identity? How long before mammoth over-bridges and soulless concrete structures planned by unthinking governments swallow them? These are questions which worry Bengalureans, as they watch the custodians of the city make rash and shocking announcements about steel bridges and enormous flyovers, which will loop over the city and take away half the green canopy in the process.
Bengaluru has always been a city of gardens. The salubrious climate and fertile soil have ensured that plants from all over the world grow here.
Over the centuries, the rulers of Bengaluru have nurtured its greenery. Kempegowda, the founder of this city, is supposed to have exhorted his followers to build tanks and plant trees. There are no records to show when the first alien tree was planted here, but old literary works do mention “udyana vanas” or pleasure gardens and “pushpa vatikas” or temple gardens with unique trees.
[Lalbagh Lake: Purple Bougainvillea from South America and red Gulmohur Delonix Regia from Madagascar]
In 1760, Hyder Ali, the father of Tipu Sultan, built Lalbagh around an existing fruit orchard nestled beside a stone hill. This was perhaps the first planned garden in this city. He envisioned Lalbagh as a Mughal garden on the lines of the ones he had seen during his travels. He imported plants from Delhi, Arcot, Multan and Lahore. The gardens were tended by Thilagars, a Tamil speaking tribe with green fingers.
[Lalbagh Gardens, Artificial Niagara: Plumeria]
Tipu Sultan added 30 acres to the 40 established by his father. His vision was even bigger: He got seeds and exotic plants from Kabul and Persia, even from faraway lands like the Cape of Good Hope and Mauritius. Two old mango trees said to be planted by Tipu still stand in the garden.
[Lalbagh: Pink and white plumeria]
After the defeat of Tipu, Lalbagh became the property of the British and they expanded it a few more times.
Today, it covers about 250 acres and has a mind-boggling variety of plants.
The nature of the garden too changed depending on the superintendent in charge. In 1864, for example, according to the records in Lalbagh, 150 varieties of flowering trees were brought in from the Kew Gardens.
Today, Lalbagh has cypress trees from Java and Mexico, Rosewood from Bolivia, pines from Australia, exotic trees like the Cannon Ball and the Calabash from Jamaica. There are beautiful flowering trees like the Yellow Ashoka, the tall towering Indian cork tree or Aakash Malli with its fragrant white flowers, and the Kamala or red Kukum tree, which comes from the Phillipines.
[Lalbagh: Oleander from South West Asia]
Gustav Krumbiegel, after whom the road beside Lalbagh is named, was in charge of the garden for several decades from 1908. Krumbiegel, who was born in Dresden, was a dynamic man — an architect, a horticulturist and a landscape artist. Before settling down in Bengaluru, he had worked in other parts of the world. Like his predecessor John Cameron, he was an economic botanist, which meant he was actively involved in trading plants and seeds from across the world.
[Malleswaram: Aerial view of Malleswaram, one of the older colonies which still has a green canopy]
Exotic plants from Africa, Burma, Australia, Singapore, Russia and America found their way to Bengaluru. In return, he sent them Indian bamboo, rice and varieties of mango trees. Krumbiegel also meticulously planned the avenue trees which line the Bengaluru streets even today.
After Krumbiegel passed away in 1956, Lalbagh continued to flourish under other dedicated superintendents. Cubbon Park, the other green lung located in central Bengaluru, was laid out 100 years after Lalbagh. This is a public park, with no boundary walls. It has tarred roads crisscrossing through it and a couple of public buildings located within its boundaries.
[Cubbon Park, Maharaja Jayachamaraja Wodeyar statue: Jacaranda]
Here the big trees and bamboo clumps planted over a century ago continue to grow and provide shade to the park users. There have been some landscaping touches here and there. For instance, the area around the public library is always dotted with flowering trees and rose bushes.
[Public library, Cubbon Park: Plumeria of different colours]
While these two parks were properly maintained, the same could not be said of other parts of Bengaluru.
Orchards were razed to the ground to make way for new housing colonies. Hospitals and stadiums sprang up, taking the place of filled-in tank beds. Kempegowda’s words were totally forgotten.
In 1982, when Gundu Rao took over as chief minister of Karnataka, he wanted to celebrate Vanamahotsav by reviving Bengaluru’s greenery. He called a meeting of the Bangalore Development Authority and the Corporation officials and asked them how many trees could be planted in the city. They said no more than 5000. But the chief minister was not satisfied. He had grander plans.
[Mathikere: Red African Tulip Tree (Spathodea Campanulata, also known as pichikari) from the Gold Coast of Africa]
He consulted the chief conservator of forests, who said trees could be planted in lakhs but that it would need a proper budget and staff. A Green Belt division was created and SG Neginhal, a dynamic forest officer, was put in charge.
Neginhal and his team went about tree planting in a very systematic way. They inspected all the existing avenues and identified areas which needed trees. Most of the old avenues had lost many of their original trees. Neginhal realised the number of saplings he needed far exceeded what was available in the nurseries. He then urgently arranged for saplings to be brought in.
Tree planting became a kind of mass movement. Everyone was roped in: school children, film actors, professional groups, senior citizens, local residents, politicians.
Neginhal and his team would go to an area and talk to the people. He would ask the residents about what colour of flowering trees they would like. “They would say yellow or purple or red or mixed colours,” Neginhal, who is now 88, recalled, “We would give them their colours.”
In the busy Majestic where life came to a standstill for only four hours between midnight and 4 am, he would take a couple of lorries carrying planting equipment, workmen and tall young saplings, and complete the job at top speed. Today, those trees still stand.
[Milk Colony playground with yellow Copper Pod tree in full bloom]
Neginhal looked into details. He knew that the tree saplings were in danger of being eaten by stray cattle. So he made sure that the young trees were taller than the standard cow! He always carried a tape with him to ensure the saplings were more than six feet tall. He also replaced the concrete tree guards, which cost Rs 700 apiece, with simple wooden and chicken mesh ones, which cost just Rs 25.
[Sadhashivnagar: Nagasampige (cannon ball tree - Couroupita Guianensis) from French Guiana]
Neginhal’s team had a special planting technique: They pruned the saplings and fed them extra nutrients before planting. The 8-feet tall saplings of Bengaluru became popular with landscape artistes from across the country. Neem saplings picked up from the city have grown into tall trees now in Indira Gandhi’s samadhi.
When politicians promise four new saplings for every tree chopped, the people are skeptical. And rightly so.
These are times when things have to be done speedily. These are also times when political considerations, pressures from contractors’ lobbies and money for the coffers are the forces that drive political representatives, not concern for the environment. In such a scenario, can the town planners of today ever hope to replicate that level of thought and involvement which went into building the parks and avenues which give Bengaluru its special identity?
[Vidhana Soudha: Purple Jacaranda and white Plumeria (also known as temple tree or frangipani) from the Caribbean]
[Cubbon Park: Yellow Caesalpinea (common tropical woody shrub)]
[Rajajinagar auto stand: Deep Purple Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroema) native to India]
[Park in Mahalakshmi layout: Plumeria and small flowering shrubs]
[Nagpura: Plumeria and Copper Pod trees with a bed of flowering canna plants in the foreground]