The Sultan’s Garden is buzzing with hectic activity. The rain clouds paint the morning in silver grey and the mist has left the Lotus Pond. At this early hour, the `walker’ species seem to outnumber the botanical specimens in this garden. Solo Ipod bearing walkers, arm flinging `clappers’, talkative `battalions’ ambling along in groups and elderly sari clad ladies in oversized sports shoes all converge on flower fringed pathways. The others clear their throats noisily, stand on their heads, do push ups on railings, skip on pathways and lie on benches counting clouds.
I breathe deeply, inhale fresh air and wonder what Haider Ali would make of it.
Somewhere between 1740- 1760 and many wars spent defending Mysore territory, Haider Ali, followed by his son Tipu Sultan laid out their Rose & Cypress Garden. It was designed in the style of a traditional Mughal Garden whose aesthetics were a representation of Paradise on earth. The rectilinear Char Bagh layout (four gardens) with four intersecting water courses or pathways and a central pool embodied an even older concept in the Book of Genesis ( Genesis 2:10-14 : “Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads).
The Mughal Gardens also contained rich symbolism and Quranic references to Paradise along with delicate pavilions, running water, (plenty), still pools to reflect ( on ) the beauty of sky and garden, individual areas for medicinal plants, fruit ( renewal ) and shady ( comfort for the soul) trees, colorful and fragrant flowers, grass and singing birds. Almost all had rows of dark Cypress ( evergreen) trees which were symbols of eternity. The rudimentary Char Bagh layout still exists in several older parks in Bangalore today.
Both Haider Ali and Tipu imported exotic plants, seeds and saplings from far away Africa, Turkey, Persia, and Afganistan and might have also received botanical gifts from visiting dignitaries. Following Tipu’s death in 1799, the East India Company took over and subsequently Governor General, Richard Wellesley commanded surgeon- naturalist Dr. Benjamin Heyne ( also a Tranquebar Botanist ) to oversee them. Initially, the Gardens provided food for the regimental messes and demonstrated to the `natives’ how `English vegetables’ such as potatoes, cabbage and turnips could be cultivated. Under Heyne, they were transformed into a European style and also began to serve as a botanical garden.
After Heyne, the Garden passed onto a Major Gilbert Waugh and then a succession of dedicated Horticultural Superintendants ( many of whom were Kew men) and eminent Bangaloreans including William New, John Cameron, GH Krumbiegel, Rao Bahadur HC Javaraya and Dr MH Marigowda contributed uniquely to build Lalbagh into an international centre housing the sub-continent’s largest collection of rare plants (over 1854 species). Their influence extended beyond the Lalbagh walls. GH Krumbiegel introduced `serial planting’ to Bangalore, ensuring that it bloomed riotously all year through. Considering the effort that once went into beautifying the city, watching the casual destruction of its natural heritage now is unbearable.
By the time a visiting Edward Lear called Lalbagh the `Kew of India’ in 1874, it had already acquired a new owner ( The Maharajah of Mysore ) and a new name -Lalbagh. But the morning walkers seem oblivious to this fascinating history and the ethereal beauty of the Glass House.
Inspired by Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, ( 1851 ) which housed `The Great Exhibition’ in London, the Glass House (1889) was built under the aegis of Superintendant John Cameron, to commemorate the visit of the Prince of Wales. It arrived in a kit from England and was assembled here but the east wing was added by Maharajah Krishnaraja Wodeyar around 1935. It reminds me of a dragonfly’s wing, gossamer thin skin stretched over delicate framework.
I have come here many times before, but never made it to all that Lalbagh had to show me. So this time, I walk beyond the Glass House to the Bandstand (1858) , a cheery little structure completed by the first Superintendant, Mr.William New. The military bands and orchestra that once played here on weekends are silent now. All you can hear are the grunts of yoga practitioners and the sounds of deep breathing.
Sculptural Baobab trees, a breathtaking Elephant Apple tree, fragrant Frangipani and an ancient Mango tree from Tipu’s time distract me. I wonder if I look silly, standing there, staring wide eyed. But the only person in sight is HH, Chamarajendra Wodeyar, Maharaja of Mysore (1881 -1894) who came in from Curzon Park, Mysore in 1908.He now spends solitary evenings in the Statue Garden near the Lawn Clock with incongruous new companions – Snow White and the seven dwarfs.
The temperature drops as I reach the Lotus Pond where a group of people huddle around a petrified little green chameleon. It is `gheraod’, photographed and then proded along with sticks towards a tree. By the calm, grey waters of the Lalbagh Tank, a raucous crowd throw food to the fish and ducks to entertain restless children. The water near the bridge gets dirty. As we `progress’, this increasing insensitivity to beauty, nature and living beings around us worries me.
But the Dovecote (1893) soothes my soul. As does the lady engulfed by stray dogs anxious to get into her bag of bread. This pigeon house was built for pigeons to have free access to the skies and food in a `cage-less’ environment. Somehow, looking at it makes me happy.
Speaking of sensitivity, there’s a nice anecdote about the pretty Lalbagh West Gate Guard Room and how Sri Rao Bahadur HC Javaraya conspired with Diwan Sir Mirza Ismail to save it from demolition.They shifted it from Race Course Road to Lalbagh where it was dismantled and re-built stone by stone. ! It’s a small story that says a lot.
Personally, I prefer the solitude of Cubbon Park. But Lalbagh has history written in its ribbed leaves and gnarled trunks. You also get to walk with benevolent spirits – Haider Ali, Tipu and the Superintendants, through a green space we can still retreat to in this garden city turned concrete jungle. A city where nature has left our front yard.
I head back to the East Gate facing Double Road, (there are four gates in total ) to see the Lalbagh Rock, a magnificent mass of Peninsular Gneiss that is one of the oldest rock formations in the world.It is over 3000 million years old. I touch it, palms outstretched and ancient energy seeps into me. Only then do I walk up to Kempegowda’s (II) tower where sentries once sat watch over the city.
The rock was recently threatened by official `improvement’ so enjoy it like this while you can. Staring at the horizon broken by a multi-storied skyline, I cannot help but wonder what all my garden loving ghosts of Lalbagh past would think about Bangalore as it is today. One thing is for sure. They wouldn’t even recognise it.
To do :
Take a botanical Bangalore Walk around Lalbagh.
Buy plants at the Horticultural Nursery.
Visit the Lalbagh Museum to admire beautiful old botanical prints.
Walk over to MTR for breakfast and order a hot cup of filter coffee.