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Rani Bagh, lost in transition

Ever noticed the two giant baobab trees that greet you as you walk through the Italianate triple-arched gateway at the entrance of Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan and Zoo (often referred to as Rani Bagh or Byculla Zoo)? Botanist Marselin R Almeida, who completed a floral survey of Rani Bagh in October 2010, believes one of them is as old as 500 years.


The Japanese Garden (named so because of its landscaping style) is one of the 100 other gardens within Rani Bagh. Pic Courtesy/Shubhada Nikharge

Rani Bagh, home to 3,213 trees of 286 different species and 853 plant species, was set up as a botanical garden in 1862. “Designed with London’s Kew Gardens in mind, the Rani Bagh, then known as the Victoria Gardens, allowed enthusiasts to study a wide range of native and exotic trees,” says Katie Bagli, trustee of the Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Action Committee (SRBBGAC), as she shows us around the gardens.

In November 2012, Rani Bagh turned 150 years old but it is no longer recognised as the botanical garden it was first envisioned as. “It is officially referred to as a ‘public’ garden and zoo by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) now,” complains Shubhada Nikharge, co-editor Rani Bagh: 150 Years and a trustee of the committee.


Katie Bagli and Shubhada Nikharge  flip through their book Rani Bagh: 150 Years. Pic/Neha Parekh

Good ol’ days
In 1835, the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of Western India decided to set up a botanical garden so their studies could acquire a more “practical, defined and popular character than [it] had hitherto enjoyed,” as city historian Dr Mariam Dossal writes in Rani Bagh: 150 Years. The park, initially located at Sewri, was also meant to serve as a recreational zone for the city’s inhabitants.

“Impressive monuments like the Victoria and Albert (now Bhau Daji Lad) Museum, the clock tower and the triumphal arch, added to the stature of the Gardens,” write co-editors Nikharge and Hutokshi Rustomfram in the book. “Parties, which went on until the wee hours of the night, were also held in the park,” Nikharge, who sifted through newspaper archives and several government records during her research, tells usduring our walk.


An aerial view of Rani Bagh. Pic Courtesy/Jehangir Sorabjee

Lady Catherine Frere inaugurated the Victoria Gardens on November 19, 1862, the very day the foundation stone for the museum was laid by her husband Sir Bartle Frere, Governor of Bombay. It wasn’t until 1890 that about 15 acres were added to the existing park to accommodate animals and incorporate a zoo, the book states.

Saving Rani Bagh
Today, Rani Bagh is spread over 53 acres, and has approximately 100 smaller gardens within. Schoolchildren and families still come here in droves — but, no doubt, the unfortunate star attraction are the caged animals. SRBBGAC was formed in 2007, when the MCGM announced its plan to revamp Rani Bagh to turn it into a hi-tech international zoo.

“Their plan involved a lot of excavation and construction. It would mean uprooting centuries-old trees,” says Nikharge. Fellow volunteers at BNHS, Hutoxi Arethna and Dr Sheila Tanna, joined hands with Nikharge, Rustomfram and Bagli, to set up the committee to fight for the botanical garden.

Although the initial revamp plan has been scrapped giving way to a more sensitive one, their fight to save the botanical gardens isn’t over. “We want them to label and provide information about the trees,” says Nikharge. “After much perseverance, we finally got them to number the trees. It would be great if they set up tree appreciation walks, a nature interpretation centre and organise activities encouraging the conservation of nature,” adds Bagli, who had tried very hard to get a special commemoration stamp made to celebrate 150 years of Rani Bagh last year. “Unfortunately, the MCGM didn’t send out the proposal in time,” she rues.

Don’t miss these trees
Trustees of Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Action Committee Shubhada Nikharge, who comes armed with her precious Nikon camera, and Katie Bagli, whose next children’s book is going to be on plants, point out to their favourite trees in Rani Bagh

Cajuput
Poke your finger into the bark and you’ll be surprised to see how soft it is

Krishna’s Buttercup Legend has it that Lord Krishna used the leaves of this mutant banyan tree to scoop out butter

Sundari Tree Maharashtra has only one of these mangrove trees and it is in Rani Bagh

Ghost Tree
This tree is named so because its fluorescent white bark looks ghostly in the dark

Baobab
Found at the entry of gardens, one of the two baobabs is believed to be 500 years old 

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