February 11, 2015

Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens, Bangalore

"It is after all so easy to shatter a story. To break a chain of thought. To ruin a fragment of a dream being carried around carefully like a piece of porcelain.
To let it be, to travel with it, is much the harder thing to do."
– Arundhati Roy, "The God of Small Things"

I had been attempting to write about Lal Bagh ("Red Garden") Botanical Gardens for quite a while now, but in deed somehow the thread of imagination continued to be disrupted. Of course, this particular tale too, identical to the stories of most of the monuments and heritage spaces of Bangalore, begins with the legendary Hiriya Kempe Gowda I (ruled AD 1513-69) who established the medieval city that presently is known as Bangalore/Bengaluru (the city's history though extends several centuries prior to that in the form of small villages delineated from each other by dense forests) and involves in its flow Hyder Ali (reign AD 1761-82) who had, as the Chief Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Wadiyar King Krishnaraja Wadiyar II (reign AD 1735-66), appropriated for himself the territorial and militarily resources of the state of Mysore/Karnataka and his son and successor Badshah Fath Ali Khan Tipu Sultan (reign AD 1782-99).

A lazy afternoon in Lal Bagh

Regarded as one of the most densely forested cosmopolitan cities of India, Bangalore, "The Garden City of India", once possessed unimaginably expansive forest lands filled with a wide range of flora and fauna, large plains shrouded with layers of vibrant green grass and vast landscaped gardens. In recent years, however, in its unconcealed attempts to establish itself as an ultramodern, highly advanced IT hub with an assortment of massive IT industrial zones, uberexpensive restaurants, glitzy pubs and gigantic malls and skyscrapers that often project as disgusting eyesores against the skyline, the city has sacrificed its numerous public and heritage gardens and green spaces at the altars of burgeoning urbanization and greed-fuelled commercialization. Something similar plagued Lal Bagh and reduced it from an enormous heritage garden complex situated in the heart of the city to a moderately large tourist spot frequented predominantly by tourists and the IT professionals who, lured by the city's financial prospects and employment opportunities, have come to it from different parts of the country. Unarguably of course, most of them do not understand what the garden complex had originally meant to the city's historical timeline, nor what the city has irrevocably lost to become what it is today. The celebrated gardens, boasting of over 1,800 floral species, were declared a Governmental Botanical Garden in 1856 and have since been come to be regarded as a renowned center for horticulture research, conservation and botanical artwork. It is currently under the aegis of the Govt. of Karnataka's Directorate of Horticulture. Marshal Josip Tito, the President of Yugoslavia from 1953-80, had, in 1955, famously declared –

“If India is a garden, Lalbagh is the heart of it!”

Ancient! - The Gneiss rock surmounted by Kempe Gowda's watchtower

In a corner of the immense gardens, protruding steeply into the skyline and overlooking the vast limits of the city, rests an ancient rock face christened as Peninsular Gneiss and dated to be anywhere between 2,500-3,400 million years old (that's 2,500,000,000 years! Incredible, right?!). Indisputably regarded as the oldest landmass in the Indian subcontinent, the patterned rock face is surmounted on one of its peripheries by a small, four-pillared watchtower whose simplistic pyramidal, multi-tiered spire is reminiscent of Dravidian (south Indian) temple architecture – this was one of the four watchtowers that Kempegowda commissioned in the four cardinal directions delineating the extreme limits of his dominion. The four faces of the spire each depict, surrounded by statues of seated cows, a rather effortlessly carved simplistic sculpture of a Hindu deity - Shiva (the primordial Lord of death and destruction), Krishna (a flamboyant cowherd-king-statesman-warrior-philosopher who supposedly lived over 5,000 years ago and is considered to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the God of life and nourishment), Ganesha (the elephant-headed, pot-bellied God of auspiciousness and knowledge and the younger son of Lord Shiva) and Kartikeya (the fierce, fearless young commander of the divine armies and the elder son of Lord Shiva). Presently, the tower is closely fenced in with iron grilles and a small carved stone plaque, miserably drenched with betel stains and spit, informs visitors of the tower's antiquity. Formed at high temperature-pressure conditions and composed of a complex mixture of granite rocks whose light and dark mineral constituents appear stratified into visible bands, the huge fragment of Gneiss rock projecting in the garden has been declared a National Geological Monument by the Geological Survey of India, though smaller deposits are found extensively all over southern India.

Unbelievably simplistic, given south Indian sculptural standards

Over two centuries later, after the rich territories had passed into the hands of the renowned administrator Hyder Ali, he commissioned Lal Bagh to be built as a massive private pleasure garden complex based on the Mughal "Charbagh" garden design that encompassed huge tracts of square/rectangular plots, subdivided by walkways and water channels, to be developed as verdant gardens enshrouded by lush grass and lined with rows upon rows of huge flowering, fruit-bearing and shade-imparting trees. Following Hyder's demise, Tipu Sultan carried the legacy forward and ensured that the aesthetically-designed gardens blossomed and were developed according to the original plans envisaged by Hyder. Given Hyder and Tipu's infinite interest in horticulture and natural landscaping. towering trees and flowering shrubbery was imported from different corners of the country to carpet the huge garden's numerous lawns. Presently though, the centerpiece is the majestic cross-shaped glass house that was commissioned in 1898, almost a century after Tipu Sultan's death in the Battle of Seringapatnam (1799) at the hands of wrathful British armies whom he had harassed numerous times in the past, and was built by John Cameron, the then Superintendent of Lal Bagh. Modelled after London's Crystal Palace, it is, for the past over 100 years, the site for mesmerizingly unrivaled bi-annual flower show held on Republic Day (January 26) and Independence Day (August 15) when the entire garden complex comes alive with the chatter and laughter of hundreds of thousands of visitors and the colors and texture of several hundred kinds of brilliantly multi-hued flowers dexterously arranged at the extravagant cost of several lakh rupees into the resemblance of a national monument or epic scene (more on that later).

Ornate fountains and a majestic glass house

There are two huge lakes too within the complex, one slightly but perceptibly smaller than the other, separated from each other by a narrow walkway. The wide walkways are intermittently punctuated by medieval circular towers, ornate fountains, English band stands and unusually interesting garden furniture such as petrified fossils of coniferous tree trunks over 20 million years old. While the immaculate walkways are lined with makeshift shops peddling roast corn, diced pineapples and watermelons, icecreams and cold drinks, Indian street-side snacks and colorful sweet candy, the gardens are ocassionally interspersed with large ancient looking circular edifices that might have once served as offices for the British Superintendents and gardeners who made several noteworthy contributions to the gardens' existence, beautification and horticultural collection. Another corner is dominated by a huge pedestal surmounted by an exquisite bronze sculpture of H.H. Maharaja Sri Chamarajendra Wadiyar X (reign AD 1868-94) who was a generous patron of horticulture, music and arts and under whose reign the 240-acre large gardens developed into the gigantic complex that they are today. Of course, this irregularly-shaped complex is exceedingly different from the original garden envisaged by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan which survives only as a small corner of the present complex with the rest largely been lost due to the careless interventions of the British horticulturists and agriculturists who overtook political and territorial control of the area after Tipu's death. Nearby is an enticing electric lawn-clock managed by HMT Watches where an upraised grassy circle embedded with floral divisions and surrounded by jovial statues of dwarves, deer and rabbits functions in the capacity of an interesting clock. Apart from these landmarks, its fascinating history and a charming green corner shaded from the brilliant blue sky by the foliage of majestic trees to relax at, the fine gardens have only a few cordoned-off aquariums, glass houses and rare plant collections to offer. Not a lot I admit, especially if one is not interested in the same, but an ideal spot to spend a lazy evening with friends or a loved one or kids. For me, the ancient rock face and Kempegowda's inimitable tower held the attraction.

Dominating - H.H. Maharaja Chamarajendra Wadiyar X

January 26, 2015: We revisited the gardens for the Republic Day floral show where the highlight was a large flower-encased replica of Red Fort, Delhi (refer Pixelated Memories - Red Fort, Delhi). Not unbelievably, the crowds were indescribably massive and there were scores of police men and women attempting to ensure order and coordination. Parts of the garden were cordoned off or converted into one-way walkways in order to control the crowds and direct them to and away from the Glass Palace where the spellbinding "Red Fort" had been constructed. Pathways within the Glass Palace were flanked with gleaming multi-colored flowers and foliage and interrupting the overall monotony of this kaleidoscopic colorful composition were smaller, glimmering white plasterwork statues conceived as replicas of the Statue of Liberty in United States and the blindfolded Lady with the scales representing justice. Not sure what these tried to portray, but also in attendance was a small, thin enough to be rendered nearly two-dimensional, flower-composed depiction of India Gate, Delhi (refer Pixelated Memories - India Gate, Delhi). To the chagrin of the its architect were he alive and the principles of scale and historic veracity notwithstanding, the war memorial appeared like a minor doorway leading to the Red Fort! The unbearable crowds, the continuous pushing and shoving while in slithering serpentine queues for over an hour and the overall lack of any other point of interest apart from the scene within the Glass House forced us to leave quickly afterwards. I had actually hoped for more displays, especially of potted plants and floral specimens, like we have back in Delhi, sprinkled throughout the garden complex, but alas, there were none. As far as the eye could see, there were just hundreds of people. Thankfully, at least the Red Fort was spectacularly memorable.

Flowers and a monument

Open: All days, 6 am – 7 pm.
How to reach: Lal Bagh is connected to different parts of the city via an efficient bus network. One can also avail autos and taxis.
Entrance fees: Adults: Rs 10. Free entry from 6 – 9 am and 6 – 7 pm. Free entry for school children and differently-able throughout the day.
Entrance fees for flower shows (Jan 26 and Aug 15): Adults: Rs 40 on weekdays and Rs 50 on weekends and public holidays; Children below the age of 12 years: Rs 10
Photography/Video charges: Rs 50
Time required for sightseeing: 2 hours
Other places of interest in Bangalore - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Bangalore Fort 
  2. Pixelated Memories -  Bangalore Palace
  3. Pixelated Memories - Nandi Hills & Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple
  4. Pixelated Memories - Tipu Sultan's Palace and Kote Venkataramana Temple
Suggested reading - 
  1. Deccanherald.com - Article "A jewel in Lalbagh's crown" (dated May 21, 2015) by Meera Iyer 
  2. Deccanherald.com - Article "How flowers at Lalbagh exhibition retain bloom" (dated May 21, 2015) by Tenzin Phakdon and Channu Patagundi 
  3. Karnatakahistory.blogspot.in - Lalbagh during Historical Times 

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