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Bangalore's rock-solid lung space

Last updated: 07 June, 2010

Burial ground, battleground, Hyder’s mango orchard, Tipu’s char bagh, Kew of India...call Bangalore’s crucial lung space by any name, but successive rulers have always showered attention on Lalbagh. Current administrators could consider continuing the 250-year-old tradition of planting trees in the garden, home to 1854 species, notes Meera Iyer

The rock in Lalbagh. File photo

The memorial stone in Lalbagh that dates back to the 1400s.  PHOTO BY THE AUTHOR A mango orchard, a royal garden, a botanic garden, a zoo, even a battleground. Bangalore’s Lalbagh has been through various incarnations but what has remained constant for two and a half centuries has been the care lavished upon it by successive administrators and rulers.

The earliest evidence of human activity here dates from thousands of years ago: in the early 1900s, remains of numerous prehistoric burials were discovered east of the Rock, near the place now proposed for a musical fountain. These relics, including potsherds and large urns, were characteristic of the megalithic or Iron Age period, approximately 1800 to 3000 years ago. Sadly, no traces remain of our prehistoric ancestors in Lalbagh. But evidently, Lalbagh went from burial ground to battleground. Near the northern base of the Rock is a herostone depicting a warrior accompanied by a woman.

Close to the bandstand, nestled amidst  rocks and trees, stands a second very interesting two-tiered memorial stone. The upper layer depicts Nandi and a linga while the lower layer shows a resplendent royal couple flanked by two attendants. Based on their distinctive styles of dress, hairdo and weapons, S K Aruni, Assistant Director, Indian Council for Historical Research, places both these memorials in the Vijayanagar period, with the latter dating to the 1400s or earlier. With no inscriptions to guide us, we can only wonder about the kinds of battles Lalbagh was witness to hundreds of years ago.
 When Kempegowda built his iconic tower atop the Rock less than a hundred years later, we do not know if he also set up a mango grove. But two centuries later, when looking for a suitable area for a garden, perhaps Hyder picked this spot partly for the mango orchard that we know already existed there. And so in 1760 begins the official history of Lalbagh.


Expansion of the garden

Tipu Sultan expanded the garden that his father had created. These gardens were formal, Islamic-style char-baghs, with cypress-lined walkways separating plots where an abundance of fruits, vegetables, and even cereal crops grew.

Right from those early days, Lalbagh became a repository of exotic, unusual and useful plants from around the world. Hyder brought in plants from Delhi, Multan and Lahore, Tipu from even further, including Mauritius, Turkey, Persia and parts of Africa. Several economically valuable trees were introduced including spices like clove, nutmeg and cinnamon, as well as others like the annatto, said to have been very common in the garden. With his well-known fondness for horticulture, Tipu also stocked his gardens with fruit trees including pomegranates, jackfruit, rose-apples, figs, oranges and mangoes; a few of those mango trees survive to this day.

In the battle to defend Bangalore...

Interestingly, Lalbagh even played a bit part in defending Bangalore during this period. During the 1791 siege of Bangalore, Tipu stationed some of his troops in these very gardens. Equipped with 10-12 guns, they fired on British troops attacking the fort, but their efforts proved futile, for the fort fell. Nine years later, shortly after the British defeated Tipu in Srirangapatna, Governor General Richard Wellesley commanded Benjamin Heyne, a botanist in the East India Company, to appropriate the Sultan’s garden and establish there a botanical garden, a “depository for useful plants sent from different parts of the country”.

And so the tradition of bringing plants into Lalbagh continued. Among the earliest plants we know were bought in during this period were cocoa, durian, clove, nutmeg and mangosteen from Malaysia.

Waugh’s garden

But Heyne left after a short stint and following a slightly confused sequence of events, the garden became the private property of an East India Company paymaster, Major Gilbert Waugh. From being the Sultan’s gardens, they were now referred to as Waugh’s garden! As it happens, Waugh, too, was interested in plants and experimented with growing sugarcane and coffee in Lalbagh.

Over the following decades, the garden changed hands several times. In 1818, Waugh gave it over to the Company from where it went to Mysore’s Chief Commissioner, the Agri-Horticultural Society, then back to the Commissioner until finally in 1856, the garden was reborn as the Government Botanical Garden.

The new botanical garden’s first superintendent was William New, recommended by the eminent botanist William Hooker, Director of Kew’s Royal Botanic Garden. Thus began a long tradition of Lalbagh being headed by botanists who had either trained or worked at Kew, the world’s pre-eminent centre for botanical research.The rock in Lalbagh. File photo

New joined in 1858, bringing with him cases of plants from Australia, and spent the next few years energetically setting up the paraphernalia required in a botanical garden. An old house was converted into a seed house. Nurseries and greenhouses were established which still exist today, as does the cottage he built for himself. This building today houses the Lalbagh Library.

John Cameron, affectionately called the Father of Horticulture in Karnataka, took over in 1874. During his time, Lalbagh’s area increased from 40 to almost 100 acres. He was followed by the equally illustrious Gustav Krumbiegal, HC Javaraya and MH Marigowda.

Prolific exchange of plants


All kept up a prolific exchange of plants between Lalbagh and gardens around the world. The stately Eucalypts near the tank bund and the grand Australian chestnuts were planted by New, who also brought in plants from north Africa, south Africa, Teneriffe and the Azores.

Cameron was instrumental in introducing and popularising several vegetables. Cameron introduced the chow chow, native to South America, along with other vegetables like carrots, turnips, rhubarb and so on. Gustav Krumbiegal introduced Italian olives, Araucarias from Tasmania, and even caraway from France, among others things. Javaraya established several avenues and took up extensive planting work along Lalbagh’s western boundary, besides adding some additional area to the garden along the eastern side. During Marigowda’s tenure, Lalbagh’s area increased from 120 acres to almost 240 acres.

‘Kew of India’

Then, as now, the garden was the delight of Bangaloreans, both the British stationed here and the ‘natives’. Author Edward Lear who visited Lalbagh in 1874 said he “never saw a more beautiful place” and called it the ‘Kew of India’, an epithet richly deserved. Even in Tipu’s times, the garden had held a wide variety of plants. By the time of Lalbagh’s first plant census in 1861, there were approximately 620 genera here. In 1880, when its area was almost 100 acres, there were 2020 species in Lalbagh, and just eleven years later, 3222 species.

Lalbagh today covers a little less than 240 acres, and has 673 genera and 1854 species. Perhaps in place of musical fountains and laser shows, current administrators could consider continuing the 250-year-old tradition of planting trees in Lalbagh instead.

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