Garden with a glorious past

HERITAGE HUES

A few kilometres away, on the west bank of River Hooghly, lies the 200-year-old garden which was not only instrumental in introducing tea to India, but also gave India products like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, cocoa, coffee, jute and varieties of hemp and flax.

Yes, we are talking about the famous Indian Botanic Garden in Shibpur, Howrah, which was renamed as Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Botanic Garden on June 25, 2009. British scientist Joseph Dalton Hooker once said about this Botanic Garden, “Amongst its greatest triumphs may be considered the introduction of the tea plant from China… which led to the establishment of tea trade in the Himalayas and Assam. This is almost entirely the work of the superintendents of the gardens of Calcutta and Seharunpore.”

It all happened in 1786, when Colonel Robert Kyd, an army officer with the East India Company, was permitted by the authorities to develop a garden with a nursery of exotic spices brought from South East Asia and other parts of the world. Thus, on the bank of River Hooghly, about 313 acres of land was transformed into the Botanic Garden. Though Colonel Robert Kyd had a passion for trees, he was not a botanist.

Hence, his initial venture to plant rare species failed. Most plants didn’t survive, but the seeds of his will power were sown deep inside the soil washed by the sibilant river and today the garden stands proudly flaunting its one-and-a-half lakh specimens of plants.

Kyd’s appeal to the highest authorities of the British Government was timely. The famous Royal Botanic Garden was established in 1759 at Kew near Richmond, England. So the permission for the setting up of a similar garden in Calcutta was granted by the royal authorities without much hassle. In 1973, William Roxburgh, an established botanist, took charge of the garden. Being a professional and the first full-time paid superintendent of the garden, he understood that he couldn’t preserve all the species because of the sultry weather of Gangetic  Bengal. So, he established a huge herbarium to preserve the seeds or parts of plants. With Rexburgh’s appointment, the garden got a new lease of life. Under him worked another enterprising man, Christopher Smith, who was sent by Roxburgh to South East Asia to collect seeds of nutmeg and clove. Following his request, the Court of Directors of Royal Botanic Garden at Kew Garden sent seeds of mahogany plant that they acquired from the West Indies. But, Roxburgh will be remembered for his success with the Indian substitute of hemp and flax. Though jute was used for ages in India, it was extensively reproduced and propagated under the guidance of Roxburgh. This was followed by teak.

 In 1823, Major Robert Bruce sent some samples of tea for preservation and reproduction to the garden from the Singpho kings of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh as earlier efforts with the Chinese variety was repeatedly found unsuccessful. By the turn of the century, Assam became the largest tea producing state in the world under the ownership of the East India Company.

After Roxburgh, who is arguably considered the father of Indian botany, Francis Buchanan became its superintendent and his efforts enriched the herbarium. He was followed by Danish surgeon Nathaniel Wallich,  Huge Falconer, Thomas Thomson, Thomas Anderson, C B Clark , Capt George King… And the long list of superintendents goes on. Each of these superintendents made their own contribution to the garden. In 1950, during the tenure of Kalipada Das, the garden was renamed as the Indian Botanic Garden (IBG).

It was during the tenure of Thomas Anderson that Cinchona plant, from which quinine is made, came to India. He handed its first seeds to his able curator, Sir W J Hooker, in 1861. Later, he started the experimental trial of its cultivation at Darjeeling and also established the hills of Mongpo as a place for commercial cultivation in 1864. Wallich donated 40 acres of land to Bishop Middleton who established the famous Bengal Engineering College at Shibpur.

The story of IBG will be incomplete without the mention of the 250-year-old ‘Great Banyan Tree’. It was there much before the garden started officially in 1786. Today, it stands tall at 14428.44 sq metres and the circumference of the crown is more than one kilometre with its highest branch reaching 25 metres. The main trunk was removed in 1925, as it got decayed. With roughly 2,880 aerial roots, it looks like a mini forest from a distance.

Another captivating sight worth mentioning is the floating ‘water lily’ which came to the garden from Amazon River via Kew Garden in 1873. It looks like a giant plate of 1.5 metre diameter. The leaves have a water-resistant oily film and contain numerous micro tubes with air spaces to keep it afloat. These float in some of the 24 lakes inside the garden. The orchid house has a good collection of exotic orchids. The garden has 140 types of bougainvillea, giant bamboo Dendrocalamus giganteus from South East Asia and Madagascar, world famous Amherstia Nobilis or trees of heaven from Burma, Brownea coccinea or mountain rose from Venezuela, multi-branched palm Hyphaene thebaica from Nile Valley, Egypt, the biggest fruit producing plant Lodoicea Maldivica from Maldives, and thousands of other exotic plants.

But this paradisiacal garden has lost its sheen due to administrative lacunae. Theft, illegal tree felling and sale, intrusion of local political toughs for all the wrong
reasons and littering have been reported in the recent past. However, timely intervention of the High Court which acted upon a PIL submitted by Subhas Datta,
a green lawyer and activist, brought some order. Even then, a lot needs to be done to preserve this beautiful heritage site to posterity.

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