A breath of fresh air

A breath of fresh air

The Pondicherry Botanical Garden is not a place where you make a dash and claim to have ‘been there, done that.’ Here’s why...

When you think of Pondicherry, the first thing that comes to mind is that it was a French Colony and that the Aurobindo Ashram is also located here. The Botanical Garden in Pondicherry is also an equally interesting place to visit.

It came into the limelight after the publication of ‘Life of Pi’, a fantasy adventure novel by Canadian novelist Yann Martel, which was published in 2001.

The protagonist, Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel, who is from Pondicherry, explores issues of spirituality and practicality from an early age. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck, stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger.

The novel is set in the summer of 1977 that draws real places and events. Some of the places mentioned in the novel are found here like the Indian Coffee House and the Botanical Garden. But the zoo in the novel is fictitious. Pondicherry does not have a zoo.

One of its kind
The Pondicherry Botanical Garden is the only one on the East Coast. Though located in the heart of the town, it is an island of peace and quiet. It contains a mix of species from all over the country, both endangered and otherwise. Over the years many new species of plants have been added.

The Botanical Garden is linked to the Royal Botanical Garden in Kolkata and the Lal Bagh in Bangalore. It houses several tree species — evergreen, semi-evergreen, tropical, dry, deciduous, ornamental, fruit-bearing, and trees of medicinal and economic value. There are tamarind, teak, mahogany, palm and cannon-ball trees. There is a separate block for ferns.

The Botanical Garden was developed by the French settlement in Pondicherry in 1826. It was started as an experimental plot to ascertain the crops that could be cultivated in the region. Gradually, trees were planted. All credit goes to CS Perrottet, who is largely responsible for transforming the place into a botanical garden in 1831. His memorial still exists on the premises, though one must add that it needs to be maintained. In 1960, after the Transfer of Power from the French, the garden became the centre of horticulture development. This 185-year-old garden covers 22 acres. You can relax, listening to the twittering of birds, or explore the rich variety of flora here.

Most trees and plants are labelled with scientific, common and Tamil names.
One of the most interesting tree specimens here is the African mahogany (Khaya Senegalensis). This is a large deciduous tree which grows to a height of 30 metres with a girth that is more than a metre! It is pollinated through insects and normally begins to bear seeds after its 20th year. Its fruits are  woody capsules with brown, winged seeds and its leaves make good fodder for cattle.

African mahogany is native to Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea and Senegal but exotic to India. The French introduced it in Pondicherry in 1826. It may be assumed that the spread of this species to the other parts of the country started from Pondicherry.

Fossil tree & topiary
In contrast to this living tree, we have a fossil tree, probably millions of years old, here too. An information panel by its side explains that fossils are impressions and remains preserved in different forms in ancient sediment. Plants that provide greenery have a fascinating history running into millions of years.

Another information panel describes the Bentham and Hooker system of plant classification. In the mid-nineteenth century, George Bentham and Joseph Dalton Hooker classified seed plants in a natural way based on the overall similarities and differences of characters. The system of classification describes and arranges 97,205 species in three volumes called ‘Genera Plantaraum’.

Animals in topiary is another attraction of this garden. Topiary is the horticultural practice of training, cutting and trimming live perennial plants or trees into ornamental shapes or in the shape of animals.

In contrast to these animals fashioned out of shrubs, there is a pair of bulls made of concrete right in the centre of the garden. A green house, a Japanese rock garden, and an aquarium are all a part of the Botanical Garden.

The Pondicherry Botanical Garden is not a place where you make a dash and claim the proverbial, ‘been there, done that’. It presents lessons in botany to be enjoyed and appreciated at leisure. More than anything else, it kindles an interest in the fascinating subject of plants and trees.