Bengalaru, nestled in the Deccan Plateau in the center of southern India, is known as the Garden City. On Sunday morning, I set aside the work that brings me here, set aside the old name of Bangalore and the new moniker of Garbage City (this IT capital doubled in size in the last ten years, to 8+ million, but never quite got a sanitation system in place. And don’t get me started on the traffic…). Instead, let’s just revel together in the presence of Vijay Thiruvady, who led a group of us on a tour of the Lal Bagh Garden as part of Bangalore Walks. History! Culture! Discovery! Gorgeous, oxygen-producing greenery. I drank and drank of it.
But before the plants, first, the rocks. I’ve been trying to get a good story on the massive rock structures that emerge from the earth all over South India. The ones that have transfixed me since I held up Krishna’s Butterball, delighted and terrified, for a photo when I was ten. I was scribbling notes, but not sure if any of this is wholly accurate, so please send me corrections as you see them. You’ll get the gist. The rock is dubbed the Peninsular Gneiss Geological Monument, the largest exposed specimen of the metamorphic complex that spans the south, and dates back a cool 2.5 – 3.4 billion years. Yes, that’s billion. Smaller versions rise like Devil’s Tower amid the rice paddies across Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
The rock is a fine place to do calisthenics or carve convenient steps into.
Men played badmitton and stood poised before elaborate stone gates. Others walked briskly, loudly clapping their hands.
Vijay told us stories as he led us from plant to plant, tree to tree, in the garden. A semi-stray dog was our spirit guide. Vijay told stories of the juniper trees to make gin for the quinine tonic that kept malaria at bay. Of mapmakers and archivists, of British invasions and geologic surveys and the paintings at Ajantha and the way a group of school boys taught him geometry to figure out the height of a tree.
This was not a moment to get weepy about invasive species. Everything is invasive. Practically. That oh-so-Indian flavor of tamarind, from Senegal, he said. Potatoes from the New World. 70% of the Indian diet does not originate from South Asia. I’ve wondered this about Italian cuisine, with noodles from China and tomatoes from the New World. Another notch in the argument for accepting an ever-dynamic and changing world.
Vijay recounted Lal Bagh’s relationship to Kew Gardens, sharing stock that the Apostles of Linnaeus gathered from all over the world, sailing in ships that headed into the completely unknown (“It is easier to land on the moon,” said Vijay), the floral explorers only occasionally returning alive. Really everything, as he told it, that was planted in Lal Bagh flourished. Yerba Mate trees growing larger than any in their original South America. An auracaria from New Caledonia, more animal than tree, towering over the perfect replica of the Crystal Palace, itself inspired by the structural design of a lily, complete with built-in rainwater catchment system.
Though he leads these walks regularly, and a high-rankin official was tagging along in training, twice we were stopped by lathi-wielding security guards who wanted to put a stop to our educational and informative nonsense. Discipline in India is capricious and frequently misdirected. As we passed this delicate delight of pastel pink, he told the official that his guards should be preventing thieving visitors from plucking the flowers. Only one in bloom remained.
We learned of amber, seeping from the wounds of trees in protection.
And flowers that bloom straight from the trunk of the candle tree.
There were wild banana plants, their small green growth jutting upright, unlike their downward hanging domesticated offspring. And the flame of the forest was not yet in bloom but I have seen it lighting up the landscape of Rajasthan and elsewhere. Who knew it was created from a falcon’s feather dipped in ambrosia of the gods? Yes! A powder made from the ground up flowers (which resemble a lion’s claw that’s drawn blood), was the original Holi powder, before all the chemically produced industrial fluorescent fixings of today, which occasionally contain copper sulfate and lead.
But back to the gods. Here were the unusual pockets formed in the leaf of the Krishna fig, where the blue god could tuck his stolen butter.
We stood by the hefty palm tree whose nuts provide palm oil. The tree looked so innocent, and it is, but for the inspiration it gives men to raze tropical forests in Southeast Asia, where Sumatran tigers and orangutans once lived. [Journo friend Rob Eshelman has covered this story.]
A magnificent banyan, the walking tree, the holy Ficus benghalensis, begged to be climbed. I resisted. Surely the lathi-wielder would return.
I may have gasped when I saw this one. An otherwise unremarkable, middling-sized tree was just coming into bloom with these elaborate inflorescence of orchid-like fuschia flowers. I was completely high on oxygen by this point, so I may have missed the details, but it was something about how there are only a few of these trees in the world. I scribbled Amestia nobleis in my notebook, but Google reveals nothing. Any ideas? [update: Vijay just called and filled in the blanks. It’s Amherstia nobilis, collected from an abandoned monastery in Burma, along the Salween River. Although cultivated, it is rare in the wild. If I could stay another week, I would see it in full bloom.]
By the time we passed the chalice flower draped over a gate, the tour was ending. The sound of traffic thrummed in the distance. I left the park with a grave reluctance. Please don’t make me go out there, I begged my companions, onto the streets that had roared back to life as we passed the morning in the Garden. Those streets where we are forced to play chicken with the buses and cars whose horns make my ears ring. Please, let me stay in the Garden, pitch a tent, sleep with the owls that surely awake at dusk. Alas…
A few minutes walk away, my consolation was the fine breakfast at Banglalore’s original Mavalli Tiffin Room, MTR for short, where we were whisked past the lines to a private room upstairs to feast on fresh grape smoothie, fat rava idli dripping with ghee, masala dosai, and silver tumblers of South Indian filter coffee, which puts Starbucks to shame. Should you ever find yourself in Bengalaru, seek out Vijay and get lost in the green.