Having been a Bangalorean for longer than I can remember, I didn't expect a walk in the park to rearrange the cards in my head. Two Sundays ago when I joined Vijay Thiruvady on the Green Heritage Walk he leads at Lal Bagh, I was enthusiastic though troubled by a nascent cynicism.
For three hours my wife and I, in the company of strangers, roamed our city's famed botanical garden — and one of its surviving green lungs. We returned bursting with Bangalore's lore, smitten with its trees, and choking with veneration for the European botanists and Indian royals who had shaped the city's green cover.
My wife, who was born and raised in Delhi, had (despite her curiosity) never quite taken a shine to Bangalore's culture and history. After the walk, as our group chatted over breakfast at Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (another facet of city heritage), she remarked, "I feel a connection with Lal Bagh that I never had before. Now, I'd fight to save it."
How heritage plunges roots! You see, you hear, you smell, you hold in your hands, and a germ of it is ingrained in you. The walk in the park had shifted her experience of Bangalore many degrees closer to mine. After six years of marriage we had discovered a new connection, one rooted in shared experience. This city was now hers as much as it is mine.
Ambling with that group of tourists and expatriates led by a bespectacled, well-spoken gentleman with hat and cane, we learned and loved as newcomers to the city would, sans prejudice or cynicism (yes, my nascent cynicism melted away quickly in the April heat).
Often, we experience and consume more richly as visitors, travelers and tourists than as resident citizens of our hometowns. At parlour conversations we might hold forth on New York's gangs and Bangkok's underbelly, but we are thrown when asked of the local vegetable market that burned down.
Those of us who refer fondly to Bangalore as a Garden City might do well to familiarize ourselves with a certain truth. The Bangalore we love — and miss — wasn't always green and leafy. One only needs to travel to the city's outskirts to confirm that.
Kempegowda, the city's founder after whom many modern structures are named without a second thought, must have stumbled upon rocky scrubland much like the surrounding countryside. Unconvinced? So were we, until Thiruvady showed us a painting depicting the Kempegowda Tower — one of four that the feudatory chieftain erected to demarcate the city's boundaries — overlooking a countryside bare of trees as far as the eye can see, with the hillock of Savandurga, 60 km to Bangalore's west today, looming in the distance.
The 'gardening' of Bangalore probably began when Hyder Ali planted a pleasure garden of red roses here in 1760. His son and successor Tipu Sultan expanded it with chests of saplings imported from near and far. After Lord Charles Cornwallis defeated Tipu's army in 1791 and captured the fort of Bangalore, Lal Bagh's destiny changed hands. Tipu was executed in 1799, and the gardens he had lovingly cultivated (Green Heritage Walkers are shown a mango tree that Tipu had probably planted) fell to the British. Subsequent custodians, under the patronage of the Maharaja of Mysore, took to planting the park with zeal and passion. Among them were James Cameron, who built the Glass House (modeled after the Crystal Palace in London's Hyde Park), and Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel, a German botanist who redesigned the architecture of the gardens.
Since those halcyon days Bangalore, like every city, has changed. Today it hovers indecisively at a crossroads. Old Bangaloreans, among whom I'm happy to count myself, wring their hands and shake their heads at what change has wrought. Some pause to mourn the majestic banyans felled to lay foundations for elevated expressways. Others glance at the papers and turn the page. Where there were parks and playgrounds, there are malls and condos. Where there were sprawling lakes, there are swamps clouded with self-detonating mosquitoes. And where there were trees, there aren't any. But change, they say, comes to those who want it. Spin that around: Change hits hardest those who don't see it coming. And — shoot me for saying this — perhaps this is the shape of change that we have invited, and deserve.
Interestingly, Thiruvady is not a Bangalorean of vintage. He spent his boyhood in Delhi. It was only six years ago that he began to lead the Green Heritage Walk under the banner of Bangalore Walks. Why should that be surprising? I know people who have called themselves Bangaloreans for barely three years who have a deeper and more meaningful connection with this city than those who have lived and lived off it for generations. What is heartwarming is that these people, like the tree-smitten Sultans, British and Germans before them, are most likely to change the city for the better. Newly sensitized to its heritage only they, like my wife, would fight to save it.
It's time for change. Let's take a walk.
To participate in a Green Heritage Walk, visit the Bangalore Walks website