IN JODHPUR, HERITAGE PRESERVATION TAKES ON A NEW FORM THROUGH AN AMBITIOUS PROJECT TO RECREATE THE NATIVE DESERT ECOLOGY.
It’s about seven in the morning in the Rajasthani city of Jodhpur. There’s a flurry of activity at the foot of the road that winds up to the city’s jumbo hilltop construction, the 15th century Mehrangarh Fort. People have been gravitating here since four in the morning, hours before the scorching, midday June sun will push them indoors. Young boys play cricket, elderly men sitting aside low walls chat or are immersed in yoga, and packs of dogs hanging around race off to their dens, disappearing into the vast surrounds of the fort.
Pradip Krishen, 61, an “ecology gardener,” dressed in jeans, a white, block-printed scarf and a khaki-coloured Tilley hat, agilely climbs over a low rock wall, entering the immense rugged landscape between the fort and the city wall.
Several women are watering the trees and shrubs here, balancing large blue vats on their heads. Krishen picks his way along the path he knows well, stopping to inspect a tree here and a shrub there. He sidesteps a patch of strawlike grass; to the untrained eye it looks dead. But it’s alive and after the monsoon the “golden” hue, true of much of the plant life here, will turn green. A bird catches his eye. It’s a baya weaver, a species that turns yellow during its mating season. He’s quietly delighted. He’s not seen one here before but it’s a good sign. It means the biodiversity is expanding. Krishen then stops next to a small green shrub with thin, tiny leaves rounded at the tips, ranged on a stem like barbs on a feather. Compared to the other plants it’s an unnatural-looking waxy green.
It’s mesquite. A plant native to Mexico, but an “invasive” species almost everywhere else – in the jargon of botanists, these are species that colonise. This innocuous-looking plant has been the biggest hurdle in a project to recreate the native ecology around Mehrangarh Fort to as close as what it was centuries ago, before either haphazard planting or people swept through.
“Our big enemy to start with was the mesquite,” says Krishen.
In the 1930s, Jodhpur’s then Maharaja Umaid Singh decided to green his arid region of Jodhpur, also known as Marwar. A British advisor had told him about a miracle plant called mesquite that could thrive in harsh desert climates. He enthused it could bind the earth to prevent soil erosion, be fodder for animals, provide people with a highly calorific cooking fuel, and transform this land into an oasis of green. As the local tale goes, the Maharaja went up in an airplane dropping seeds over the region, particularly over the barren western expanse. The mesquite did green Jodhpur, a truism relayed in local folksongs. But it had an unexpected impact on the local ecology.
It greedily sought out water, invaded and took over. Where it could, it plunged its roots deeply, becoming tall trees. And where its roots were constricted, it spread itself widely becoming bushy shrubs. It excreted a biochemical from its roots which hindered other plants from growing near it. In local Marwar language it’s infamously called baavlia – the mad one.
In 2006 the current Maharaja Gaj Singh II initiated a project that has in part sought to undo the destruction of the mesquite sown by his grandfather. Across 70 hectares of the deserted, uninhabited rocky terrain at the foot of Mehrangarh Fort, Krishen and his team have been restoring the native ecology – removing the mesquite and reintroducing native plants.
Down south, in the rainforests of the Western Ghats mountain range, there are a few groups working along similar lines of “ecological restoration.”
All these projects have different aims – ranging from beautification, creating awareness about native flora, to species conservation. As people and industry increasingly erode landscapes, this little-known practice is giving otherwise degraded ecosystems a new lease of life.
Dressed in a white kurta and pyjamas, with a golden spittoon on hand, the Maharaja espouses the idea of redefining the cultural heritage his forefathers established.
In 1972, he established Mehrangarh Museum Trust to look after his ancestral properties. Since then, the Trust has been constantly updating the fort and adding new events to its cultural calendar. “We like to think Jodhpur is the cultural capital [of Rajasthan],” says the Maharaja. In 2005, the Trust finished restoring the 400-year-old city wall around the fort, which meant the land within could for the first time, be protected from encroachment.
After renovating the wall, in the same year, the Maharaja decided he wanted to showcase the land within the city wall. He directed the then CEO of the Trust to find the right expert. Krishen was approached and asked if he could turn the land into a forest.
“[It was] very rocky, very eroded, very difficult-looking land made up of, I didn’t know at the time, rhyolite, which is a volcanic rock,” says Krishen.
A forest would require millions of tons of soil. But Krishen had a different idea. He suggested restoring this rugged terrain to what it might have been like, as far back as 600 years earlier when it was wild and relatively intact.
“There’s no data from that period so it’s just a notional thing really,” says Krishen.
They agreed. In 2006 began a restoration project, headed by Krishen, to create Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park.
Firstly, they had to tackle the mesquite that dominated the landscape, embedded in the rock. It needed to be cleared out in a way that at least 18 inches of the root was pulled out, or it’d just re-sprout. “[It’s] very antisocial,” Krishen scolds. “But it’s one of the secrets to its success and that’s why it’s gregarious wherever it grows.” A host of methods were tried. Machinery. Then micro-charges of dynamite; but this shattered the rock which was part of the landscape’s heritage. Then somebody suggested working with the khandwaliyas, Jodhpur’s traditional miners who work in the sandstone quarries. They had a unique technique. They’d use heavy hammers to “ring” the rock, and the sound made could tell them how the rock was interbedded and from what direction they could go with chisels and hammers to dig out the roots. Though slow, the team of 15 did the job.
“They have a wonderful understanding of the way the rock worked,” says Krishen. Two khandwaliyas still go around full time hunting down the mesquite.
While the slow removal of mesquite continued, they were also busy collecting native seeds, travelling to different parts of Rajasthan to find relatively untouched areas whose flora they could replicate. They discovered a key clonal site just six kilometres away, at the stable grounds where the Maharaja’s Marwari horses are kept. Overlooking the stables was a hill full of indigenous plants.
The seeds were grown in an on-site nursery manned by Vinod Puri Goswami, 31, who estimates that he’s grown as many as 20 000 plants since 2006. They created a repository of about 230 species of trees, shrubs, climbers, herbs, grasses and lithophytes, which grow in rock. The plants they grew were then introduced onto the project site.
Ironically, the mesquite also proved to be a boon; wherever it was taken out (they made up to 12 000 pits) they planted a sapling. Krishen decided that the mesquite had “done all the exploring” to find niches of water, showing them where it was possible for a plant to grow.
After the first rains, they did a head count; close monitoring was important to this project. The survival rate was terrific, says Krishen, with plants mainly dying because of errant boars crashing through or hungry hares.
Now in its sixth year, the project has been a success. The park is something of a clone of the region’s indigenous ecosystems. Each section of the park is watered roughly every eight days, and many plants that are now adapted survive on their own. In future, the watering should cease altogether. “We help things along and let them be,” Krishen says.
Krishen, who lives in Delhi, has had a long history with the trees and plants native to India. Around 1994, the former filmmaker started to teach himself about indigenous flora. Tall, slender and bearded, Krishen speaks eloquently and animatedly about different flora, picking out their idiosyncrasies almost as though they were people in real life.
“[It] started really as a hobby to try and identify stuff and get to know the forest,” says Krishen. He was soon hooked.
In 2000, while writing Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide (2006), some friends asked him to help plant up a plot of land in Uttarakhand. He suggested growing indigenous species for reasons both aesthetic and practical. He explained to them that as native plants they’d be pre-adapted to the existing soil and climate conditions, with the biggest benefit being conservation of water as they’re “used to receiving water only when it rains.”
His friends liked the idea, but there was a problem. “There’s nothing native to buy,” they told him, having scouted out the nurseries. He said they’d have to collect seeds “literally off the forest floor.” Helping out, he trained two gardeners to identify native seeds in the forest. Then they created a nursery from where the saplings were transferred onto the plot. The results after a year were spectacular, but then his gardeners were replaced by an ornamental gardener, bringing about an abrupt end to his hard work with the introduction of exotic plants.
“You can destroy a year’s or more gardening in a week and it happened,” Krishen recalls.
Over the years similar projects followed and he kept developing this self-taught methodology of “ecology gardening” which he’d put to test in Uttarakhand; collecting native plant seeds from relatively untouched areas that he wanted to recreate, establishing a nursery and then moving saplings onto the project site.
The benefits of ecological restoration are being realised by other projects happening in the country. From their base in Valparai, a hill station in Tamil Nadu, situated in the Anamalai Hills in the Western Ghats, 39-year old scientist, T R Shankar Raman, and his wife Divya Mudappa, 40, of the Nature Conservation Foundation have been working on their program since 2001.
Here, in the Anamalai Hills, industrial-scale coffee and tea plantations have enveloped large areas of tropical rainforest. The duo have set up private partnerships with plantation companies to restore degraded rainforest fragments lying within the plantations themselves.
Their work aims to conserve the many plant species unique to rainforests, by kick-starting the recovery of these fragments; provided these areas remain protected, it will still take decades for their full recovery. It’s about “bringing the right species to the right places,” says Raman of their scientific approach.
They work with the region’s indigenous Kadar people, who know the native species and are involved in establishing pits, removing weeds, researching, planting and monitoring. “What we’re trying to restore is not just the ecosystem, but also the way people relate to that ecosystem,” says Raman. “Reconnecting nature and people in each of these sites is a very crucial component of restoration.”
Although serious ecological restoration has a recent history of a few decades, Raman says, “The number of people or groups working on ecological restoration remains quite small considering the size of India as well as the scope for restoration across the country.” This is because it’s time costly, requiring sustained engagement in a landscape. And it’s hard to garner long-term funding.
But in Jodhpur, the restoration project has had sufficient backing. After six years of hard work, Krishen is excited about having created something for regular people, who are not necessarily ecologists or botanists and may not have been interested in native plants before. The park, arguably the first of its kind in India, is poised to open to visitors in September.
Now, if Krishen has to take the idea of planting indigenous species forward, he has to manoeuvre through the mainstream, namely the country’s landscape architects who largely propagate exotic plants that “don’t strike a chord with people who know our native ecology.”
For him, ecology gardening is at a stage of “just raising its head above the water.”
Byline: Annette Ekin