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Restoring India's Botanic Heritage

March 21, 2024 12:39 IST
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With over 3,000 species of plants, 26 interconnected lakes and the 250-year-old Great Banyan Tree -- the largest in the world -- the Indian Botanic Garden is a veritable treasure, discovers Payal Singh Mohanka.

IMAGE: A colourful view of the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden in Shibpur, West Bengal. All photographs: Payal Singh Mohanka

Tucked away from the concrete and chaos of Kolkata is a lush, verdant haven. About 8 kilometres from the city, the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden in Shibpur is spread over 273 acres.

A quiet testament to history, these gardens were created more than two centuries ago by the East India Company on the west bank of the River Hooghly.

In 1787 Colonel Robert Kyd established this garden, while 1793 saw its first salaried superintendent, Dr William Roxburgh, who is regarded as the 'Father of Indian Botany'.

Interestingly, it was here that trials for tea cultivation were first successfully conducted in 1834. The British had also introduced mahogany in 1795 and rubber in 1873 in this historic garden.

IMAGE: A lake inside the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden.

Originally known as the 'Company Bagan' and Royal Botanic Garden, in 2009 it was renamed the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden.

It is managed by the Botanical Survey of India, a subordinate office under the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change.

With over 3,000 species of plants from across the globe and 26 interconnected lakes, the garden is a veritable treasure.

IMAGE: The entrance to the garden.

Today, the authorities, led by Dr Ashiho Asosii Mao, the Director of the Botanical Survey of India, is making significant effort to restore this heritage garden to its former glory and create a world-class botanical site for future generations to cherish.

Overcoming the challenges, the team is marching forward. "However, we are saddened by some people who are trying to sabotage our efforts by spreading false propaganda against the garden authorities," says Dr Mao.

IMAGE: The Roxburgh House, inside the botanic garden.

It's been a long journey for those committed to this project.

In 2007 James Simpson, a Scottish architect, came to work on the restoration of the Scottish Cemetery in Kolkata.

An architect with a master's degree in conservation, and a Phd in architectural history, Dr Nilina Deb Lal recalls, "During the course of our work, he mentioned Roxburgh House, inside the botanic garden was named after a Scottish botanist."

IMAGE: A display of the Roxburgh project.

The Scottish connection prompted them to explore what turned out to be a magnificent structure evoking memories of a bygone era. But it was in desperate need of restoration.

The initial idea was to work on the entire garden but the mammoth project needed huge resources.

By 2012 the plan underwent a shift. The prime focus would be the restoration of three buildings as the entire project was getting unwieldy.

The passage of years had taken their toll on the garden's treasured heritage buildings, the hauntingly beautiful Roxburgh House with its classical architecture, the Herbarium with its Victorian facade, and the adjacent Seed Store stood decrepit and dilapidated.

IMAGE: Another view of Roxburgh House.

Five years later the central government granted administrative approval and the project was named, the Roxburgh International Hub Project, popularly referred to as the Roxburgh Project.

Those committed to the project will have to source funds themselves, while the government is promising support.

Dr Deb Lal, who is the programme director of the Roxburgh Project, and the team have a vision of an exemplary restoration project to create a world-class destination, a public space with a museum, cafe and a conference centre which can be revenue generating.

The mission is to raise the bar with regard to how conservation and restoration is executed.

IMAGE: The aquatic plant section of the garden.

The first two tranches of money arrived from the Commonwealth Heritage Forum (CHF) and the World Monuments Fundfor initial studies and training.

IMAGE: A view of an aquatic plant in the pond.

"There are few courses that teach conservation. There is nothing like actually being on a live project," says Dr Deb Lal.

"The work carried out with the CHF funds included training modules on neighbourhood study and condition mapping. The neighbourhood study training was carried out with students of Shibpur Engineering College," Dr Deb Lal adds.

"The condition mapping training module was for practising professionals allowing them the opportunity to learn on a live site. Our intention with the Roxburgh Project is to not only restore the buildings but disseminate learning in the process for the benefit of future generations," explains Dr Deb Lal.

IMAGE: The Herbarium at the garden.

The World Monuments Funddonation enabled the team to open up the Herbarium, a once imposing structure which had been sealed for the last almost five years because of safety concerns.

The Herbarium preserves plant specimens and data for scientific study. Now work is on to resurrect the edifice and give it longevity.

Today, the Roxburgh Project is in the process of collecting funds through the CSR budget of companies.

Spreading their mission: Committed to working towards sustainability and being mindful of the dangers of climate change and ensuring this botanic garden is on every local, regional or international tourist's itinerary.

IMAGE: Another view of the Herbarium.

Apart from the Roxburgh Project, the garden is undertaking an ambitious digitisation project which will allow those interested to go back to the 1800s and study the species that existed.

Valuable data from the past would show the development and disruption of bio-diversity. This would benefit research and advanced studies.

Restoration efforts are also on for other buildings in the garden, such as the Assistant Curator Building, the Doctor's Building and the Public Relations Officer Building.

IMAGE: The 250-year-old Great Banyan Tree.

Through CSR funding from HSBC, a project to clean the pipes of the 26 interconnected lakes in the garden has been undertaken by INTACH.

One of the biggest attractions in the garden is the 250-year-old Great Banyan Tree. The largest in the world, it is spread over 4.67 acres.

IMAGE: The Great Banyan Tree spreads over 4.67 acres.

The garden has an annual footfall of 400,000 visitors. About 10,000 school students visit each year, while 7,000 morning walkers enjoy the soothing calm of this green getaway.

Unfortunately, money earned by the garden cannot be ploughed back into the garden. For instance, Rs 2 crores (Rs 20 million) is generated each year but the money has to be sent to the central government's fund.

IMAGE: A view from the terrace of Roxburgh House.

The passion to see this restoration project completed underlines the broadminded approach to conservation.

It is not about whose heritage it is as Dr Deb Lal points out, "Why are we so caught up with whether it is a British building or Indian building? It's a fine building. It may have been built by William Roxburgh, but there were as many Indians working there and involved in the botanic enterprise."

"We need to review the way we look at heritage sites. Let's just restore it. With more and more restoration and re-use of buildings, we will ensure climate change resilience."

IMAGE: Another view from the terrace of Roxburgh House.

An infusion of funds from donors who share this vision will help to preserve the rich legacy of this historic garden and create a rejuvenating destination for not just visitors but also for botanical exploration and conservation.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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