City of Forests
There are 2 kinds of people in Delhi – those who are from Delhi (but whose forefathers may have arrived from somewhere else) and those who have migrated here for work or study. In any debate or any situation, you will see a distinct inclination of the former towards the sport of espousing everything that makes Delhi great. On the other hand will see an inclination of the latter towards an equally enthralling sport of arguing why Delhi has got it wrong from every possible angle. For the former there is no heaven like Delhi. For the latter, there is no hell like Delhi.
Of course, between love and hate, hate is generally the first feeling that ebbs over you. But once you’ve peeled off that layer, Delhi in charms you in a million more ways than one. From unknown alleys to known foods, there are innumerable layers to Delhi – and I presume almost all the other major cities of the world). So there is a charm that every megapolis has in common. But every city also has a charm which is unique to itself.
In Delhi, this charm lies in its forests. Trees and Delhi have a unique and almost defining relation. As each city rose and fell, forests fell and rose as well – like inverted sine waves. One grew over the other. Later when the second-to-last city of New Delhi was built, the forests of the Aravalli ridge was considered the Eastern boundary of the city. Trees were then used to “beautify” an otherwise shrub desert and cover ruins while leaving views of major monuments like the Qutub Minar and Humayun’s Tomb.
The Aravalli Hills – the oldest geological feature on Earth – are more colloquially known as the ridge in Delhi. Lutyens’ Delhi was built keeping the Yamuna to the East and the Ridge Forest to the West. The Southern Ridge that you may see through your car or bus window on your way to the Qutub Minar wasn’t documented yet and Delhi comprised of two ridges – the Northern Ridge and the Sourthern (now Central Ridge) behind Rashtrapati Bhavan or President’s Palace.
The relation of the British to Delhi has been quite unique and in a way, quixotic. This quixotism may have gone back to Mughal times when eras of stable governance were established. The Mughal ideal of Charbaghs (4 symmetrical gardens) made way for the British ideal of treelined avenues. In certain instances, the incoming rulers were quite sympathetic to the gardens that had been left deprived by the weakened and poor outgoing dynasty. In a handful of instances, individual Lords took it upon themselves to maintain the gardens near famous edifices as well!
Trees that lined the avenues – or avenue trees – have an interesting philosophy behind them. The trees were to be planted to hide that which was ugly – ruins, people, poverty and what not. But that was not sufficient enough for a tree to pass muster. The tree had to be tall enough to cover that which was ugly, but also short enough to leave a view of that which was beautiful – the Qutub Minar or major tombs.
A part of this endeavour was also the “afforestation” of the ridge – an endeavour that started with 200 acres of what is now the Diplomatic Enclave and later spread over 1000 hectares of the ridge. The man consulted for this was a certain P.H. Clutterbuck – the Conservator of Forests of the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh, in which the Taj Mahal is situated). He was brought in by Lord Hardinge – whose utopian belief that the Viceregal Palace (now the Rashtrapati Bhavan) should be on top of a hill with the entire nation at its feet was something that Lutyens, the architect of Delhi, was not very kicked about.
So while the Viceregal Palace and the King’s Road (now Rajpath) didn’t turn into a “miniature Versailles”, the ridge was afforested – a disastrous effort that Delhi is still recuperating from.
One tree survived in these conditions. The Vilaiti Kikar or Mesquite was brought in from Latin America and thrived in the dusty environment that Delhi provided. More than just thriving, the Vilaiti Kikar grew and invaded the surrounding area – edging native trees out and taking over most of the ridge. Contrast this with the Prickly Pear brought in from North America in the 1930s to protect native plants from browsing but doesn’t occupy even a fraction of the area that the Vilaiti Kikar does. In Hindi, Vilaiti means foreign and the term was used to distinguish it from Desi (native) Kikar or Babool. Today, the Vilaiti Kikar forms a majority of the forest. There is some optimism in the air though – as native trees make a comeback in this area.
The Central Ridge spreads over 864 hectares. Once an amenity forest (forest used for recreational riding), it is now frequented by very few people apart from the President’s Bodyguard that is involved in drills through the forest. The ridge contains areas of Vilaiti Kikar, some silhouettes of Ronjh and Desi Kadam and quite a few amaltas. The ridge is also known for some rock climbing areas and a wall in a surreal venue that you can climb and walk over. The Central Ridge is one of 4 zones – Northern (87 hectares), Central (864 hectares), South Central (663 hectares) and Tughlakabad or Southern Ridge (6200 hectares).
Mr. Clutterbuck’s trees didn’t make it eventually and trees from the drier sub-Himalayan region were planted – a region much wetter than the rock forest of Delhi. As with India’s borders, the plan was made without much thought going into place. Trees like Sheesham or Indian Rosewood failed miserably in the almost-drought conditions of Delhi and imported specimens didn’t do much better either.
In our endeavour to learn about trees, their Raison d’Etre we were taught and taken around by Mr. Pradip Krishen – a walking encyclopedia of trees of Central India and those of Delhi. His explanations lent new complexities to a being that we dismissed as green and brown.
The soil of the ridge is thin and rocky. Metamorphic rock that was initially sedimentary formed the base of the Aravallis and this rock can be seen almost entirely on your route from Delhi down a South-Western line through Rajasthan. The rock is known as quartzite and is made of quartz (that goes into your watch) & silica (that sand is made of) and is incredibly hard and difficult to work upon. But if polished, it has better properties than granite – the stuff that kitchens are made of.
As we made our way over the tracks through this single storeyed forest, we could not help but notice the bare Vilaiti Kikar and the lush green bushes of Heens or Wild Caper. An evergreen bush in a dry deciduous forest, Heens belongs to the genus of capers that you’d use in salads or otherwise. In Delhi, the President’s Bodyguard uses them as fodder for horses. While the bushes themselves were a treat, we cannot wait for the first week of May when the flowers will bloom. As we walked on, we saw the Heens behaving like a Bharata Natyam dancer – assuming various positions. Sometimes the Heens was seen climbing on trees while at others, the bush was reclining leisurely on a horizontal branch – as if just waking up, reading the morning paper and having builder’s tea.
Next on our menu was Abutilon indicum a member of the Malvaceae family. Generally found along the edge of the path and the growing right after rain, the Abutilon is quite a common genus in India, requiring very little to grow. As Mr. Krishen explained, all families end with -aceae (pronounced assi). As Mr. Krishen also explained, it is important to know just 2 families – O menu pata nain
assi aceae (Oh I don’t know) and O menu bhool gay assi aceae (Oops I’ve forgotten). Abutilon indicum has traditionally been used for a variety of purposes and is known to have properties that are anti-inflamatory, astringential, laxative and aphrodisiacal. Of course, quite a few plants are known to have such properties in traditional medicine and some properties might be more perception than real. But the trade of Abutilon may serve as proof of some of its benefits.
Another species that we generally tend to ignore is the Digitaria ciliaris or Southern Crabgrass or Tropical Crabgrass or Summer Grass in Chinese. How, when and why it got a name that is straight from Davy Jones’ Locker does require a seemingly relentless and mundane pursuit into a grass that doesn’t deserve it. It would be interesting to note though that it is considered an invasive weed in some countries and is quite aggressive in it’s quest to rule the ground flour of the forest.
We then came to our first close encounter with the Vilaiti Kikar – a tree that reminds you of old silhouettes of the sun setting behind black trunks and branches in the middle of a desert. Twisted and thorned, the Vilaiti Kikar does look like one that has fought many wars and won many skirmishes. Now growing up to 12m in height, the Prosopis juliflora as Vilaiti Kikar is fondly called or Mexican Mesquite that is its other name, the Vilaiti Kikar can still put up a fight for survival if threatened – as we saw when we were in a grove of Krishna Kadam (that rose to heights of 30m or more).
The Krishna Kadam, or the Wild Bur-Flower tree provided for an interesting atmosphere in itself. Here we were, in the middle of a bustling city of 18 million people, and all we could hear were the distant hum of vehicles similar to the distant hum of a river flowing when you are in the mountains. It was quite surreal and their setting, in a basin where some monsoon streams drained into was something else. Add to that, the pre-Mughal war and you’d have an eerie scene that Manoj Night Shyamalan would drool over. We were sure of it when Mr. Krishen explained that come August-September when the fragrant flowers were in bloom, it would be as romantic as it was eerie at this moment with the Dhau trees’ silhouette in the distance.
Oh by the way, did you know, that just out of coincidence, moths and we are attracted to the same things? As opposed to bees and butterflies which have more cultivated tastes in life? Next time you see a moth go into the light and laugh about it, think about it.
As with intertwining strings go, it is high time I wrote about the Dhautrees that I saw. The Dhau, was in its most skeletal form when we visited it. It is interesting how deciduous trees shut down by dropping all their leaves and wait for summer to sprout new leaves. I wish I could shut down in a similar manner towards the end of the month and wake up again when salary is credited to my account.
Back to the Dhau, it is a quintessentially perfect specimen of a dry deciduous forest prefering poor, rocky, sandy or chalky soil but fine with richer souls as well. The tree provides invaluable dry-season fodder to the citizens of the Thar desert and its surrounding areas. While Dhau may be one of the few trees that have not been used in traditional medicine, it does have a few unique qualities – including the yield of a green dye that has long been forgotten and wood that is tougher than American Hickory and used in making mallets.
There was a lot more in Delhi. There is a lot more I saw. Next weekend (31st Jan) I might explore some of the forests on the outskirts – where more native trees have survived. Trees are a fascinating subject. They may seem inanimate and daunting. But once you’ve delved into it, your mind is constantly ticking away trying to identify this tree and the other – an excellent way to spend afternoons or lunch breaks. Maybe I could write about it in the future. But for now, to quench your curiosity, I would suggest you grab Mr. Krishen’s Trees of Delhi and go exploring this exceptional heart of Central Delhi.