Bengaluru, known as the "Garden City", is today a "concrete jungle". With its jam-packed roads and skyscrapers, one could be forgiven for wondering where the “concrete city'” ends and the "garden city" begins. Yet, if you were to look very closely, you will still find some greenery, desperately holding on.
The history of Bangalore's ecological growth can be categorized roughly into three periods- the pre-colonial (before 1799), the colonial (1799-1945), and the post-colonial (after 1945).
Over many centuries, the rulers of Bengaluru have nurtured its green cover. It is believed that the city's founder, Kempegowda urged his subjects to plant trees. But it was under Hyder Ali's rule that the city began to earn its reputation as a garden city. In 1760, he built Lalbagh around an existing fruit orchard. He envisioned Lalbagh along the lines of Mughal gardens. Plants were brought down from Delhi, Arcot, and Lahore to make this vision come to life.
His son Tippu Sultan, carried this forward, procuring seeds and exotic plants from faraway lands like Kabul, Persia, and Mauritius. It is believed that two Mango trees that were planted by Tipu himself still stand in the garden. In these gardens, one can find trees like Oleander from South West Asia, Plumeria (Frangipani) of different colors, purple Bougainvillea from South America, and red Gulmohur (Delonix Regia) from Madagascar.
After the British defeated Tipu and made Bangalore a cantonment, they used trees to design it to fit their aesthetic vision. Trees like– Albizia saman (rain tree), Delonix regia (Gulmohar), and Peltophorum pterocarpum (copper pod) – were brought in by the British from far-flung places like Southeast Asia, Madagascar, and Brazil.
As in many other cities in India, the colonial aesthetic vision gained prominence. Exotic and ornamental trees took the place of native fruit-bearing trees. This ornamental aesthetic was defined by predetermined spacing and neatly confined areas within which trees were allowed to grow, in and around the city.
Parallel to this ornamental aesthetics was the aesthetic of the sacred. These are almost sacred spots, scattered around the city today, where a single tree or group of trees clumped together to grow on streets or within parks. These trees are worshiped by locals and are adorned with holy symbols.
Sacred figs (Ficus religiosa), neem, coconut trees (Cocos nucifera), banyan (Ficus benghalensis), Indian blackberry (Syzygium cumini), Banni (Prosopis cineraria), and Bael (Aegle marmelos) are some of the common sacred tree species found in Bangalore.
Such sites provide some of the best insight into how nature can and should be preserved within the ever-growing urban spaces. Wealthier migrants and city authorities may prefer showy-ornamental exotic species to fruiting native trees. But the latter is far more resilient to climate change than the former. Sacred or culturally important trees, seem to pave the way in their ability to resist urbanization. These provide valuable lessons in how to design parks and green spaces, as well as actively engage people in protecting and managing these areas.