Rishi Majumder ambles into Rani Jijamata Udyaan and learns about the rare breed of flora nurtured here

Photographer: Surya Sen

Ficus Krishni or 'Krishna's buttercup'

There’ll be hardly anyone at the zoo today. Almost everyone’s off on BMC election duty,” says P A Narigrekar, garden supervisor at the Rani Jijamata Udyaan, when we request a visit. The udyaan at ward E plays a significant role in BMC business though. Set up in 1861, the Byculla zoo’s over 24 lakh annual visitors grant the BMC annual ticket sales estimated at anything between Rs 75 lakh to a crore. And just a couple of weeks ago councillors allocated a Rs 4.39 crore contract to a Thai consultancy firm to prepare a master plan for its revamping. Yet animal rights NGOs baying for BMC’s blood continue to demand that the neglected animals be rehabilitated elsewhere, and the zoo be converted into a botanical garden. Which brings us to this story: apart from the animal kingdom, few people are aware of the udyaan’s collection of rarest of the rare flora at ages crossing 100 —more than the collective ages of many of the zoo’s animals put together.
“The Jijamata Udyaan, by virtue of having a strong botanical initiative when it was established, has preserved inside it
some trees, not to be seen elsewhere nowadays,” remarks Dr Jagdish Punetha, state director, WWF and an advisory committee member. Spanning the area near the zoo’s birds section, each rare species carries a survival story. Take the Putran Giva. “Its existence is interlinked with superstition—the belief that prayers to it will beget you a son, or your putra’s welfare,” Punetha narrates. The Amheristia nobilis which the horticultural assistant P More claims to be “one of the only two such trees in Mumbai,” is actually a Sri Lankan native. The Sita Ashoka, has provided many an ayurvedic expert gynaecological cures even before this branch of science was invented. The Baobab or Adensonia digitata has a personality disorder. Dubbed ‘tree of heaven’ in Europe and Egypt for its paradisiacal associations, in Rajasthan and Gujarat it was renamed ‘Chori Chinch’, because, according to Punetha: “Its hollow trunk was used by highway robbers to hide their loot and sometimes themselves as well!” The Darminalia Arjuna was so named because it was ideal for heart ailments, “and Arjuna was known for his large heart…” Another rarity centre’s around Arjun’s mentor: “The Ficus krishni is also called ‘Krishna’s Buttercup’ because it is believed to have been used by the makhanchor to store his stolen butter once,” Punetha enlightens. For visual queerness try the Psedobombax eliptica, also called the Shaving Brush Tree, derived from the resemblance of the flowers to man’s second best friend.
At the WWF’s DN Road office the verdict on the idea of converting the zoo is unanimous: “No, the zoo is the only educational draw for thousands of villagers. Also the plants which have a long association with humans have one with an
imals too.” There should be ‘green fencing’ and trees inside the animal enclosures rather than metal and cement, they feel. Especially since many rare plants in the zoo’s nursery belong to a rare animal’s natural habitat. More maintains a ‘no comment’ on such possible changes. Hopefully the Thai consultancy won’t.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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