This article is an amalgamation of excerpts from the book Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the past, present and future, written by Harini Nagendra, a Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. The book was released on June 10th, 2016.

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With a background in ecology, I had focused on issues of forest change beginning in the early 1990s, looking at forests in a wide swathe across South Asia including the Western Ghats, central India, north Bengal, and the foothills and mountains of Nepal. Over time, with close to 15 years of research experience in these distant locations, I began to realise that the one place I had not studied was in fact the closest to me: my home city of Bengaluru. This was by no means an understanding unique to me. Cities have not been a place well studied by ecologists, who prefer to investigate places less visibly impacted by humans. Yet, it is cities such as Bengaluru that have experienced exceedingly rapid and widespread changes in short periods of time, transforming them almost beyond recognition. In the last two decades, a number of ecologists from around the world have begun to examine issues of the ecology of the city in growing numbers, with urban ecology now becoming a well-recognized field of its own. Despite this, research on urban ecology in South Asia, and in particular India, remains sadly limited. This is doubly unfortunate given how many people live in cities and towns, even as urban settlements grow in number and in size.

 

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A 2011 view of peri-urban Bengaluru, during the phase of its growth spurt.

What’s in the Name? An Ecological History

Popular belief considers the name Bengaluru to be derived from a reference to a region where boiled beans were eaten. This belief derives from a story of the twelfth century Hoysala king Vira Ballala II, who is believed to have lost his way on a hunting expedition near Bengaluru, when he was fed a meal of boiled beans by an elderly woman. To memorialise her hospitality, the story goes, Vira Ballala named the place “benda kaalu ooru”, or the land of boiled beans. This name transformed over time into Bengaluru. The discovery of a stone inscription dated to 900 CE from the village of Begur indicates that this is an unlikely story. Discovered in 1914, the inscription commemorates the death of the local chieftain Nagattara’s son Buttanna-pati in the battle of Bengaluru. By its casual reference to the battle of Bengaluru, the inscription from around 900 CE demolishes the story of benda kaalu ooru, by predating the reign of Vira Ballala by over two centuries. Yet, this story persists strongly in folklore and popular imagination.

A number of other tales associate the name Bengaluru with aspects of its environment and ecology.     Ba Na Sundara Rao suggests that Bengaluru could be a corruption of benda-kaadu-ooru (i.e. the town of burnt trees), to commemorate what must have been the large scale felling and incineration of trees by Kempe Gowda I while building the fort of Bengaluru in 1537. Suryanath Kamath considers that Bengaluru may have derived its name from the locally available benga tree (Pterocarpus marsupium). This is a very different view of the city-forest interface from the one that sees the city founder as protector of strategic woodlands. Other stories suggest that the name Bengaluru may have been derived from the granite rocks (benchina kallu) that are so predominant in the landscape.

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Benga tree (Pterocarpus marsupium)

Battles over Bengaluru: A Landscape at War

In 1638, after a three day battle between the Bijapur army and Kempe Gowda II, the city moved from the control of the Yelehanka Nada Prabhus to the Bijapur sultanate. The fort was subsequently gifted to the Maratha general, Shahji Bhonsle (father of the famed Maratha warrior Shivaji), who played a key role in the decisive battle for Bengaluru.

Paramanand, a court poet and contemporary of Shahji, provides the first written account of the urban settlement of Bengaluru, then just over a century old, in his Sanskrit poem “Shiva Bharat” of 1670. Bengaluru (called Bingrul) is described as a beautiful city protected by a deep ditch filled with water. The town contained large white-washed bungalows, with abundant numbers of peacocks and pigeons, and planted with flowering creepers and fruit-laden trees that provided a screen against the harsh rays of the sun. Paramanand also describes a number of fountains located at road intersections that provided water, and a large lake, which enclosed a number of gardens. This brief description shows that many of the features that we now consider quintessential to Bengaluru’s character as a garden city – its large lakes, numerous gardens, charming bungalows with flowering creepers and fruiting trees, and teeming bird life – existed several centuries ago.

After Shahji’s death in 1664, the political history of Bengaluru was turbulent, being the focus of a long drawn battle between Shahji’s younger son Venkoji and his older brother, the more famous Shivaji, for control of the city. After several years of negotiations with multiple rulers, Chikka Deva Raja Wodeyar, the ruler of the adjacent kingdom of Mysore, eventually gained the city he desired so highly, purchasing Bengaluru from the Mughals (under whose control it was then) in 1690. For the first time since the establishment of the medieval town of Bengaluru, Chikka Deva Raja expanded the city. He built a new mud fort (the kote) to the south of the city, corresponding to the location of the current fort. A new lake built at the intersection of the old and new fort, the siddi katte, is now the location of the busy and congested City Market. In recognition of his help in the battle against the Marathas, the Mysore king granted Hyder Ali the fort of Bengaluru and its surroundings in 1758, as his personal jagir (land holding). Hyder gradually edged out the Wodeyar dynasty, becoming the de-facto ruler of the Mysore kingdom.

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Old fort gate of Bengaluru, in 1883. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Hyder paid careful attention to the preservation and protection of nature in the city. An administrator with great attention to detail, he took interest in maintaining the lake systems that enabled rain water harvesting, required for the irrigation of agricultural land. Poppy was grown in the areas surrounding Devanahalli, close to the current international airport of Bengaluru, and opium production provided substantial revenues to the state. Hyder was also greatly fond of his gardens, experimenting with the grafting of different fruit trees. These gardens also provided a social purpose, maintained by young orphans “for whom no one else would provide”.

Parks played an important role in Hyder’s city, forming an assertion of royal prowess and prestige. Flowers were an important part of his royal court, with Hyder personally weaving a garland of jasmine flowers as a mark of esteem for especially favoured visitors, such as his French military allies. Believed to have been inspired by the Mughal gardens of Sira, Hyder created a number of ornamental gardens including a 40 acre Cypress Garden in Bengaluru. This garden, now called the Lal Bagh, was enlarged and maintained in a “delightful” condition by his son and heir, Tipu Sultan. Hyder and Tipu’s palace was generously landscaped with a picturesque garden and water fountains.

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Bandstand at Lal Bagh, in 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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Early mornings at Lalbagh offer a quiet respite from the city to joggers, walkers and families.

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Lalbagh, seen here against a backdrop of burgeoning Bengaluru, is very well-frequented by locals.

Tipu Sultan was one of the earliest Indian rulers to understand not just the strategic, but the economic importance of forests, declaring the commercially important sandalwood (Santalum album) to be protected in a royal edict of 1792, and creating a monopoly on the sale of sandalwood, tobacco and pepper. Forests were also protected and maintained as a form of defense against the constant threat of invading armies. Thus “between the river Maddoor and Bangalore there is a tract of country full of hills and very woody, extending all the way from Shevagunga to the north bank of the Cavery, and forms a very strong barrier between Bangalore and Seringapatam” (Dirom, 1793: 20). Tipu also introduced the cultivation of silkworms in mulberry trees (Morus alba) in the areas surrounding Bengaluru, promoting the silk industry which continues today in some parts of the city.

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My office is in the peri-urban fringe of Bengaluru. From a place that was fairly rural in ecology, lifestyle and livelihoods, this area has transformed almost literally in front of my eyes in the past decade into a mess of congested traffic, garbage dumps, slums cheek-by-jowl with apartment blocks, and glass fronted offices and glitzy malls surrounding villages with cattle. I also live in the peri-urban fringe of Bengaluru, not far from my office. Adjacent to my home is a beautiful lake, restored and maintained by the continuing effort of local citizen groups.

Walking around the lake, you get an attractive view of a thriving patch of nature in the city, vibrant and active. Over fifty species of birds can be found in the lake, collecting nectar from the flowers, swooping down on insects, frogs and snakes, nesting and breeding in the water, reeds and trees. Spectacular birds such as the Pelican (Pelecanus philippensis) and the Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala) annually attract a large number of human visitors. A number of committed wildlife photographers have become regular visitors, providing free workshops on nature photography, and posting photographs on social networks that are widely seen, communicating valuable messages about urban biodiversity to a motley bunch of informed naturalists and complete amateurs. The lake acts as a social node, connecting people living around its expanse. These visitors have now formed groups engaged in diverse efforts to make the city a more sustainable place, launching movements for solid waste segregation, cycling and jogging groups, and initiatives to promote organic food. You could almost forget that you were in a big city, or that its rapid growth is posing a challenge to the lake. Or, develop a rosy-hued perspective of the possibilities for the persistence of nature in a context of rapid change. Yet, as you walk around the lake, you can also see the daunting challenges faced by the community of actors that manage and protect the lake, on an almost daily basis.

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Pelicans at one of Bengaluru’s lakes.

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A Spotted Owlet at Lalbagh, a popular destination for bird-watchers.

Sewage from residences and commercial buildings around the lake pose a constant problem, creating a nutrient-rich atmosphere that encourages the spread of invasive water weeds. These weeds reduce the oxygen levels in the water, resulting in the death of fishes and turtles from asphyxiation, and making it difficult for birds to feed adequately. Debris and plastic is dumped around the lake, often within the lake. A number of large buildings are coming up on the wetlands upstream of the lake, which will pose major challenges for recharging the lake and for cleaning up the contaminated water in the years to come.

Bengaluru is India’s fourth-largest city. With a population of over 10 million cramped into an area covering 709.5 sq.kilometres, the Greater Bangalore Metropolitan area experienced a massive growth spurt of 49% between 2001-2011 (Patil et al., 2015). The conflicts between development and conservation described above are a consequence of this rapid growth. This is not a story unique to Bengaluru, though. With a few minor changes in detail, similar narratives can be told of most Indian or Asian cities, indeed also of growing cities in many parts of the world. Indeed, humanity is widely believed to have entered a new era, the era of the Anthropocene. The scale of human impacts on the Earth has become so dominant and all-encompassing, that the future of all living species is at stake. It is not that humans did not remake the earth earlier, but, not so fast, or in such far-reaching ways. How will the increasing tendency of people to move to congested and polluted cities impact our wellbeing and our future? Is there, in fact, a place for nature in the city? Is this something we need to care about? The seeds of this book began in questions such as these.

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A Shaheen Falcon, a predator which is typically solitary and is seen nesting on high cliffs or rock pinnacles, seen here on a balcony of a high-rise apartment in a rapidly growing and urbanising Bengaluru.

Parts of this excerpt were originally featured on Citizen Matters.