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Playing host to wildlife

S. MUTHIAH

Most visitors to the Guindy National Park prefer to spend their time at the Snake Park or watch the caged animals. It is time they are encouraged to look at the deer and the black buck roaming freely and the birds that soar beyond restrictive nets.

INDEED, BEFORE Huddlestone Gardens (Madrascapes, October 16) and Governor Langhorne's Guindy Lodge that's become Raj Bhavan (and lies ahead in Madrascapes) were built in the 17th and 18th Centuries, all the area south of the Adyar River was deciduous scrub jungle similar to what's seen in Guindy National Park. In fact, there are many still around who well remember as children going out with their fathers to shoot boar and hare and bird in the wooded areas that have become Gandhi Nagar, Kasturba Nagar, Indira Nagar and Shastri Nagar and the still newer developments in South Madras. And in the 18th and 19th Centuries, the Madras Hunt regularly rode to the (imported) hounds here, jackals the target of the chase.

A substantial part of these woods, south of Elliot's Beach Road (now called Sardar Vallabhai Patel Road), belonged to Guindy Lodge. But over 1250 acres of the 1350-acre property are now no longer the Governor's private hunting grounds or riding reserve, which they were from 1821 till 1910. A significant change in status occurred in 1948 when the State's first Indian Governor, Maharaja Sri Krishna Kumarsinghi Bhavsinghi, decided that he would rather live in the Governor's country retreat, instead of Government House, in the heart of the city, and moved to Guindy into what became Raj Bhavan with its huge private forest. Not needing the forest, he handed over to Government the 1250 acres that from 1910 had been looked after by the Forest Department as a Forest Reserve.

Despite that designation and new ownership, substantial bits of the forest area were handed over between 1954 and 1977 to various authorities for educational institutions, memorials and hospitals. There was developed along Sardar Vallabhai Patel Road in the 1950s a Children's Park, Prime Minister Nehru was keen on. Looked after by the Forest Department from 1958, the Park unfortunately now has the air of a zoo, though a recent `bird sanctuary' certainly is a more eco-friendly creation. Neighbouring this park there was established a Snake Park in the 1970s by Romulus Whittaker and now looked after by a Trust.

To the north of Children's Park, the Indian Institute of Technology, an Indo-German collaboration, got 628 acres to establish a self-contained community in 1961. It was fortunate in the choice of its first Director, Dr. B. B. Sen Gupta, for he fought every inch of the way to save every tree the builders wanted to cut down to make way for classrooms, labs and workshops, and homes. His attitude ensured the sylvan campus that still survives.

Elsewhere, it's been different. South of Children's Park, land was first given in 1954 for Gandhi Mandapam, the city's memorial to the Father of the Nation. In 1974, another memorial was raised next door, this one to C. Rajagopalachari, India's first Indian Governor-General. Whether he would have approved of the crown of Lord Rama (who he immortalised in his English translation of the Ramayana) towering over any memorial to him is doubtful, but by then cinematic exuberance had come to stay in Tamil Nadu politics. The next year, Congress stalwart Kamaraj was given another deforested forest niche. A while earlier, in 1970, the Guru Nanak College got land in the southeast corner of the Reserve and then, in 1977, the Cancer Institute got space between IIT and Children's Park. Fortunately for its natural wealth, the Reserve was declared a National Park in 1978.

With the Guindy Forest Reserve being declared a National Park, it became the only national park in the country within the municipal limits of a city. Since then, the only construction in the area has been the raising of the M.Bhaktavatsalam memorial in 1998. But this commemoration of the last Congress Chief Minister of the State (1963-67) and a couple of other smaller memorials were built in the Gandhi Mandapam space, so it can truly be said that what's left of the sanctuary has remained untouched. But reports of tree-felling, wood-gathering and poaching are more regularly heard than in the past, making nature-lovers worry more than a bit about the National Park continuing to thrive. Game counts, however, have indicated all's well with the spotted deer though the black buck population tends to fluctuate.

The park today, with about 125 species of trees and other flora, is home to over a thousand spotted deer, several of them magnificently antlered, and around 200 spiral-horned, shiny-coated black buck (Antelope cervicapra). The black buck is an introduced species that has survived but is yet to thrive, Lord Willingdon, Governor of Madras, introduced them in the Reserve in 1924 at a time when they were already an endangered species in the Madras Presidency. Jackals, hare and other small animals, reptile species and over 140 species of birds are to be found in the Park, but, sadly, few, particularly among schoolchildren, are encouraged to indulge in game-spotting and bird watching here. On the few occasions I've followed the trails in the Park I've hardly seen anyone else there. Most visitors to the Park prefer to spend their time at the Snake Park or watch the caged animals of Children's Park; it's time they were encouraged to also look at the deer and the black buck roam free and birds soar beyond restrictive nets. We in Madras have a unique eco-system within the city, something few cities in the world have; it's time to get the young interested in it.

Readers' Corner

I didn't think it was necessary to say it, but let me say it anyway. I welcome additional information about people and places featured in Madrascapes. There's nothing like learning a little bit more every day.

*Reader T. N. M. Arunachalam informs me that it was the vision of an Indian sage that brought the clairvoyant Madame Blavatsky (Madrascapes, October 16) to India. After Bombay, she thought she'd find the sage in Benares and that's where she and Olcott went next, wondering whether to establish their headquarters on the banks of the Ganga. But there again, the vibes were not right and so it was on to the Adyar. Whether she ever found the Swamiji, he did not add, but in Madras they decided to stay put.

Reader Arunachalam adds that one more seed sown under the banyan tree was when Dr. Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar announced that, as there was need for more colleges in the State, the University of Madras was relaxing some of its regulations to enable new colleges to be established in Madras State. In the audience at that meeting under the banyan tree was Rm. Alagappa Chettiar, who immediately announced that he would start a college in Karaikudi. That college has today grown into Alagappa University.

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