Lodhi Gardens is for very important people and very showy lovers. Any regular visitor will testify to that. What’s lesser known is its wildlife. According to figures provided by the gardens’ management, this 90-acre oasis in central Delhi has 198 species of trees, 50 species of birds, 40 species of flowers, at least 30 stray dogs and now a dangerously high number of bandicoot rats, or Indian mole rats.
Lodhi Gardens is a rare space in Delhi that attracts such a wide range of life forms—from flowers, trees, birds, butterflies (there’s a butterfly park inside), fish and dogs to politicians, bureaucrats, ambassadors, industrialists, novelists, columnists, loners, lovers, tourists and hawkers (all day long, sellers of ram laddoos and churmure can be seen criss-crossing the gardens).
Last month The Times of India warned this eclectic mix of regulars: “Joggers will soon have to watch their step at Lodhi Gardens. For, bandicoot rats are feasting on food left behind for birds by visitors, and have dug up burrows, leaving hundreds of holes that could cause cave-ins.”
As it is one of the city’s favourite landmarks, described in the book City Improbable: An Anthology of Writings on Delhi as “one of the last remaining symbols of what Delhi once was when it was at its best”, the report triggered a series of events confirming where Lodhi Gardens fits into the idea of Delhi. Within a week of the report, the Delhi high court, on its own initiative, issued a notice to the Delhi government and the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), which manages the park, to file a report on the bandicoot rats because of which “the soil around the trees are weakening and several trees, including a large neem and an Asoka, are standing on ground riddled with holes”.
The two-member bench also said, “We also noticed that a lot of stray dogs are found in the Lodhi Garden posing threat to the users... the respondents are directed to take immediate action to catch and remove the stray dogs.”
The repercussions were immediate. The Lodhi Garden Dog Protectors group was formed on Facebook, while Maneka Gandhi and several other animal rights activists and groups succeeded in getting a stay order from the court, thus ensuring a breather for the canines.
A recent visit to the gardens presented a different picture. The animals appeared to be at peace. A stray dog dozed on a 16th century stone bridge, three ducks paddled quietly in the pond below, a squirrel raced up a floss-silk tree and a great number of other birds chirped.
Originally the site of a village called Khairpur, Lodhi Gardens turned 75 last year. It was landscaped around the tombs of the Sayyid and Lodhi rulers and was named after Lady Willingdon, the then British viceroy’s wife. Today it is superior to any other park in the Capital in character.
“Lodhi Gardens is like a durbar,” says Ranjana Sengupta, author of Delhi Metropolitan: The Making of an Unlikely City. “Ministers and bureaucrats who live in the coveted government colonies that abut the park walk with their close confidants (rarely wives), acknowledging the salutations of others who are, in comparison, less well-connected.”
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has frequently been spotted jogging here. Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh visits daily. Former cricketer Ajay Jadeja can be seen with his wife and son.
The park has been celebrated in arts and literature. In Yash Chopra’s film Silsila, Amitabh Bachchan is shown taking midnight walks with Rekha in Lodhi Gardens. Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, who lived in Delhi in the 1960s as Mexico’s ambassador, composed a poem called In the Lodi Gardens. In 2010, the park appeared on the cover of Khushwant Singh’s novel The Sunset Club. The first chapter was titled “Lodhi Gardens”.
Of course, yoga groups, children from nearby government schools, picnicking families and lovers running away from the prying eyes of their families—the usual denizens of any park in a big city—also flock to Lodhi Gardens. “Its proximity to upper-crust residential colonies, both government and private, to the cultural-social hubs of the India International Centre (IIC) and India Habitat Centre (IHC), and to the commercial and social prominence of its neighbour Khan Market, have contributed to making the Lodhi Gardens Delhi’s most cossetted public space, inspiring a near reverential loyalty from its regulars,” says Sengupta.
“Some social observers claim that expressing admiration for the gardens is a way of indicating several ideological positions simultaneously: These include a knowledge of India’s glorious past, a love of nature and a familiarity with established cultured spaces such as the IIC library, Khan Market bookshops and IHC’s art galleries,” she added.
So can mole rats destroy the foundation of this paradise?
“The rats were always here,” says Jitendra Kaushik, the gardens’ assistant director (horticulture), “but they have increased exponentially in the last two years along with a rise in the tendency among visitors to throw grain for the birds. These rats burrow tunnels, loosen the roots of trees and harm the flora. We recently barricaded a hillock because it was studded with rat holes.”
bandicoot rats have dug holes in the gardens.
“These mole rats have been there for as long as I can remember,” says Pradip Krishen, author of Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide, who has also written a booklet on Lodhi Gardens’ trees. “Sure, they make extensive underground galleries but in the process they’re probably turning the soil and aerating it. As burrowing creatures that like soft, moist earth, they have found an ideal habitat in Lodhi Gardens.”
The proposed move to remove the stray dogs from the park was seen by some as a threat to this precious ecosystem. “This is not just about the stray dogs in Lodhi Gardens, but about Indian attitudes to stray dogs and animals in general,” says Nilanjana Roy, whose novel The Wildings is about the adventures of Nizamuddin’s stray cats. “The idea that our urban haunts need to be ‘sanitized’ of their original occupants is a new and very cruel one; ‘relocating’ animals, especially ones as gentle as the dogs I’ve met in Lodhi Gardens, is a euphemism for evicting them from the places they’ve grown up in and know as home.”
A security guard in the park says on condition of anonymity that it is the pedigreed pets of neighbouring Amrita Shergill Marg and Jor Bagh, not the stray dogs, who hijack the jogging track and fight with the strays, which rarely block the walking paths.
“We have to see where our fear stems from,” says Roy, “where we develop the arrogance that says this city is only for humans, and that too only for humans who have privilege.”
In summer, Lodhi Gardens looks desolate—with only sunflowers and balsams, and yellow amaltas in between. It turns more colourful in winter. Last month, the gardeners finished planting marigolds, phlox, dahlias, guldawari, salvia, linaria and many other plants. The flowers will start blooming by January. “We receive more than 10,000 footfalls daily,” says Kaushik. “Now, the heat is over and the numbers are set to swell.”
Roy is not interested in the two-legged visitors. “If my next novel were to be set in Lodhi Gardens,” she says, “the heroes would be the dogs, the grey hornbills, the ducks and the migratory visitors to the pond.” The bandicoot rats? “They already have a sinister underground system,” she says. “The poor things would be the villains.”
Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint