Meet the guardians of Mumbai’s Rani Bagh

The five trustees (from left) Katie Bagli, Shubhada Nikharge, Sheila Tanna, Hutokshi Rustomfram and Hutoxi Arethna. Images: courtesy Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Foundation
The five trustees (from left) Katie Bagli, Shubhada Nikharge, Sheila Tanna, Hutokshi Rustomfram and Hutoxi Arethna. Images: courtesy Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Foundation

Summary

For nearly 20 years, a foundation led by five women has rallied to protect and preserve a 60-acre garden in Byculla

For Hutokshi Rustomfram, summer visits from Pune to her maternal grandmother’s home in Mumbai meant visiting Rani Bagh in Byculla every evening. “Those were the days when the botanical garden was an integral part of the community—there was no entry fee, people used it as a thoroughfare and it was a garden for one and all," recalls the 67-year-old, who together with four feisty women—Katie Bagli, Shubhada Nikharge, Sheila Tanna and Hutoxi Arethna—co-founded Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Foundation in April 2007.

The women-led foundation has been the custodian of the 160-year-old Veermata Jijabhai Bhosale Botanical Udyan and Zoo, popularly known as Rani Bagh, for nearly two decades. Spread across 60 acres, the garden is a green space in the heart of Byculla, and was set up in November 1862 by the Agri Horticultural Society of Western India. Back then it was named Victoria Gardens in honour of Queen Victoria. Two enormous African baobab trees stand guard on either side of a triple triumphal arch, leading into the home of 4,131 trees of 256 species.

It is that rare pocket of green in a city that constantly sees redevelopment and encroachment of open spaces to accommodate its burgeoning population. Besides being a precious green lung, it’s also a rare egalitarian public space accessible to millions of Mumbai’s children. Children from municipal schools across the city come on field trips to Rani Bagh at least once a year. On any afternoon, it’s common to find groups of botany students making extensive notes under the canopy of trees. During public holidays and festivals, the number of visitors swells to almost 30,000.

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The foundation, set up as a public charitable trust, has been protecting and preserving this space, and ensuring it remains open to everyone, for 17 years. Since every visitor would not know the names of all the plants, the foundation has planned to introduce ebooks and conducts regular tree-cum-heritage walks to introduce visitors to special specimens as well as to unique heritage structures.

Rani Bagh’s Japanese garden
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Rani Bagh’s Japanese garden

Even before Mumbai got its iconic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or the Victorian Gothic edifice of the high court, Rani Bagh was already welcoming visitors. Its beginnings can be traced to a botanical garden in Sewri, which was relocated to Byculla, as the land that it had occupied was acquired to create a burial ground for European officers and aristocrats. The new, expansive botanical garden was officially opened by Lady Catherine Frere, wife of Henry Bartle Frere, then governor of Bombay, on 19 November 1862, making it one of the oldest public gardens in the city. In 1890, 15 more acres were added to establish a zoo.

In 2007, Rani Bagh’s existence seemed to be threatened when the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation decided to expand the existing zoo, and create a larger one on “international standards" with open enclosures, night safaris and fine-dining restaurants.

Residents feared that the envisaged redevelopment would endanger the biodiversity of the garden and that an increase in the ticket cost would deny access to citizens from every stratum of society.

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On hearing about these plans, the five women—who were also volunteers with the Bombay Natural History Society and shared a love for the outdoors—came together to protest against the plans for redevelopment. In 2012, after five years of working as an informal committee towards protecting the gardens, they formed the Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Foundation to continue their fight in a more formal manner.

They have rallied to safeguard the garden, investing a considerable amount of their personal time and funds. Their effort has been a labour of love, and by no means an easy one. Using democratic forums and tools available to common citizens such as the Right to Information Act, they filed petitions, meticulously collected data, and attended official site visits.

After proving that the plans endangered the botanical garden, they successfully stalled the plans. “Regular follow-ups, careful scrutiny of documentation became our strength," says Nikharge.

The foundation made a strong case for the inclusion of the word “botanical" in the official name, thereby ensuring that its very fabric remained sacrosanct. “We filed suggestions-objections in 2015 and 2016 pushing for the designation, ‘botanical garden’," the foundation’s website says. Finally in November 2016, their efforts paid off and a designation was created for Rani Bagh.

“The new ‘botanical garden’ designation was forwarded by the Review Panel to the Urban Development Department of the State Government. The UDD Sanction finally came through on September 12, 2022. The new DP (development plan) designation ‘botanical garden’ is a clear vindication of our stand and toil," states the website. The group was also successful in securing a Grade II-B heritage status for Rani Bagh, thus ensuring that, going forward, any proposed changes would have to be approved by the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee.

To mark the completion of 150 years since the inception of the gardens in 2012, they published a richly illustrated coffee-table book, Rani Bagh 150 Years.

With 80% of Mumbai’s flora present within the premises, a stroll through Rani Bagh offers a rare chance to see many common and some unusual trees and plants. From the Brownea coccinea with its bright red flowers, the tall and arresting cannon ball trees to sprawling rain trees, Rani Bagh is a treasure chest of flora. The 500-year-old baobabs stand as proud sentinels, their bulbous trunks repositories of thousands of stories. Thanks to the Save Rani Bagh Foundation, future generations of Mumbai’s children will be able to behold these wondrous trees along with many others and delight in their precious company.

Chaitali Patel is a Dubai-based travel and culture writer.

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