“Here, you have everything in one spot,” declares P.N. Joshi, horticulturalist, including the whole of Rashtrapati Bhavan’s 75-acre Nature Trail in one sweeping gesture. “This is a miniature version of nature.” Take one look around you, at the bubbling ponds, the soaring woodland trees which resound with a concert of 103 different birdcalls, the 40 butterfly species flitting past, and you’d be inclined to agree.
But take another look, at erstwhile President Kalam’s plantations of the now-disgraced biofuel jatropha, the imported Central American weed that robs landless farmers of their subsistence, at the invasive colonialist-introduced tree species Prosopis juliflora (the ‘vilayati babul’) that edges out our indigenous trees and the mammals and birds their fruits sustain, at the vegetable patches, fruit orchards and compost pits, and you know that this miniature version of nature is indelibly marked with man’s footprint. However, instead of shambling unthinkingly along our spectacularly wasteful carbon trail, the Nature Trail invites you to see what you consume and to care about how it grows.
The whole thing certainly keeps their main audience — packs of school kids — absorbed. Trailing down, past the President’s organic kitchen garden, they marvel at the exotic broccoli and cowpeas. They widen their eyes as hands shake carrots and potatoes loose from the fragrant soil. They look startled as the gobhi in their lunch box is revealed to be the blanched, knobbly thing roosting in a nest of leaves. They peer longingly at the succulent mango-types pointed out to them: the langda, the amrapali; so edible, so eminently stealable. They squeal at the earthworms that decompose the bio-waste, transforming it into rich bio-fertiliser. “This is green gold,” Joshi tells them, cradling a palmful of compost in which writhes a moist, purple worm.
The President’s estate is a prime bit of ‘ecotone’ land, segueing as it does from woodland to parkland and then to groves and crops. Through it all winds a cobblestone path made for herding children along, and neatly labelled trees made to fuel many a stern disquisition.
As one of the people who have adapted the space for public ease and edification, wildlife biologist M. Shah Hussain is one of the ablest disquisitors around. He informs me that Delhi is home to two sorts of ecosystems: that surrounding the Yamuna river — now, sadly, a toxic sinkhole — and the Aravalis, “the oldest mountain system in the world”, a biodiversity hotspot. Part of the trail runs contiguous with the Delhi Ridge — the northern extension of the Aravalis, and Hussain provides a lively commentary on its inhabitants as they pass by. “There goes a yellow pansy,” he says, as a buttercup-coloured butterfly flits past and, pointing at another tiny pale one, “and this one here’s a white cabbage.” Pointing at a nest of thistles resting on intertwined boughs, he says, “I bet you never saw a squirrel’s nest before.”
Some species he has an appellation of his own for, such as the vilayati babul, the native-tree-killing invasive species introduced by the British for quick tree cover. “We call it the devil tree,” he says, staring intently at a towering tree with a whitened bark, appearing to wish it dead.
A creaky sound rings out, like a cane chair briefly registering protest under the weight of an ample behind. “That’s a jungle babbler.” These plump grey fellows are known as saat bhai in Hindi for their habit of foraging for worms and insects in gregarious little packs. A giddy tittering overhead is traced back to the bluish brown bird aptly known as the laughing dove or the little brown dove.
The rufous treepie, with its dramatic patterned plumage and black-and-white tail, is revealed to be a cousin of the drab city slicker, the crow. A little bird with a vivid black mohawk is the red-vented bulbul. A tiny bird with its tail held jauntily upright turns out to be the industrious, leaf-weaving tailorbird.
As an ecotone area,the Nature Trail is home to forest birds like the treepie and woodpecker, ‘double agents’ like the bulbul and urban denizens such as mynahs and house sparrows. Unlike its hardy adaptable compatriot, the mynah, the largely graminivorous sparrow has, sadly enough, all but disappeared from our cities, partly because its diet of wild grasses such as the Panicum have been replaced by ornamental plants and orchards. “Why else do you think we have a problem with rampaging monkeys in Delhi?” asks Hussain. “It’s because we’ve lost all our wild fruiting trees.” But judging from the macaques loping confidently along my path like John Travolta in Grease, there are only happy monkeys on the nature trail.
The Nature Trailis at the western end of the gardens of Rashtrapati Bhavan, bordered on the west by Mother Teresa Crescent, and can be accessed from Gate No. 35 of the President’s Estate. It is open every Saturday from 7am to 9am. Get permission at least three days ahead from the Deputy Military Secretary to the President, 011-23015321.