Thursday, November 15, 2007

Environmental wonders, Delhi

squeezed dry of rain,
a host of clouds
palest silver like delicate sea-shells,
float free in places,
waved back and forth
by brisk winds with the utmost ease;
the sky appears like a great king
fanned by a hundred fleecy cowries.

A six pointed star, about 5 cm across, with Delhi at the heart of the hexagon, placed on a map of India of the scale 1 cm to 120 km, embraces the major regions of northern India. The north apex reaches the high Himalayas where lie Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, the cold desert with its magical moon landscape. The curve to the right to the next point of the star follows the sweep of the central Himalayas and the apex encompasses the holy Mansarovar Lake in Tibet. The second curve towards the right embraces the mountains of Nepal and its two lofty peaks – Everest and Kanchenjunga. The third point of the star almost reaches Allahabad, the heartland of the fertile and populous Indo-Gangetic plain and the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna. The holy city of Varanasi is 185 km downstream. To the west of Delhi, lying between the two points of the star, is the Great Indian Desert, most of which is in the Indian state of Rajasthan. The southern point of the star reaches the forested highland of central India beyond which is the Deccan peninsula, an ancient landmass of volcanic origin.

The climate of Delhi is created by these geographic features. Hot winds blow from the desert in the summer months, and temperatures soar to 40°C, occasionally reaching a high of 46ÂșC. Violent dust storms – locally called loo – are a feature of this hot, dry season in Delhi. The blessed relief of rain follows by end-June when the monsoon reaches Delhi, having hit Kerala around the first week of June, crossed the Deccan and the Bay of Bengal to be finally deflected along the sweep of the Himalayas from east to west. Temperatures for the next few months remain in the high 30s and the humidity makes for some discomfort. Winter is the pleasantest season in Delhi, sunny and cool but the minimum temperature drops sharply in late December and January. Every time there is heavy snowfall in the mountains, icy winds blow down.

There is a brief change of season between winter and the hot weather. Spring lasts only a few weeks in February and March, but it is sweet and sensuous. It is the season of new leaf – many of Delhi’s indigenous forest trees are dressed in shades of vivid green. This is followed soon after by the procession of color of the ornamental flowering trees. The Hindu festivals of Basant Panchami and Holi celebrate this season, known in Hindi as Basant. In the Indian tradition, there are six seasons – Grishma, Varha, Sharad, Hemant, Sheet and Basant. They correspond roughly to Summer, Rains, Post-rains, Early winter, Winter and Spring. The passing of seasons has been immortalized in Indian art and literature. The most famous literary work on this theme is the 5th century Sanskrit poet, Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara, literally the gathering of seasons.

The natural vegetation of the region around Delhi can best be described as thorny scrub, which can still be seen on the outskirts of the city. If one sees the city as a triangle, the western side is a natural divide, an extension of the ancient Aravalli hills, which run through Rajasthan. The undulating terrain runs through the Cantonment area in west Delhi, and the section in the north includes Delhi University. From the highest point in the south at Bhatti, 318 meters above sea level, the fall is 100 meters to the river Yamuna which forms a natural boundary of the city on the east. The base of the triangle is rocky, broken country where small villages are cultivated for vegetables and flowers for the urban market.

The magnificent remains of the older cities of Delhi, once fed by the Yamuna, invite exploration – Surajkund, Tughlaqabad, Mehrauli, Hauz Khas, Siri and Jahanpanah. Quarrying for stone at Bhatti, and in the neighbouring state of Haryana, has recently been curtailed through legislation as an environmental health measure.

The ridge today is an important lung of metropolitan Delhi. Its evolution from thorny scrub began in the 19th century with the British, who started planting drought resistant indigenous trees, largely Neem and Babul, Palas or Flame of the Forest, a small tree with a gnarled and crooked trunk, occurs naturally. It heralds spring with bright red flowers from which a dye is extracted. In 1878, the Ridge was declared a Reserved Forest. Lutyens, the architect of New Delhi, used the undulating land to great advantage while sitting the Viceroy’s House, now Rashtrapati Bhawan, the home of the President of India, on Raisina Hill.

At the southern base of the triangle, the urban sprawl has made inroads with agricultural land being converted into luxurious estates for the elite. Architecturally, these ‘farmhouses’ are completely out of tune with the past or contemporary landscape of the area. In planning colonial Delhi, Lutyens and Baker laid out a geometric pattern of roads radiating from roundabouts while keeping the Mughal and pre-Mughal monuments as axis points. They thus achieved an architectural synthesis of history and, at the same time, extended the garden concept integral to the buildings of the Mughal period to the avenues of New Delhi. The credit for planting indigenous forest species, a brilliant and practical idea, is shared with Lutyens by William Robertson Mustoe, a gardener from London’s Kew Gardens, who came to India in 1919. Together they created a garden city while not tampering with the old parks: Roshanara, the garden created by Shahjahan’s daughter, Qudsia and Shalimar gardens in north Delhi. The Ridge area in north Delhi, with Flagstaff Tower at the highest point, was a rambling wilderness until the idea of ‘beautification’ came up. This was the British cantonment during the 1857 war from where their attack was launched to recapture Delhi. In the 50 years since independence, Delhi’s population has grown by leaps and bounds. The garden city has expanded to become an unwieldy mega metropolis posing a severe strain on civic amenities and the environment.

After partition, the refugees from Punjab were allotted land in compensation for the homes they had to abandon: Karol bagh, Patel Nagar and Rajendra Nagar in west Delhi, Model Town in north Delhi and Lajpat Nagar in south Delhi. Now they are bustling centers of Punjabi enterprise.

The seat of government brought its own changes as government apparatus grew in size. A certain architectural homogeneity was retained in most of the new government buildings by the use of columns, domes, deep corridors and by continuing the use of the familiar pink sandstone from Rajasthan. The manpower needs of the burgeoning bureaucracy accounted for the growth of government housing colonies within New Delhi. Chanakyapuri, named after the master strategist, Chanakya, of the 4th century BC, is the diplomatic quarter.

Expansion continued. As bylaws changed and property values soared, gardens were sacrificed to greed. Soon the city spilled over across the Yamuna in the east, creating a concrete jungle, and south of the border into Haryana, which developed self-contained, suburban style housing complexes.

Some portions of the ridge have been landscaped and converted into parks. Buddha Jayanti Park was originally conceived as a Japanese garden. A splendid image of the Buddha was installed in 1990. Trees planted by visiting dignitaries in the 1950s have matured and lend variety to the landscaped garden. Mahavir Jayanti Park, near Maurya Sheraton Hotel, was developed more recently.

The city planners had some provision for park areas other than the ridge. The necropolis of the Lodi kings was tastefully landscaped around the monuments in the 1960s and called Lodi garden. The moat around Purana Qila was expanded into a serpentine lake where paddleboats are available. The grounds south of it became the National Zoological Park. Delhi Golf Club incorporates some old monuments creating a picturesque setting. Golfers tee off, often distracted by the unmusical call of peacocks.

In the third week of February, Mughal Garden at Rashtrapati Bhawan is open to public for about two weeks. The mass of colour is enchanting, the lawns impeccably manicured, the trees magnificent, even if the overwhelming security checks take away quite a bit from their enjoyment.

Nehru Park, located near Ashok Hotel in Chanakyapuri, is another well-landscaped garden. The rolling lawns are enlivened with groups of interesting trees and flowering shrubs. A group of three enormous Trees of Heaven (Ailanthus excelsa), provides a focus on the lawn near the rather forlorn statue of Lenin.

Forest species for avenue trees were selected primarily to provide shade. For instance, Neem is the choice for many of the major roads, including Lodi Road, Sher Shah Marg, Rafi Marg and Sansad marg leading from Parliament House to Connaught Place. Arjuna terminalia, with its distinctive light grey bark, lines Janpath, a major north-south road, and Firoz Shah Road. A group of six stands at the entrance of Safdarganj’s tomb. Tamarind is the choice for Akbar Road, Pipal for Panchsheel Marg and Banyan for Rajaji Marg.

Eugenia jambolana, the Java Plum or jamun is used extensively: Tughlaq Road, the northern half of Janpath and around India gate. The dark purple fruit is a seasonal delicacy but messy when it ripens and falls on the ground during the rainy season. Each of these species has many uses besides medicinal properties.

Variety is provided chiefly on the roundabouts or on subsidiary roads. Kanak Champa (Pterospermum acerifolium) on Jai Singh Road is a striking tree because of the size of its foot-long creamy flowers surrounded by five curled back sepals of the same length. The leaves are used as wrappings or made into plates, disposable and biogradable. A group of five Gingko-like trees, actually Hardwickia Binnata, a lone cypress and a clump of Kewra add character to the small masjid on the roundabout at the head of Sunheri Bagh Road.

The kaleidoscope of changing colors and fragrances continues through the year. The older indigenous trees have insignificant blossoms but provide variety in tints of green as they come into new leaf. Pipal (Ficus religiosa) and Kusum (Schleichera trijuga) are both delightful, as the young leaves are shades of rust or deep carmine which change gradually into a soft translucent lime green before assuming the deep green. This play of colors characterizes spring and early summer.

Then the flowering trees take over. The Coral tree (Erythrina indica), with its bright red spike-like blossoms and Jacaranda (mimosacfolia), with its delicate flowers in shades of mauve, is soon followed by Amaltas (cassia Fistula), draped in hanging bunches of fragrant bright yellow blossoms offset by the brown foot-long cylindrical seed pods of the last season. Champa or Temple Tree is a favourite in many homes besides public places and gardens. It grows easily, is attractive, and has exquisitely textured and scented flowers.

Well into summer, Gulmohur introduced in 1829 from its native Madagascar, comes into its own, its spreading crown a blaze of red shaded with orange. Pride of India, a small-sized tree, blooms in shades of deep pink or mauve, and then, turns to violet. Closer towards winter, the rusty shield bearer stands out with its copper-red oblong seed pods and sprays of yellow-touched-with-rust flowers. By mid September, Chorissia speciosa is glorious in its orchid-like blossoms in shades of pink and white, while Alstonia scholaris, often called Devil’s Tree, calls attention to itself with its heady fragrance.

Because of trees, gardens and the river, bird life in and around the city is abundant despite the pollution and the teeming population. Late winter and spring are the best time to wander in the gardens and to look out for birds. The winter migrants are still here and the trees, not yet in leaf, provide good viewing. Wagtails begin to lose their winter drabness; the blue throat will have its band of colors, and the red throat too. The warblers flit incessantly. A flock of starlings may alight on the ground and start feeding voraciously.

The brilliant green of the rose-ringed parakeets perching precariously on the soft grey and muted sandstone walls of the tombs at Lodi garden, tails fanned out, is an unforgettable sight. On the dome, there might be the ponderous white-backed vultures. Flitting through the trees you may glimpse the golden oriole or locate it through its rich flute-like call. A flash of deep turquoise will give away the white-breasted kingfisher. Or you may glimpse the common grey hornbill that is very partial to the ficus species. At dusk, the cacophony of mynahs, sparrows, crows, jostling for space in the putranjivas or malsarry may be punctuated by the sweet song of the magpie robin staking its claim to territory. The harbinger of the monsoon is the pied-crested cuckoo, which rides in from Africa on the south-westerlies.

Winter is the ideal time to see migratory waterfowl. At the Okhla barrage over the Yamuna in southeast Delhi, you will find herons, barheaded geese and brahmini duck down from their nesting grounds in Ladakh, and from Siberia and central Europe, common pochard, tufted duck, pintails, shoveller, mallard, gadwall, redheaded pochard if you are lucky, besides the comb duck, spotbills and coot. Spoonbills, avocets, painted storks, open-billed storks and the occasional black-necked stork can also be seen.

Another place good for watching water birds is the Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary, about 55km southwest of Delhi beyond Gurgaon. The Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary near Bharatpur, on the Agra-Jaipur highway, about 120km from Delhi, is the only wintering ground of endangered Siberian cranes.

In south Delhi, some areas have been demarcated as wildlife preserves, notably the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary near Tughlaqabad Fort. The area immediately south of Qutb is also worth a wander. Sanjay van, adjoining the Qutb Institutional Area, is a wilderness within the city and retains the indigenous flora and fauna of the Ridge. Peacocks abound in these parks.

The Yamuna is under threat. Much of its water is drawn away at the Wazirabad barrage in north Delhi to supply the needs of the metropolis and the rest is subjected to millions of tons of toxic effluents and untreated sewage. The meandering river bed is cultivated to grow water melons in summer but during the monsoon, the river rages in its full glory, reclaiming its bed. The sluice gates are opened allowing the accumulated water hyacinth to be cleared.

Unlike other cities with rivers, Delhi does not have a waterfront, perhaps because of seasonal fluctuations. However, the land created between the eastern wall of the old city and the current riverbed has been developed into massive memorial parks beginning with Raj Ghat, dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, and later the memorials of Jawaharlal Nehru and other prime ministers of India.

The basic building material for the older cities of Delhi was the grayish stone quarried in the region. The stucco finish of pre-Mughal and Mughal buildings acted both as a binding plaster and a medium for decorative motifs.

Sandstone for exterior facing has been used for over a thousand years. The most spectacular example is the Qutb Minar. Being a soft stone, it lends itself to the chisel and can be worked in intricate detail. The red sandstone comes from Mathura and Agra and the buff-beige from Dholpur, Bharatpur and Alwar.

Red Fort uses a mix red sandstone for the great ramparts and outer walls and the finest Makrana marble, quarried in Rajasthan, gleaming white, for the private palaces and Diwan-e-Am, the hall of public audience. The wall with the built-in throne, has some of the finest examples of pictra dura work, using dark grey limestone for the bird panels which are set in shimmering white marble and held together as a composition with coils of delicate floral arabesques. Kurkura, a mustard-yellow limestone quarried near Jaisalmer, for branches and stems. For the details of the panels, semiprecious stones are used, including turquoise, cornelian, agate, onyx and lapis lazuli.

Marble and Kota stone from Rajasthan, slate from Himachal and black granite from Cuddapah in Andhra Pradesh continue to be used in contemporary buildings.

The many cities of Delhi have been created over the centuries. Its monuments of stone will endure, but its very life-blood, the river Yamuna, is under assault and something must be done immediately to save it.