Lessons From Nature
Saurav Malhotra from the Balipara Foundation shares his experience and the idea behind the setting up of the Eastern Himalayan Botanical Gardens in Assam.
Photo: Saurav Malhotra
As one drives through the lush tea gardens and enters the unassuming gates of the Eastern Himalayan Botanic Gardens, a few things become evident. To begin with, there is an instant nip in the air and this relief from the heat is accompanied by the welcome calls of the Common Myna. Further into the Botanic Gardens, the growth becomes dense with giant bamboo plants, and the quiet is occasionally interrupted by the revelry of monkeys. The Botanic Gardens’ team has exemplified the power of nature in a simple experiment that speaks volumes- the team turned a dusty parking lot in Balipara, Assam, into a dense wild habitat by allowing nature to flourish.
What makes the Eastern Himalayan Botanic Gardens distinctive, and the first of its kind in the Eastern Himalaya, is its focus on preserving the local habitat – not just endemic plants but also cultures and traditions of the neighbouring region.
Essential to the process of preserving an ecosystem is achieving an understanding of the same. To this end, the Botanic Gardens team is studying the composition of forests in some of the major National Parks of Assam. The knowledge thus acquired helps maintain an endemic-species nursery comprising high-quality saplings that are then used in afforestation projects. This ensures that the newly afforested region is similar to the forests endemic to the very region. One such project has been undertaken at the Khalingduar Reserve Forest on the Indo-Bhutan border.
Focusing on local ecosystems, the Botanic Gardens team is also carrying out an ethnobotanic survey of some of Assam’s indigenous communities to record the wealth of multi-generational, cultural knowledge with a special focus on edible and medicinal plants. I had the opportunity of joining the team on one such trip and interacting with a woman who grew up in the midst of nature. This blind woman, no less than 80 years old, harbours no sign of Weltschmerz (A German word that means sadness over the evils of the world). She told us tales of how the innumerable leaves in her backyard have been used to cure ailments for centuries. All this information was recorded and catalogued lest it be lost to future generations.
One can encounter the physical manifestation of these surveys upon the Botanic Garden trail. The healthy medicinal plants garden, embodies the knowledge gained through the ethnobotanic surveys. The specimens are catalogued in the herbarium and seeds are stored in the seed-bank. Both will play a vital preservation role in this age of rapid extinction. On one instance, as I walked through a dense patch of multi-layered forest – the result of the Botanic Gardens’ team’s efforts in growing various species of bamboo important in local crafts, construction and having multiple socio-economic benefits – I came across a flock of Oriental White-eye perched on a majestic ficus.
I then crossed over a pond on a small bridge made of bamboo only to encounter a shy resident of the garden pond, a Common Kingfisher. The pond is home to a variety of aquatic plants and also, a bold Indian Pond Heron.
Nestled in the green haven of the Botanic Gardens is the newly launched NaturenomicsTM School, which serves as a centre for disseminating the collective knowledge of the various branches of Botanic Gardens, experts and local communities. The school is building a unique curriculum of both broad-focus courses on the environment and pertinent issues, as well as more niche courses on birds, butterflies, medicinal plants and the like. Such centres of learning are becoming increasingly important in this day and age of rapid environmental destruction. Their role in creating awareness and educating the masses on ways of protecting habitats is critical.
The trail ends at the NaturenomicsTM Store. Housed in a Chang Ghor (A typical Assamese house on stilts, commonly built by the Hajong tribe), it is run by WUYA and pro-motes locally woven and naturally dyed fabrics and produce – another essential venture in promoting the eco-friendly cultural heritage of local artisans. Mass tourism and its exploits need to be replaced by such mindful tourism, and the Eastern Himalayan Botanic Gardens set a great example of how that can be achieved successfully and sustainably.
One can also head over to sample the ethnic cuisine at Bhelaghor a restaurant operated by Saneki, a local NGO and run by people from nearby communities.
Experiencing the Eastern Himalayan Botanic Gardens, with its dense foliage and sightings of shrikes, Spangled Drongos, barbets, innumerable butterflies and even an Indian rock python, can help one realise the vital need for establishing safe green havens.
The Eastern Himalayan Botanical Gardens clearly stand testament to the fact that nature, when left to its own device has an incredible ability to heal not only itself but also those who play a role in its regeneration.
Saurav Malhotra is a Project Executive at Elephant Country – Udalguri Landscape Mission, Balipara Foundation. As part of the NaturenomicsTM team he is working with communities in Bodoland to rebuild degraded Asian Elephant corridors through the creation of alternative livelihoods, and building community assets for local communities.
Author: Saurav Malhotra.