“I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side,…nobody cares for the woods as I care for them…..” (Treebeard, Lord of the Rings)
Forests have historically been martyrs to human ambition. Especially cities, where human civilization flourished. In the Indian epic, Mahabharatha, the Pandavas burnt down Khandava Vana to establish the city of Indraprastha. New Delhi is said to stand where once Indraprastha flourished. The destruction of Khandava Vana may have been a mythical tale, but the forests of the ancient Aravalli Hills that have been shrinking as Delhi expanded is today’s reality. Protected forests in other metropolitan cities and the charismatic wildlife that live in them such as the leopards of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (Mumbai), the blackbuck of Guindy National Park (Chennai) or the elephants of Bannerghatta National Park (Bengaluru) have not been spared either as the cities have developed.
If national parks, with the highest protection under law are threatened, what chance do smaller urban forests stand? Gunda thopes are wooded groves that were once found across Karnataka. Many were planted during the time of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan in the 18th century. The groves were a source of timber, fuelwood, and fodder for the local villagers and a place to rest for travelers. Jackfruit, jamun, mango, Indian butter tree, tamarind and Ficus species were planted and cared for by villagers. Children clambered up fruit trees devouring raw mangoes with salt and chilli powder or on the jamun till their tongues turned purple. Shrines to village deities, nagarkallus (snake stones), and stones smeared with vermilion and turmeric were worshiped by the villagers. During festivals like Ramnavmi the entire village collected in the grove — the people feasted in the shade while the birds chattered away in the canopy above.
Today these groves are hard to find. In Bengaluru city, the groves have been converted to housing for the poor, bus stands, community halls and schools to accommodate the needs of the growing city. Sometimes a lone banyan is all that is left of a once thickly wooded grove. Other groves are in a sad state with fallen trees or dumped with garbage. Saddest of all is how these groves have disappeared from the memory of the locals.
We may never know how many groves, like gunda thopes, existed in cities across the country. Or how many more such urban forests will become martyrs to expanding cities.
But all is not lost.
The opening quote is by Treebeard, an Ent, from the fantasy novel “Lord of the Rings”. Ents are Shepherds of the Trees, protectors of the forests of Middle Earth, where the book is set. Treebeard is angry with the tree-slaying wizard Saruman, and sorrowful that no one cares for forests anymore. But like Treebeard Planet Earth too has her Ents.
There are citizen movements to protect urban forests, activists who take the battle to courts, and children demanding a future where they too can clamber up trees to taste the mango and jamun. These are the defenders of our urban forests — today’s Ents who are firmly on the side of urban forests.