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City Archives – Delhi Forests, Around Town

[Digging out old stories from The Delhi Walla]

Secretive and silent. Intertwined trees, twisted trunks, thorny twigs, rocky slopes, and clumps of grass. The nearest McDonald’s is two miles away. The Delhi Walla is on Delhi’s Central Ridge, a forest in the Capital’s heart abutting Sardar Patel Road in Chanakyapuri.

For a city on the edge of a desert, Delhi is remarkable for the number and diversity of its trees. This dry, dusty metropolis is home to 252 species (New York has 130). We could just as well be in a rainforest. The 2009 Forest Survey of India records Delhi’s forest area at 85 sq. km, which is 5.73 per cent of the city. In the period between 2005 and 2009, the cover grew by 16 sq. km.

Delhi’s pockets of wilderness are rarely frequented. The popular Lodhi Garden and Nehru Park are wooded but the grass is trimmed, the hedges pruned. The natural wilderness that once existed is now hidden, built upon or degraded. Connaught Place was a forest of babool trees before the British destroyed it to make a commercial district. Over the years, especially after independence, many parts of the Aravalli hills, which end in isolated hills and rocky slopes in the Capital, have been flattened to make way for neighbourhoods and bazaars.

The Ridge, the hilly spur of the Aravallis that survives in four distinct patches in and around the Capital, is Delhi’s lungs. It starts at Wazirabad, north Delhi, passes through Delhi University, and goes to Paharganj, where it was levelled and built over. The central portion, made into a reserved forest in 1914, extends from Sadar Bazaar to Dhaula Kuan. Some bits have since been nibbled away by petrol pumps.

The Ridge then surfaces in areas such as Jawaharlal Nehru University in the south, before culminating in the Tughlakabad stretch that includes the Asola Bhatti wildlife sanctuary. Mangar Bani falls in the last part.

Not far from the Chattarpur farmhouses in south Delhi, it is a spectacular sight. It is a 100-hectare jungle, consisting of dhau, a tree with small leaves and silvery trunk. A species that’s adapted to rocky land, there are great jungles of dhau in Ranthambore and in Bundelkhand, but here it is close to the limits of a metropolis, with the skyscrapers of Gurgaon threatening an invasion from the west.

Early morning is the best time to visit Mangar Bani. The forest is sacred, the trees are worshipped and there are two temples. The valley has a village of Gujjar herdsmen who believe in a mystic called Gudariyadas Baba. The forest has survived because of the faith of villagers. They believe that cutting a tree — even a branch — would invite Baba’s wrath. On Sundays, village children share stories of the invisible Baba under a banyan tree.

After the rains, tiny red velvet mites appear, their almost-luminous bodies in stark contrast to the greens around them. A monitor lizard, more than a metre long, ambles into the undergrowth. Above, a sunbird flits in the low branches. Underfoot, a centipede plays dead.

Click here to read the rest of this article originally published on The Delhi Walla in July 2011.

Mangar Bani forest, Delhi