The desert is a daunting place for plants. Soil and water, elements essential for survival, are scarce. The heat soaks into sand and rock, scorching tender leaves and stems. Few species can adapt themselves to this environment. Yet one introduced plant, Prosopis juliflora (called baavlia in Marwari, vilayati babul or kikar in Hindi), has not only managed to prosper in India's desert and dryland regions, it has established itself as the dominant tree, sprawling greenly where little grows. Its thorns and inedible leaves keep browsing animals away, making it useless for pastoralists seeking fodder. Its roots burrow deep into rock crevices to find fugitive nutrients and it releases toxic alkaloids to discourage competitors. P. juliflora's wildly successful spread, not just in India alone but also East Africa and Australia, has now become akin to an invasion. And native plants have lost out to this formidable rival. Pervasive and pernicious, Prosopis juliflora isn't exactly popular but its presence seems an inevitable part of our landscape today.
Imagining a desert landscape before baavlia, where native plants prevail and, in the process, support wild and domesticated fauna, is extraordinarily difficult. P. juliflora is everywhere and almost impossible to remove. Yet precisely this feat of restoration has been accomplished in the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park in Jodhpur which opened to the public last month. Replacing the baavlia is a marvelous range of trees, shrubs and grasses, indigenous to the Thar desert, and some of them unique to this habitat. The 175-acre Park lies at the foot of the cliffs that are crowned by Mehrangarh Fort, enclosed by massive fort walls that march across the hills. A disused aqueduct, carved out by hand centuries ago, runs through the Park, and its steep sides and narrow passage have been harnessed to create a dramatic walking trail, where explorers chance upon one unexpected plant after another. The Park's illustrated plant guide is a great companion along the trail, providing excellent pictures and well-written descriptions to help one better appreciate the plants.
Unlike tropical and temperate plants which often have in-your-face attractions — flamboyant flowers, luxuriant foliage and stately shapes, the plants of the desert are more reticent in revealing their charms. They demand a different kind of attention, rewarding close and careful examination with glimpses of subtle beauty. In Rao Jodha Park, one quickly learns to recalibrate one's vision, zooming in on detail. From the broad vista with Mehrangarh Fort rearing up in the distance, one focuses on feathery grass flower-heads, the chocolate fuzz on dry santari (Ipomea pes-tigridis) seed pods, the tiny ruby fruit on peeloo (Salvadora persica) which taste of pepper. There are dramatic plants too, like the sculptural thhor (Euphorbia caducifolia) with its spines and succulent stems, and kair (Capparis decidua) whose leafless branches burst into bright orange flowers twice a year, but many more that are painted from a more muted palette dictated by the desert's constraints.
So, instead of instant appreciation, desert plants bring forth a deeper engagement, going down to the bedrock of basic ecology. The rock in question is volcanic rhyolite, and clefts in its tall columns provide footholds for plants. There is also the more tractable Vindhyan sandstone which yields greater space and soil for living things. Out of the meager crevices of these stones grow lithophytes — plants that have adapted to the discipline of the desert, evolving features that help them withstand its harshness. Strategies such as succulence (being able to store water), growing waxy leaves to prevent moisture loss and fine hairs to reflect light and reduce surface temperatures, are among the many devices by which plants survive the summer and slowly grow over the years. Many grasses and herbs have evolved a different route to reproductive success: In their short months of life they squeeze out millions of seeds, tough time capsules that spring into life with the next year's rains. The avidity with which these annuals seize the day is visible even after their death in winter, when tussocks of dry grass cover the Park's hills in a golden haze.
Understanding ecology, the work of the seasons, and the stratagems that plants employ adds a new dimension to plant appreciation, one that is often neglected in more conventional botanical parks. The Rao Jodha Park not only cultivates plants, it encourages its visitors to cultivate a new sensibility that sees plants as part of a larger cycle of life that makes up an ecosystem. The perspective offered is that of a historic landscape and, in miniature form, the Park succeeds in creating a microcosm of the desert that lies outside its walls. It is not too fanciful to imagine that, in the fullness of time, as its vegetation matures, the Park may take its place among the great gardens of the world. The stunning minimalism of the Zen gardens of Kyoto, the temperate pastoral grace of England's stately parks, the cosmic symbolism of Mughal char-baghs — each reflects a different mode of imagining how nature should be perceived and valued. The Rao Jodha Park suggests another way: Respecting the lay of the land and honouring it with a meticulously curated collection of the plants that belong here.
Six years of intense thought and labour have preceded the opening of the Park. The Mehrangarh Museum Trust invited Pradip Krishen, botanical expert and author of Trees of Delhi, to green a degraded patch of land below the fort. Krishen wryly recounts his team's travails in trying to root out the stubborn baavlia, and how their fortunes turned once they recruited Khandwalia rock miners to prise out the plant from its deep niches. Into those vacated spaces went soil and new saplings sprouted from seeds collected all over the rocky desert, aided by advice from Professor M.M. Bhandari, doyen of desert botany, who was still alive then. Vinod Puri, an expert on the medicinal uses of plants, is in charge of growing and protecting the Park's flora.
The Park's Visitors Centre, designed by Golak Khandual, surrounds the refurbished historic gate of Singhauria Pol with an eccentric rhyolite fence, enclosing a mini-garden of grasses and spiny Echinops echinatus. As the Park establishes itself on the circuit of discerning tourists, it also reaches out to the local community, planning to involve retired persons from the adjoining neighbourhood as guides and interpreters. Offering not only beauty but food for thought, the Rao Jodha Park should inspire more efforts to restore heritage landscapes across the country.
For more information about the Park, visit raojodhapark.com