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Reflections on the Historical Relationship between People and Spaces

Glass House at Lalbagh Botanical Gardens

The Glass House, a central landmark of the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, was built in 1889. Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim - Own work, GFDL 1.2,

In this essay, Danny Sexton, a 2019 participant in CAORC’s faculty development seminar to India, discusses his visit to India’s Lalbagh Botanical Gardens in Bangalore (Bengaluru) and offers reflections on the ever-changing relationship between ourselves, nature, and the built environment.

Our last full day as participants in the CAORC-AIIS Exploring Urban Sustainability through India’s Cities seminar concluded with a walking tour of the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens in Bengaluru. This excursion was a fitting culmination to our travels and experiences throughout India because it brought together the emphasis on people, spaces, and the past that were recurrent subjects in many of the lectures we attended and various sites we visited. Furthermore, it served as a visual and tangible reminder of the importance of this seminar: to preserve for both present and future generations India’s natural, cultural, and historical identities in face of rapid urbanization.

Commissioned by Hyder Ali in 1760 and completed by his son, Tipu Sultan, Lalbagh was designed in the style of a Mughal garden. Over the years, it has been expanded from its original 40 acres to 240, providing people with a much-needed respite from the teeming and incessant energy of the city that pulsates mere steps outside its four gates. Lalbagh invites and entices people to slow their pace and absorb the sights and sounds of nature from its expansive range of plants to the numerous birds and wildlife that call it home. On the day of our walking tour, it seemed as if all of Bengaluru had decided to take advantage of the afternoon to commune with nature. My mind instantly went to the previous day when we had heard a very informative lecture from Professor Harini Nagendra, the author of Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future.

Lalbagh Botanical gardens

Walking through the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens. Photo by author.

She had spoken about the various uses of architecture and the relationships between people and spaces. Nagendra divided architecture into two categories: the architecture of space (the hub of activity and power) and the architecture of territory (the landscape of agriculture, industries, and the people who live in them). Previously, these two were the same; yet now, there exists no similarities between them. If people no longer see themselves as part of nature, it alters the way they treat and care for it.

At the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM) in Mysuru, there is a sign that asks, “Can you build people who are a part of nature and not nature as something that should be conquered?” What we are witnessing is the loss of the relationship that we have to spaces (natural and other). This relationship had been more prevalent and evident in the past. Professor Nagendra mentioned that India has a rich history of cherishing and tending the land. In these historical accounts are perhaps the solutions that can be utilized to address the sustainability issues the country currently faces.

These ideas were the ones swimming in my head as we were guided through Lalbagh by Vijay Thiruvady, an engineer-turned-naturalist, and the author of Heritage Trees: In and Around Bangalore. His knowledge of the park’s history and its flora and fauna were immense. Yet what most resonated with me was the strong connection that he felt to the park and its inhabitants. Here was the relationship that Professor Nagendra has spoken about so eloquently and passionately the previous day.

Lalbagh Rock

Lalbagh Rock, another landmark of the Botanical Gardens, is one of the world’s oldest rock formations and the site of a monumental tower built by Bengaluru founder Kempe Gowda in the 16th century. Photo by the author.

In the days, weeks, and months following my time in India, I find myself often returning to those last days in Bengaluru and how it has transformed the ways in which I view people and spaces. I am constantly reminded of the opening pages of Nagendra’s Nature in the City in which she affirms, “a city is nothing without its people.”

I now look more closely at how people exist in and negotiate spaces. Furthermore, while I have a greater understanding of the complexities of urban sustainability, I also feel strongly that by looking to the past we can find methods to improve the present and secure the future for those who will follow us.

CAORC’s 2019 faculty development seminar to India was organized with the American Institute of Indian Studies and supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the following U.S. National Resource Centers in South Asian Studies: Columbia University, Cornell University, Syracuse University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, University of Texas, Austin, University of Washington, and University of Wisconsin, Madison.


About the Author

Danny Sexton

Danny Sexton is Assistant Professor of English at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York. He was among the 16 faculty participants in the seminar “Exploring Urban Sustainability through India’s Cities,” an intensive capacity-building and curriculum development seminar held in India from January 2–18, 2019.


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