The ornamental gateway to Mumbai’s oldest public zoo —Veermata Jijabai Bhonsale Udyan — opens into a landscape founded on decades of planning and work. Originally known as the Victoria Gardens, the tale of its creation started in 1835, when the British administration granted a large plot of land in Sewri to the Agri-Horticultural Society of Western India.
Earmarked for a botanical garden, this area was then acquired for a European burial ground. It was in 1861 that the decision to ‘convert the useless and low-lying land known as Mount Estate in Mazagaon’, now regarded as a forming part of Byculla, was taken. Flora from Sewri were transferred to Byculla and the final laying out of Victoria Gardens commenced in July 1862.
With the society at the helm of affairs in the maintenance of the garden, it was formally opened to the public by Lady Frere on November 19, 1862. But when bankruptcy plagued the Agri-Horticultural Society in 1867, members began requesting for funds from the municipal commissioners for the upkeep of the garden. Later years saw the decline of the society and the matters of the garden fell into the purview of the municipal corporation. The corporation added 15 acres to the original 33 acres of the garden.
Gazette papers of the zoo reveals stories from its golden years, when a collection of 1,800 trees belonging to 150 species made up the green cover, while more than 1,200 specimens of mammals, birds and reptiles attracted an annual collection of Rs 45,000, even in those days. While the papers remind one of a time when the zoo housed lions and other wild animals, presently there are no lions and only around 50 species of fauna in the zoo.
Beyond the incredible flora and fauna that once comprised the gardens are multiple architectural marvels: Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, that echoes of designs from the Italian Renaissance; the building that houses the staff of the zoo built in Graeco-Roman style erected in the memory of Lady Frere; and the David Sassoon clock tower and fountain that lie testament to a period that shaped Mumbai’s architectural landscape.
“At present, we are looking at some serious infrastructure renovation, especially in the enclosure facilities. This will include construction of the first-ever natural environment habitat, allowing us to introduce a range of different species like penguins in the zoo premises. The plan has been envisaged with the next 20 years in mind.” said Sanjay Tripathi, director of the zoo.
The changing concept of a zoo and facilitating a live habitat interaction that is natural and poses no harm to the animals is the way the authorities propose to go about in an attempt to increase the declining number that visit the zoo.
The Byculla zoo is part of a long list of such properties across the city that allow an understanding of the changes experienced by a metropolis like Mumbai through a brisk walk down its lanes.
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