Kings, dictators, prime ministers and presidents have all turned gardener here. But never in the monsoon though. Leeches, people say. Slushy ground, they complain. But once you've tried it, it is difficult to imagine a better time to be come to Godavari.
When the morning sun rises from the distant mountains to seep into Kathmandu Valley, the first to be lit up in its warm glow are not the tall buildings. The city sees light a good half hour after the goddess on Phulchowki, 2715m high, 14 km southwest of Lalitpur. Even the rain likes the area-Phulchowki and her base, Godavari, receive the most rainfall in the Valley. It is truly a blessed place. No surprise, then, that even a Rana prime minister decided to build himself a massive summer palace here, far from the city's crowds, heat and dust.
Imagine an area covering less than half the size of the Valley, a 20-minute drive from the city centre, with a collection of wildlife, flora and fauna to rival the best national park. We owe this fantastic getaway in great part to the vision of King Mahendra, who decided in 1962 to declare some 200 acres of the natural forest-land at the base of Phulchowki a Royal Botanical Garden. The garden is the only one of its kind in Nepal-with facilities for students and botanists, and also space for picnickers and holiday makers. "Our main aim is to enrich the garden with indigenous plants from all over Nepal, and use this collection for scientific investigation, conservation, and education," says Indira Sharma, who is responsible for the garden. Sharma, a botanist, previously spent 25 years at the National Herbarium and Plant Laboratories right next to the garden.
It is impossible not to lose oneself in the garden's verdant peace, but there is plenty to astonish the observant. Among the lush undergrowth and the murmuring brooks that pass through the garden there are approximately 4,500 specimens of flowering and non-flowering plants, some of them endangered or rare like the Cyathea apinolusa, commonly called the tree fern, which is eaten in some parts of Nepal. As Sharma pointed out, not all species in the garden are native, some have been collected from far-flung areas of Nepal, and others are the result of seed exchange programmes with botanical gardens around the world. There are different greenhouses to display exotic varieties of cacti, like the incredible, rather ugly three-headed cactus Echinocactus grusonii, tropical plants and over 90 species of orchids. The area is dotted with little Japanese-style and rock gardens, to enthral the over 100,000 visitors who make their way to the garden every year.
Entrance to the garden comes cheap, Rs 5 for Nepalis, Rs 10 for SAARC citizens and Rs 25 for others. This doesn't include a guided tour, but you do get brochures and maps, and all the plants are labelled. It's great fun to lose yourself and find interesting things, instead of having a structured visit with a guide droning in the background. The garden is open to the public everyday from 9am to 4pm in the winter and an hour longer the rest of the year. "We come here to escape the noise of the city. It's so quiet and peaceful," says a couple, watching their young children turn cartwheels and examine a funny looking shrub.
With its innumerable nooks, crannies and stunning vistas, the garden is the star of many photo shoots, especially dance sequences in Nepali films. Entrance, camera fees and location royalties bring in around Rs 1 million annually, all of which goes into the central coffers. With an annual development budget of just Rs 2.5 million, it is always a struggle to keep the place running smoothly. Most of the funds go to pay the daily wages of the 25 staff, all drawn from the local communities, who try to keep the garden clean and save the plants, especially the endangered species from rowdy visitors and flower freaks who want to take some of the magic back home. "Educating the visitors about garden ethics is a chief concern for us," Sharma says, complaining about all the litter her team has to clear after every weekend picnic, not to mention re-rooting uprooted plants. The strain of maintaining such a large space is starting to tell-the boundary walls are crumbling, toilets are always locked up if they're not smelling, and picknickers like to leave behind testimonies of their visit. Or maybe they think trash is a rare and refreshing treat for the birds and animals.
Things are changing, but very slowly. There are some new additions like the Botanical Information Centre just inside the gate, an exhibition hall displaying the variety of plants that can be bought in the garden's nursery, and a fairly good restaurant overlooking the garden. The north side of the garden, which houses a research and awareness-raising initiative called the Conservation and Educational Garden (CED), has been given a complete facelift. It was specially constructed for students, researchers, and naturalists. The main, or southern part, of the RBG is natural vegetation growing at its own pace, and that's perhaps the best part of the garden to see nature at its rejuvenating best, a relief from teh scare of development that assail your senses the moment you step out of the woods.
The CED has about 90 specimens of trees, 26 kinds of shrubs, 38 herbs, and eight climbers. There are medicinal plants, edible plants, poisonous ones and decorative ones. There are the fabled species said to yield timber, which was used in the construction of some of the Valley's best-known temples and monuments. Entrance is only Rs 2, and this section has a lot more open space, so if you just want to sprawl and read, or keep an eye on your (well-behaved) children, this is not a bad place to be.
If you've ever had a burning desire to know all about Nepali flora, go to the National Herbarium and Plant Laboratories. The herbarium houses around 100,000 mounted and 50,000 un-mounted plant specimens collected from all over the country, covering some 5,500 of the 6,500 known species. Here you can see endangered species like the Tetra centrum, commonly known as "the living fossil" or find out which of the nuts you find in the jungles are edible when you finally make that break and leave the city.
The herbarium and the garden work closely with each other in cultivating and studying endangered plants. "Our work involves researching, collecting and preserving samples of plants from all over Nepal, and trying to establish their economic value," says Dr Mahesh Adhikari, the herbarium's senior research officer. Besides the botanical museum and a library of journals for students and researchers, the building also houses five hi-tech plant laboratories working on anatomy, cytology (the study of plant cells), mycology (fungi), phycology (algae), and tissue culture (breeding healthy plant specimens with the aid of artificial nutrients).
Anthropologists would also do well to spend some time at Godavari-the area has cultural and religious significance for many communities. The chief goddess of the Tamang people -actually called Phulchowki maai-resides on the hill's summit, and on its slopes there are numerous Hindu temple complexes like the Naudhara and the Panchdhara, whose nine and five taps are said to spout water coming from as a far as the Godavari river in India. Every 12 years, Panchadhara hosts a huge fair, attracting thousands. The last one was in 1992 and the next one is scheduled for 2004. For those who want to celebrate Holi, the festival of colour and water, without the sprays and rowdy crowds in Kathmandu, Phulchowki might be the best getaway. Hundreds of Tamangs from the surrounding hills converge at her summit to sing and dance the day away.
For a day trip or weekend, Godavari could be an end in itself, or the starting point of numerous hikes, like the slippery three-hour climb up Phulchowki or the circuits that lead to Panauti, Bhardev, and Lele villages. Camping isn't allowed in the garden, but there are quite a few spots to try around the hills. Or, you could do a spot of bird- and wildlife-watching in the garden and surrounding hills-there are 256 varieties of birds like the Kalij pheasant and the Racket Tailed Drongo, 300 variations on the butterfly, including the coquettish Paris Peacock and the silently beautiful Luna Moth. And, if you're very stealthy, you could even spot a barking deer or a leopard. For the lazy among us there's a few quiet afternoons to be spent fishing in Lam Kunda's small pond beside Panchdhara for a delicious meal of carp or trout.
With all these options and such a picture postcard setting, it is no surprise that Godavari is perhaps the number one weekend spot for thousands of Valley residents every year. The local community has benefited from the garden and the natural wealth of Godavari-they've got jobs on and off, but more importantly, they've seen that preserving their natural surroundings pays off eventually.
Community forestry has been a great success, and the forest cover on the hills surrounding Godavari, which seemed a lost cause a decade ago, is back, together with the birds and animal life. "Most of the development here has been because we have the garden and the school," says Jhamke Nepali, who is from the area and worked at St Xavier's School for over 25 years. With the proceeds from the shared forest's products, the community has managed to build a road right through the Godavari village, and their children now study at St Xavier's.
Whether Godavari's future will be as sanguine, however, is another matter. The marble quarry just beside Phulchowki poses a major threat to the area's delicate ecosystem. Green activists have been trying for years to have it shut down, but it seems unlikely they will succeed. And increasingly, there are hotels and restaurants sprouting all over, and the well-heeled are building their villas closer and closer to the garden. Even here, there's no escaping cement dust and the sound of building.
Winter may traditionally be the favourite time to visit Godavari, but these days, the monsoon isn't bad either-the greenery soothes tired eyes, and the rain washes away the dust. It is still Eden.