This piece of Mumbai was very different about 30 years ago. Had I come then, I’d be standing in a dumping ground, surrounded by acres of plastic, faeces, even animal carcasses. The stench would have been unbearable.
Fortunately, it’s 2016. I’m in the middle of a 37-acre nature park, with more than 14,000 species of vegetation, 120 varieties of birds, over 75 kinds of butterflies, and a large population of reptiles, including the common cobra, vine snake, rat snake, and chequered keelback.
Maharashtra Nature Park—also known as Mahim Nature Park, echoing the name of the creek from which it was reclaimed—is a success story of gigantic proportions. Consider the odds it was up against: hundreds of tonnes of garbage from across the city tipped in every day, on the edge of the congested neighbourhoods of Dharavi and Sion.
Today, once you’re inside the gates of the park, Mumbai seems to slip away. The temperature drops a few notches, and a few minutes down the trail, the trees seem to swat away the noise from the busy streets outside. It is a place for picnickers, nature enthusiasts, amateur photographers, and an organic farmers market on Sundays.
The Maharashtra Nature Park was opened in 1994, thanks to an ambitious project by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, the city’s urban planning body. They aimed to create a natural habitat on the landfill site and it obviously worked.
I hear a chorus of birds from clusters of bamboo and teak, cannonball, devil’s tree, and Indian medlar. “There are very few exotic species here, like gulmohar or white silk cotton,” says Avinash Kubal, the park’s deputy director, as we start out from the nursery. These varieties were creating trouble for native ones, because they require far more water.
I didn’t realise that the authorities were still planting new trees. To explain why, Kubal points to a fallen tree. Scraps of plastic are wrapped around the roots—the park’s past is never far from the surface. The trash in the landfill, he says, makes it difficult for trees to access groundwater.
But it isn’t all gloom. “Nature finds a way,” Kubal says. To illustrate his point, he draws an analogy. Anyone trying to walk barefoot on a sheet of ice would slip, he says, “but if ten of us held hands and walked, we’d make it”. Similarly, he says, pointing to two trees on opposite sides of the trail, the trees in the park are forming a network of roots. “They’re reaching out, entwining with each other in order to stand strong.”
To help them along, the authorities fill water in irrigation pits close to the trees in winter. Their roots, sensing sustenance nearby, reach out steadily towards the water over the next few months, right in time for the blazing summer heat. I follow the irrigation pits on the trail, imagining a matrix of underground connections.
Parakeets sound through the park, mushrooms push through the ground, and the flame of the forest flaunts its colours. This is not a wild forest like the Sanjay Gandhi Nature Park. It is a man-made habitat but it breathes on its own.
After a while, the trail begins to run parallel to the creek. A row of high-rises across the Mithi River snatch away the illusion that I’ve escaped the city. A flock of avocets zips over the water, seeming to change colour as the light catches their zigzag patterns. The seemingly erratic flight of this wading bird is actually a methodical lunch crawl: They’re devouring insects as they move. But even with the city rising from the opposite bank and the litter floating past on the Mithi, our neck of the woods is peaceful.
Appeared as “Green Party” in the February 2014 issue. Updated in December 2016.
There are four major trails in the park: the Woodland Trail, Creekside Trail, Middle Trail, and the Honeybee Trail.
Where Bandra-Sion Link Road, opposite Dharavi Bus Depot, Dharavi, Mumbai (022-2407 7641/2407 9939); Mon to Fri 8.30 a.m.-4.30 p.m., Sat-Sun 7.30 a.m.-3 p.m.; entry ₹10. Call ahead if you want guided tours on Sundays or public holidays. A minimum of 30 people are required for the tour.)
Sejal Mehta is a writer and editor. She is consultant editor at Marine Life of Mumbai, and writes about science, wildlife, travel, fiction and is a published author of children's books. Her past work includes Lonely Planet Magazine India, National Geographic Traveller India, Nature inFocus.