Oasis Of Serenity: Inside Mumbai's Sanjay Gandhi National Park

The Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai is a blend of pristine natural beauty and biodiversity, right in the heart of a bustling metropolis
The Sanjay Gandhi National Park
The Sanjay Gandhi National Park

“We shall have a beautiful place in India, on an island with the ocean on three sides. There will be small caves which will accommodate two each, and between each cave, there will be a pool of water for bathing, and pipes carrying drinking water will run up to each one. There will be a great hall with carved pillars for the Assembly Hall and a more elaborate Chaitya Hall for worship. Oh! It will be luxury.”

This speech by Swami Vivekananda at Thousand Island Park in the US, which spoke of a wondrous place, harked back to his visit to the Kanheri Cave Complex in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in Mumbai. Deeply impressed by these ancient caves (120 of them) carved out of a single rock, he studied the design and architecture of the vast prayer hall (cave number 4) in the complex and got it replicated in the Nat Mandir of the Ramakrishna Temple at Belur Math, West Bengal.

February was unusually warm in Mumbai this year. On the trail to Kanheri, I rested for a while on a rocky outcrop on a hillock by the caves. I soaked in the sights and sounds of the forest until the rising temperatures allowed. The wilderness below was alive and buzzing with activity. Golden orioles, Indian grey hornbills, Rose-ringed parakeets, golden leafbirds, thick-billed flowerpeckers and other avians were all active and preparing for the upcoming summer when they would be engaged in frenzied breeding activity. A male grey junglefowl was leading me up the trail, its raucous calls announcing his presence.

An angled pierrot butterfly
An angled pierrot butterflyPhoto: Shutterstock

The caves at Kanheri are fascinating, but what makes them unique is that its environs—the biological treasure trove of SGNP, are intact even today, 2000 years since the first cave was carved.

On the horizon, I could see the urban spread of Mumbai, visible from this vantage point in the forest. Thanks to the judiciary and policymakers, this unique national park, sprawling over 30,000 acres, is protected for posterity.

Mumbai’s Lifeline

For the last few days, the mercury had been touching 30 degrees (Celsius), and the humidity had been unusually high. The summer would surely be unbearable if this were a sign of the days and months ahead.

And here is where SGNP’s role in aiding the life of ordinary Mumbaikars comes into prominence. From the point of view of providing drinking water to the city, the forests of SGNP, even today, contribute about 3 per cent of Mumbai’s direct water supply—this does not include the direct contribution in recharging thousands of borewells across the suburbs.

Every drop of drinking water supplied to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) originates from the forested landscapes of SGNP, Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary and the Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary. Without these forests, Mumbaikars would run pillar to post to quench their thirst.

The incredible thing about these ecosystems or wilderness areas is that the benefits they provide are not limited to their boundaries, but they flow from the periphery to provide ecological services to people living far away.

IIT Bombay recently published a long-term study to enumerate and evaluate the annual benefits that Mumbai derives from SGNP. The study calculates the cost of various ecological services (temperature control, pollution control, drinking water, checking flooding, soil erosion, impact on health, opportunities for physical and creative recreation etc.). It pegs the estimated annual cost for all this at Rs 15 lakh crore—more than 30 times the recent yearly budget of the BMC.

Serene Sanctuary

I moved from the rocky ledge I was sitting on to a mountain stream now reduced to a mere trickle. Ahead was a dense, shady grove of Ashoka (Saraca indica) trees, where I took a breather. As I lay on a big rock in the dense shade, I noticed an agile and beautiful bronze-backed tree snake slithering around the branches above me.

In the shade of the Ashoka trees, I felt happy. Having lived in one of the world’s most populated cities, I yearn to be alone and at peace, and the forest bestows me with this blessing. This is why I have returned to this wilderness every week over the last two decades.

I continued my ascent to the Kanheri site. From the top, I could see the Kanheri plateau, intricately chiselled to make a complex rainwater harvesting system that ensured a perennial water supply for the residents of the caves.

I caught my breath. Below me, the forest threw up a riot of colours—the Red Silk Cotton tree was blooming, and so were the Palash and the Indian Coral tree. The Kusum trees joined the party and put forth a new, red-pink cloak that will turn green as they mature.

The Information

Getting There: The nearest airport is Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (17 km away). The nearest railway station is Borivali Railway Station (1 km away). From there, you can hail a taxi till SGNP.

When to go: July to mid-October is the best time to visit the park.

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