Groundviews

Vihara Maha Devi: Where have all the trees gone?


Photo courtesy Asia Explorers

Over the course of roughly a year Vihara Maha Devi has been through some significant changes and they are still on-going. Seemingly, this is related to the transfer of authority as the navy took over the administration of the park in May 2011. At the outset it needs to be stated that the Park would not make it into a list of ‘top twenty (or fifty) public parks in the world to visit before you die!’ or ‘top ten sites in Colombo’. It would also be difficult to claim Vihara Maha Devi as a high point of Sri Lankan garden aesthetic, unlike say the colonial-era Peradeniya Botanical Gardens or post-independence treasure of Brief. Nonetheless, it has its own charms, the least not being it is the only green oasis in the heart of Colombo (I am not counting Galle Face Brown). For a fairly green city, it is strange that there are no other public parks of any significant size, nor are there are any on-going efforts to create one (or maybe there are plans but we are yet to be informed?).

However, the park is one of Colombo’s fast disappearing common social spaces where diverse segments of the city mix or at least, briefly share space: a cross-section of morning walkers ranging from first ladies, both past and present, to professionals, retirees and more home bound souls exercising in track suits, office clothes, burquas and saris with jogging shoes; the homeless who use it as a space to sleep and rest; families from the more congested parts of town looking for a spaces to picnic, play and relax; young artists with their mainly saffron and ochre work ringing one side of the park; vendors selling acharru and elephant house ice cream; occasional protests most often spilling over from the Town Hall roundabout. The park also has its share of wildlife. The small pond in the middle used to have a couple of pelicans but for the moment you can catch a couple of cormorants, egrets, white breasted water hens and of course the roosting, raucous bats hanging from the larger trees. And every year around this time roughly 100 elephants arrive for the Navam Perahera, forcing out the couples who normally find refuge and romance in the nooks and crannies of large trees. The park offers a slice of Colombo.

The most notable change to the park is obvious – it is much more open. The vegetation has been cut back offering more open vistas through the park. A friend who approved of the park’s make over told me that “now you can see clearly through as you drive past.” At least two women were appreciative of the clearing, as it makes it more difficult for “the pervs to flash” although the reduction in flashing could also be due to other factors such as the presence of more walkers and people in the park.


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However, the disadvantages of this clearing are many. From a purely aesthetic point of view, the re-design is bizarre to say the least. While my friend driving past the park was grateful for the clearing, my counter-argument was that the point of a park is not to offer commuters a clear view of vehicular traffic on the opposite end of the park. As opposed to the past when you could escape the traffic in the park, now, when you stand right in the middle of the park you can basically see traffic 240 degrees around you. While the clearing of some of the vegetation does visually link up sections of grassland, making the park appear larger, there is not enough contrast. The primary aesthetic principle seems to be to discipline the garden. In a weird twist it seems a part of a colonial project to impose order on undisciplined tropical foliage.

The operation of cleaning up the park was not merely to trim back hedges and prune a few trees. A number ‘hedges’, including the bamboo by the Sathutu Uyana fence have been almost eliminated, but a number of trees have also been cut down and it is not apparent why. According to another fellow walker at least thirty trees have been cut down. The carcasses of large tree trunks lying on their sides and the chopped tree bases sticking out of the earth were clear evidence of this fairly extensive clearing exercise. If we lived in a more montane environment this tree clearing may have made more sense but we are in the tropics, we do need a bit more shade.

Besides, the trees, the other main victims of this extensive pruning have been the couples who are now smaller in number who from as early as 7 am would try to slink into the nooks and crannies of the larger trees. With the clearing of vegetation smaller birds and mammals are also less present; it does feel like the park has lost some life. The large elephant bath has also been demolished and instead there is a large amount of rubble in the area, which still remains. While some of the tired looking flower beds have been cleared, the limited re-planting has been fairly conservative – lines of jasmines and palms. More recently, new but uninspired flower beds have been added and it is not clear that there is an attempt to increase the botanical variety. The igloo liked aquarium that has been closed for years, now emits pirith, one wonders for whom. One morning the police drove in and picked up some homeless people seated on a bench. The park guards said these individuals had charges against them but were clearly relying on the police for this information.

There are some improvements, like one new walkway opposite the Nelum Pokuna Theatre, but it is not clear if this required the displacement of the weekly plant sales. An eatery- Lak Café has been established for park users who want something more than ice cream and accharru. It is not clear what further changes will take place or whether enthusiasm will wane. The park is, after all full of faltered public projects – a few sign boards for endemic trees, a train for amusement rides that no longer works, a small stage facing Vihara Maha Devi herself which is rarely used.

This is not meant to be a eulogy for the park as it once was. Rather, it is a call for a re-direction in how the re-designing of the park is proceeding. In particular, why are trees being cut? This is not a problem just specific to the park but for Colombo in general. Worryingly there are also rumours of more tree chopping in Colombo, including the very old banyan trees by the Sri Lanka Lawn Tennis Association on Sri Marcus Fernando Mawathe. Trees are what define Colombo and are perhaps its most redeeming feature. Why are we in some frenzied rush to become somewhere else, when most other metropolises are struggling to regain some greenery? While clearly some trees need to be cut back and in extreme cases cut down, let’s hold off the power saws.

Clearly there are problems in the park that need to be fixed. For instance the issue of garbage remains as there continues to be plastic bags, bottles and other rubbish every day lying on the grass, rather than in the rubbish bins. More bins and fines for littering may be necessary. In the wake of tree chopping, some re-planting is required.

The rejuvenation of the park should also be an assertion of citizenry, where we as citizens should demand some say and put forward some suggestions. The park technically falls under the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) so Mr Mayor how about proving your mettle – call for suggestions from the public, provide the public information about the final plan and show us how governance and urban development can be done differently.