A Butterfly Haven in Mumbai

~ Shobha Gallagher / Photographs by Rachana Gupta

Mumbai is my cacophonous, ultra paradoxical home city. Living now thousands of sea miles away in Ottawa, capital of Canada, I still try to find the face of the city I once knew. Each time I return, I am both bug-eyed and disheartened by the animated flux, the multi-stimuli that is its signature, the heat-and-dust of its streets and marketplace. And yes, the obsessive and incessant cell phone chatter everywhere.

So when I heard of a Butterfly Park in the Thane district of Mumbai – an area marked by a spate of luxe-condos and astronomically priced real estate, I was astounded. Ovalekar Wadi Butterfly Garden as it is called, was located just off the long Ghodbunder Road in a little village called Owala.

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Veering off from the noisy traffic, the rickshaw turned into a small dusty laneway that led us to this park. A nondescript sign of the butterfly garden (spelled “gardan”) outside the gate was accompanied by lopsided notices indicating the timings. This itself mirrored the persona of what lay beyond….a land wonderfully wild and thankfully exhibiting no manicured perfection.

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The owner, Rajendra Ovalekar, a physical education school teacher by profession and now a self-taught butterfly enthusiast, had painstakingly designed the area to reflect nature with its tangle of foliage, weeds, fruit trees and nectarine flowers. The mud pools allow male butterflies to replenish themselves with soil minerals, he explained. He showed us different caterpillars gestating under stems and leaves as a curator of a jewellery museum would. Some of these caterpillars were barely thicker than a strand of hair and the white eggs the size of pinheads, while others almost the size of a thumb were ruby red with little spikes or had smooth blue striped covering with yellow half-moon patterns.

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Then we waited for the midmorning sun – the usual time for the butterflies to flit in from the nearby Yeor Hills and the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Ovalekar had fastened bright purple and blue plastic containers filled with overripe pineapples, chickoos and mangoes to the trunk and branches of the trees to attract these winged delights.

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They arrived – or rather appeared as subtly as fairy spirits might and danced above the flower bushes and fruit bowls. Ovalekar named them as they flitted by: the Common Crow, the Blue Tiger, the Striped Tiger, the Common Sailor, the Common Jezebels, the Blue Oakleaf, the Great Orange Tip, the Common Wanderer, the Swordtail, the Tawny Rajah, the Common Baron, the Sailor, and on and on. These military or sporty terms were apparently christened by the British during the colonial days.

The garden attracts more than a 100 species of these resplendent winged creatures and during the peak months from October to December, thousands converge in this haven. What is gratifying is that here, butterflies are literally free…and are not artificially bred under a glass dome or a netted world. “They come and go as they please,” underscores Ovalekar.

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What was even more fascinating is Ovalekar’s own story of how he converted his family owned two-acre farmland left fallow for a decade, into a butterfly park in the midst of Mumbai’s ever growing concrete jungle.  He recounts the time when he participated in a nature trail and a talk called “Breakfast with Butterflies” organized by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and was surprised to learn that many of the butterfly species discussed on this tour were indigenous to his own village of Owala.

The idea germinated instantly and he decided to convert his farm into a butterfly garden. With the help of Isacc Kehimkar, the grandmaster of butterflies in Mumbai, he planted all possible foliage and yes, including weeds, to attract even more butterflies into his agricultural land. He pulled out every root on his farm that would not serve the grand purpose and began to scout for plants in the nearby sewers and rail tracks. Today his land has over 5000 plants and bushes that serve as fodder for the lifecycle of the butterflies.

His story also reflects how a passion for holding on to a green space and to a richly natural environment in a granular hard-nosed metropolitan where the price of every square feet of land keeps escalating sky-high, has its own priceless rewards. He was stoically determined to resist the tempting offers of the real estate barons and nurture this golden bubble of space flooded with the flutter of gossamer wings.

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Ovalekar simply followed his heart and this brought him the support of some of the most committed butterfly and nature experts. Today, he also acts as a consultant for some of the corporate companies and builders of Mumbai and from the nearby sister cities of Pune and Nasik, who are keen on developing butterfly gardens in their premise or terrace. A number of non-government organizations (NGOs) are also lending him support for his venture.

What gives him the most satisfaction, he notes, is when he instills the sense of respect for nature and butterflies among his little students and children who visit his garden. When he opens up the world of the pupa, the caterpillar and the butterfly to them, he knows he has ingrained in their little hearts the love for preserving these winged wonders. “The children of today are even ignorant that coconuts grow on trees”, he notes. “So when I see them in this garden running around and flapping their wings like butterflies, I know there is hope for the environment and for the butterflies.”

His future dream is to plant nectarine plants and flowers along some of the major arterial roads of Mumbai so that people can gaze at the butterflies as they drive by. Perhaps this is will prompt Mumbai dwellers who seem to be eternally on a fast-track, to take a pause … and breathe-in even for a moment, the translucent beauty of sun-kissed wings. Perhaps that shimmer-moment will be enough for some to ponder on the wing-beat of nature and her glorious rhythm.

A poet once noted that butterflies are God’s kisses sent to earth. It is also believed that the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can be enough to cause a storm thousands of miles away. Perhaps these feather-light “kisses from heaven” will create a wave of another kind in hearts!