“There is a saying about him- German by birth, married an English woman, but his heart always belonged to India.”
Alyia Phelps Gardiner is talking about her great-grandfather Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel (1865-1956), a German botanist and town planner who was one of the chief architects of the Lalbagh Botanical Garden.
Krumbiegel is credited for having brought over 50% of the nearly 9,000 trees from 800 genera in Lalbagh. His work was also instrumental in the city getting the “Green City” tag. Krumbiegel was responsible for planting seasonally-flowering trees on the city’s avenues so that they would be covered in bloom throughout the year.
Gardiner, a 55-year-old interior designer residing in south London, never got to know her great grandfather personally. And it is only in the recent years that she has come to realise the huge legacy that he left behind.
“I missed him by 5 years. My grandmother, his oldest daughter Hilda, would tell me about him,” she tells The News Minute.
For Krumbiegel and his wife Katie Clara, Bengaluru was “home”. “I know he was passionate about Bangalore and Lalbagh held a very special place in his heart.”
Katie Clara Krumbiegel outside the Lalbagh house; Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel/Facebook page
In fact, Gardiner’s grandmother and great grandmother were very upset when they had to leave Bengaluru and in 1957 and move to the UK.
A different Bengaluru
Were Gustav Krumbiegel alive today, Gardiner says, he would have been “very sad” at the sight of the beautiful city losing its green cover which he had painstakingly worked on creating.
“I feel sad about all the trees, some over 100 years old, being hacked and poisoned. I worry about the pollution and the garbage in the Garden City and I feel he is telling me to stand up.”
A part of several local city groups on Facebook, Gardiner has been actively advocating the need to plant trees with the help of local citizens. She is also working on a campaign to restore the dilapidated Krumbiegel Hall.
Stories from a time gone by
In spite of never having seen him in real life, Gardiner has heard plenty of lovely stories about Krumbiegel and her family’s life in pre-Independence India, from her grandmother.
Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel with his family; Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel/Facebook page
“My grandmother would tell me wonderful stories (from the time when they were living in the city). (Like) of a tiger jumping through a window at a dinner party in the next room. Monkeys getting in through open windows and stealing fruits. Visiting Maharajahs giving him (Krumbiegel) tiger cubs and elephants calves as gifts and him keeping them in the house until great grandmother banned them as they were chewing the furniture,” she recollects.
After completing his studies and getting a training in horticulture in Germany, Krumbiegel moved to the United Kingdom and joined the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew. The then Maharaja of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad, was in need of a horticulturist and invited Krumbiegel. The German moved to India in 1893 and over the course of time was introduced to Krishnaraja Wodeyar, Maharaja of Mysore.
The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
Krumbiegel went on to serve as superintendent of Lalbagh from 1908 to 1932.
A “fair” man
Another account, giving a glimpse into the kind of man Krumbiegel was, goes like this.
One day, while Krumbiegel was serving as superintendent of Lalbagh, a man who had picked a flower from the garden was brought to his office. The officers asked him what punishment was to be given to the man. The botanist looked up and said "Let him go. The flower will regrow" and gave him a sapling to plant.
His love for trees extended well beyond his official work and he believed that trees could even help in reforming people.
“Great grandfather,” Gardiner says, “went into the prisons to teach the prisoners to grow crops as he believed they would have no time for crime and would give them a purpose in life. School children were given saplings that would be named after them and it was their responsibility to grow and look after it.”
Returning to one's roots
Gardiner feels “an immense pull (towards Bengaluru) as that is where my roots are”.
In January this year, the mother of one and grandmother to three, made her maiden visit to the city. She had been invited to attend a series of events related to Krumbiegel, including as a special guest at the annual flower show at Lalbagh.
Gardiner stands against a wall that lists the name of all the superintendents of Lalbagh.
The two-week stay wasn’t long enough for her and she plans to return to the city soon.
“My favourite part,” she describes, “was sitting in Cubbon Park on one of the benches, feeling the grass between my toes in Lalbagh on an early morning, peeking through the boarded-up window of the superintendent bungalow at Lalbagh where my mother was brought up. (And there is) still so much I didn't do.”
In 1956, Krumbiegel passed away in Bengaluru and his body was put to rest at the Methodist Cemetery on Hosur Road. His epitaph reads, “Whatever he touched, he adorned”.
Not all's lost, Gardiner says. People’s spirit can bring about a change for the better. She believes her grandfather too would have thought the same.