Sunday, December 4, 2011

Ovalekar Wadi Butterfly Park

If nothing else, our membership with the Bombay Natural History Society has changed this -

The wife announces "There's a trip being planned to the Butterfly Park this Sunday".  I don't smirk and wise crack "Butterflies, in Bombay? Are you sure this isn't the punchline of one of those crazy smart ads the Amul guys write up?"  Instead, I groan at the prospect of another weekend morning's sleep sacrifice.  "How early do we have to get up this time?" I ask grumpily.

As we have been attending assorted hikes, nature walks, and garden trails arranged by BNHS over these past months, I have come to see this as a sort of pattern.  Around the day of the said hike, I seem to go through each of the seven dwarf characters.  The night before, I am Grumpy about the prospective sleep deprivation.  On the morning, I am Sleepy - more than happy to hand the wheels of our minivan to the wife.  I am Sneezy the moment I enter the park.  Soon, all the greenery, the sight of other equally sleep deprived men, and an unmistakable feeling of self-congratulatory holiness makes me Happy.  If our younger one allows me to listen to any of the information the volunteer is dishing out throughout the hike, I can quiz our daughter later, feeling like quite the Doc.

In this case, it turns out, the Grumpy act was not really necessary.

We get up relatively late, by hike standards.  The rest of the city is still safely abed I presume because we find no traffic on our way to Thane.  Apart from one brutal left turn towards the end, Google Maps does a good job of getting us there.  We park in a makeshift parking lot in the middle of the two acre plot that is Ovalekar Wadi Butterfly Garden.

Passion Flower, at Ovalekar Wadi
"This is one of the best things about being a butterfly guy rather than a birder" says Isaac, the BNHS expert who is to be our guide for the day.  "You don't have to wake up early."  See, butterflies are cold-blooded creatures.  They need the warmth of the sun to get them going in the morning.  Early mornings don't do it for them.  Just my type of creature, if you ask me.

Butterflies are largely tropical.  For instance, there are only 700 odd species of butterflies in USA and Canada.  And only some 60 odd in the UK.  India, by comparison has between 1,200 and 1,400 species of butterflies.  There are about 150 species just in and around Mumbai, 104 of which, by most recent count, visit this humble garden in the small village of Owla in Thane.

Rajendra Ovalekar is the owner of the plot, and he joins us soon to share the story of his creation.  Turns out he was attending a BNHS program himself some years back when he heard that his village, where he owned some agricultural land, is one of the most naturally butterfly rich parts of the subcontinent.  He decided to convert his land into a butterfly park, and over the years has resisted the lure of big money pumped by real estate developers all around him as Thane becomes the next victim of Mumbai's concrete march.  May his breed thrive.

The Ovalekar Wadi Butterfly Garden isn't quite your regular butterfly park.  For one, it is an entirely privately run affair, with no 'help' from the tourism or forest or environment department guys.  For another, it isn't a confined garden.  There are no glass houses, no nets anywhere.  The owners have created the right ecological environment that invites the butterflies here - the right plants, the right rotting fruits, the right kind of flowers.  But after that, it is all left to the butterflies.  They come and thrive here entirely voluntarily.  No confines that keep them here!  It sounds sort of like an ashram for the winged ones.

The tour starts at the earliest stage of the butterfly life-cycle, the egg.  The ones Ovalekar and Isaac show us are so small, you can barely notice them on the leaves.  I wonder idly whether these guys are just jerking us around, showing us some random bead on a leaf and calling it an egg.  I mean, how are you going to check, right?

Spot the Caterpillar
We walk around some more and there are caterpillars.  This time there is no mistaking it.  There are many kinds here - some furry and woolly, some more stark and woody.  The nature photography gang is out in full force, balancing mini bazookas in their hands as they zoom in on two inches of crawling legs, intent on capturing this short burst of life for hard disk eternity, likely never to be seen again.

The chrysalis is unmistakable.  Once Isaac has pointed it out, that is.  Thrice.  With a little stick the third time, for those especially hard of eyesight, like me.  In my defense, the darn things are too well disguised.  They blend so well into the background, I can't really be expected to spot them.  Besides, it would be rude to spot them right away - I mean, think of the effect it would have on their ego.  All that effort to conceal yourself, and suddenly - "There!".

By now, I am raring to go - hit the color section, so to speak.  The butterflies live up to the billing.  They are everywhere.  Isaac is naming them as quickly as we can see them, but there are too many.  And he seems to know too much about each of them.  I sort of drift in and out of the conversation.  Most of these species have military words as their common names, I gather - something to do with British officers being the first to name them.  We must have spotted a couple of dozen of them over the next hour and a half.  If you ask me about them though, you are likely to get no better than 'black butterfly', 'the yellow one with orange tips', and 'the blue one that was really tough to photograph'.  Later in the day, my daughter asks me a trick question.  "Appa, what color are a butterfly's wings?".  "Well, that is sort of an unfair question", I start, "You've got to tell me what sort of butterfly." "Ha, caught you", she goes, "all butterflies have transparent wings.  There are scales underneath the wings, and those are what are colorful."  So much for me playing Doc.

The little white guy is not a friend
Along the path, we find a butterfly that seems remarkably amenable to being photographed.  My camera is right in its face and it doesn't seem to flinch.  "Hey, this one ..." I start, pointing it out to Isaac.  "Oh that one has been caught by a spider" he says immediately, "It is slowly being eaten up".  I watch closely with morbid fascination - yes, there - there are those tiny white legs of the ghost spider, firmly clasped around the body of its prey.  It isn't really the love of modeling that was keeping my butterfly posing for my pictures.  Eek!

The life cycle complete, we are back to where we started.  Hot vada pavs await us.  And steaming tea, poured into those thimble sized plastic cups specially design to be so uncomfortable that you never ever ask for a second helping.  We gorge ourselves on the modest fare, and are soon on our way back home.  

We hit the highway, and I am already fantasizing about the afternoon nap that awaits me.  The wife breaks in - "You know, they are doing a trip to Elephanta caves next Sunday.  What do you say?".  "Oh come on!" groans Grumpy.


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this post. Went to Ovalekar wadi with BNHS a few months ago and totally loved it.

    Also, full marks to the kid for understanding and memorising facts. Am most impressed.

    p.s. Let's go to Vasai forts sometime. It has lots of butterflies, and there's the fort to see too. Only problem is that it's a much longer drive.


  2. Great post. Brought back memories of a lovely Sunday in that park followed by a walk through Vasai Fort which was equally pretty and full of butterflies.

  3. Arre Sharmishtha, I didn't realise that you had commented here. Hello hello. Yes, that was a good trip, wasn't it.

    J, I went to the butterfly park in Pune last weekend. Surprisingly, the Mumbai one is much better. Puen is so much greener that I just assumed the butterfly park would have more greenery and many more butterflies. (p.s. In case you guys ever want to visit, it's in Aranyeshwar Nagar, near some temple)


  4. Nice pics along the blog..did u click 'em???

  5. @ Nishant - Yes I did click these ... thanks for noticing :)

    @ entropy & Sharmishtha - We've been toying with the idea of going to Vasai fort, but what we found on the net isn't encouraging. But if you say it's worth a go ...

  6. The article reminded me of my childhood days in a small sleepy town called Baripada in Odisha. A nostalgic drive down memory lane, the photgraphs and narration helped me to sharpen my slowly fading memory of the numerous species of butterflies that we came across regularly in the fields and orchards. We did not ever realise at that point, that one day such beautiful craetions will be on the brink of extinction.
    Dr.Sreyash Satpathy