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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Info Post
(Published in the Caravan magazine, December 2012 issue, retrieved from

Photo Courtesy: M S Swaminathan Research Foundation

My feet were bare, my eyes tightly closed. I could smell the rain-soaked earth, and hear the panting of a dog scouting about with her puppies. Staring into my eyelids, I felt a surge of panic. Finally, my fumbling hands found a metal plate. Raised dots formed reassuring contours against my fingers, mapping the layout of my surroundings. It felt like a Ludo board—four large squares marking out plant beds, smaller demarcations indicating suspended flowerpots, and the paths that divide them meeting at a sheltered arbour in the middle.

I was at the Touch and Smell Garden at Chennai’s MS Swaminathan Research Foundation a space designed to be explored by the visually-impaired. Before I closed my eyes and decided to walk through the garden on my own, Dr Rajalakshmi Swaminathan (no relation of MS Swaminathan), scientist at the Foundation’s Plant Molecular Biology Laboratory, who is in charge of the garden project, had taken me on a tour. A group of visually-impaired schoolchildren had scampered gleefully over the paths that now daunted me, as Rajalakshmi explained the garden’s origins to me.

“When [MS Swaminathan] received the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize in 1999, in his acceptance speech itself, he said he would put the prize money into a programme for children, to help them develop a scientific temper,” she said. In 2002, his foundation began the Every Child A Scientist (ECAS) programme, in Chennai, as well as in field sites in Kerala and Orissa. Under this scheme, underprivileged and tribal children were taught about biodiversity, and trained to use computers, and conduct scientific experiments.

In the course of his work on the ECAS programme, Swaminathan read about touch and smell gardens in North America and Europe, spaces for visually-impaired children to interact comfortably with nature. He decided to develop one as part of ECAS, in consultation with the National Botanical Research Institute in Lucknow, and the principals of the three schools for the visually-impaired in Chennai—St Louis Institute, Little Flower Convent and the Government School for the Blind.

The result is an oasis for the visually-impaired, where there are no fences, no ‘Keep Off the Grass’ boards, and where children with varying visibility walk freely, supervised by watchful teachers, who explain the navigation aids, and step in when they’re needed.

As I wandered, I remembered that the rough mat under my feet meant there was an information board, in Tamil Braille, at my side. A few steps on, the terracotta slabs turned rough, warning me I was at the edge of the path. I walked gingerly, till my feet rested on a bed of large, cool pebbles. I traced its boundaries, to decide in which direction I should walk. The garden smelt like potpourri, but stronger and fresher. Bending, I felt a pointed leaf, squeezed it and sniffed at the sap on my fingers. Lemongrass. I ran my hand over heart-shaped leaves, and a rough protrusion alarmed me into opening my eyes. Before me was a gorgeous mauve plant with corn-cob like extensions.

The children who came in during my visit ran their fingers over the boards, which contain information about the plants, as well as global warming and other scientific phenomena that affect vegetation. They smelled the hanging pots, and called out to each other every time they found something interesting. Some giggled as they listened to interactive audio aids in a shaded resting spot.

“They don’t want to go back to their classes,” Dr Rajalakshmi said, smiling.

When it first opened, the garden had pots of aromatic flora, mostly herbs and medicinal plants. Inaugurating it, then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa announced a grant of R10 lakh for the expansion of the garden. The amount was deposited in the bank, and the Foundation has used the interest to plant more beds. There are vegetable patches now, and clusters of plants with succulent leaves, as well as plants with no distinct smell or shape, kept to teach the children about botany—like the Gymnema sylvestre, used in the traditional treatment for diabetes.

“Some children began to ask about aquatic plants, which they can’t usually access, because it’s dangerous for them to go near lakes and ponds,” said Dr Rajalakshmi, showing me tubs filled with water, where lotuses and lilies bloom in the mornings.

Visually-impaired adults learning vocational skills from NGOs visit the garden too. “The idea is not for people to just visit, but for the garden to be replicated elsewhere,” said Dr Rajalakshmi. “Now, the National Institute for the Visually Handicapped has included it in the teachers’ training curriculum. Maybe, with training, blind adults can build nurseries like this back in their villages, and that becomes a profession.”


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