iconimg Saturday, September 05, 2015

Amitava Banerjee, Hindustan Times
Darjeeling, November 20, 2012
It was Seamus O'Brien's long cherished dream to visit the Himalayas - the home of the Rhododendrons and the Magnolias.

Finally he along with 8 others set on the trail that was walked by one of the greatest Botanist of all times, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker. Hooker, who was in the Himalayas (Darjeeling and Sikkim) for three years, had sent back hundreds of packets of seeds and botanical sketches which made the Himalayan plants popular worldwide.

O'Brian, who is the curator of the National Botanic Gardens, Kilmacurragh, Ireland, stated, "Our garden in Ireland has the best collection of Hooker's plants from Darjeeling and Sikkim. There are around 50 species. But it is like a zoo, there are one or two trees of each species. I always wanted to follow Hooker's trail and visit the places where these trees grow in abundance."

O'Brian's passion for visiting the Himalayas was further fanned by the cover of a book on Sikkim with a Magnolia tree against the backdrop of the mighty Mount Kanchenjunga, which he had seen in January 2012.

Accompanied by 8 other botanists and plant growers O'Brian arrived in Darjeeling on August 17, 2012, exactly 165 years after Hooker's arrival.

"I have brought with me sketches from the Himalayan Journal by Hooker. Here I will be taking comparative photographs of how these places look after 165 years."

The team of 9 after reaching Darjeeling visited Tonglu in the Singhalila range and the Rectory of St. Paul's school (where Hooker had stayed while in Darjeeling.)

"Our trip will be of two and a half week duration. We will visit Gangtok, Tumlong, Lachen, Lachung, Yumthang, Thangu and Chokda Valley in Sikkim. On the last day we will visit the Indian Botanic Garden- Kolkata, where Hooker had also worked," stated O'Brian.

O'Brian who has authored many books, the last being "In the footsteps of Augustine Henry" which revolves around the famous Irish Botanist's trip to China has to write another book "In the footsteps of great plant hunters" which would revolve around Hooker's trip to the Himalayas.

Accompanying O'Brian is a famous Botanist from Ireland Thomas Pakerham whose book "Meeting with remarkable trees" is a bestseller and has been translated in 9 different languages.

"One of the trees that features in this book is Hookers Magnolia campbellii named after Dr. Campbell, Superintendent of Darjeeling who had accompanied Hooker to Sikkim" stated O'Brian.

"Our trip was an instant success as soon as we saw thousands of Rhododendrons in Tonglu," added the Irish Curator.

Hooker had sent back hundreds of packets of seeds which had reached the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the spring of 1850.

"These seeds were distributed to important botanical gardens, private gardens and to two of Hooker's closest friends Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale" stated O'Brian.

In the mid 19th century everyone in Europe wanted to grow these Himalayan plants.

On 11 November 1847 Hooker left England for his three year long Himalayan expedition; he would be the first European to collect plants in the Himalaya. He had arrived in Darjeeling on 16 April 1848.

Hooker's expedition was based in Darjeeling where he stayed with naturalist Brian Houghton Hodgson.

Hodgson's bungalow called the "Brianstone" houses the Rectory of the St. Paul's School in Darjeeling at present.

Through Hodgson he met British East India Company representative Archibald Campbell who negotiated Hooker's admission to Sikkim, which was finally approved in 1849 (He was to be briefly taken prisoner by the Raja of Sikkim).

It was a moment of glory for St Paul's school. "It is our tryst with history. We are proud to be a part of the great Hooker's trail" stated Rev. Joy Haldar, Administrator, St. Paul's School, Darjeeling.

Hooker had travelled along the Great Runjeet river to its junction with the Tista River and Tonglu mountain in the Singhalila range on the border with Nepal.

Hooker had explored Zongri, west over the spurs of Kanchenjunga, and north west along Nepal's passes into Tibet. He travelled north west up the Lachen Valley to the Kongra Lama Pass and then to the Lachoong Pass.

Campbell and Hooker were imprisoned by the Dewan of Sikkim when they were traveling towards the Chola Pass in Tibet.

However, they were released without any bloodshed and Hooker returned to Darjeeling where he spent January and February 1850 writing the Himalayan Journals. Hooker had left Darjeeling on 1 May 1850.