SWAN members during the survey exercise in April.
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By Bappaditya Paul

Siliguri: Astronomers are known for gazing at the sky and at extra-terrestrial elements all the time and the common people can’t often make a sense of this!

But a group of amateur astronomers anchored in Siliguri has taken up a project that will not only benefit the people on the ground but has the potentials to gift something new to the northern Bengal region.

The Sky Watchers Association of North Bengal (SWAN), which has several astronomical feats to its credit, has recently taken up a botanical survey and flora mapping on a sprawling piece of land on the outskirts of Siliguri.

The site of the survey happens to be the seat of Ramakrishna Vivekananda Ashram, a charitable residential educational facility located at Sahudangi, about 8 km from central Siliguri.

“We have been holding our night camps there during celestial events as the environment is pollution free and that makes it an ideal place for sky-gazers. During such sessions our young members came across many rare species of flora and thus the idea of the botanical survey cropped up,” says SWAN secretary Debasis Sarkar.

He submitted a proposal on this to Swami Binoyanandaji Maharaj, head of the Ashram, who readily granted them the permission.

Physical mapping of the trees underway.

SWAN embarked on the survey on this Earth Day 22 April with a six-member core team. The team comprised youngsters pursuing under-graduate and post-graduate science students. Some secondary level boarders of the Ashram have also been roped in.

“The idea is to list all the species of flora available on the 23 acres premises and then tag them on the Google map. Once this is done, we will publicly release a QR code. By scanning this anyone from anywhere will be able to learn about the individual trees. The Google map will be dotted with tear-drops against each of the trees: move the cursor to a tear-drop and it will throw up all info about a tree,” Sarkar explains.

SWAN has set a target of completing the survey in four weeks and winding up the first phase of the project by mid-June. Its team is now traversing through the thick vegetation of the Ashram with GPS devices, laptops, and logbooks. The overhead expenses are being managed by SWAN.

“But we will need some funding when putting up physical tags on each of the trees and a physical map board at the entrance to the Ashram. We have already recorded the details of some 400 trees from 175 species,” the secretary says.

A nagalingam flower in full bloom at the Ashram.

Some of the species identified by them include nagalingam, pink gardenia, black pine, African tree tulip, egg magnolia, and nageswar that are not easy to find. Mind it, this is not a natural forest. Rather each of these floras was planted by the monks since 1959 when the Ashram was founded.

“We consented to the proposal as the identification and mapping of the trees on our campus will greatly help students and researchers from north Bengal in getting a physical experience of the floras that they see in books. Barring 12 pm – 3 pm, our Ashram is open to visitors all through the week,” says the head Maharaj.

Asked whether the Ashram will agree to get converted into a full-fledged botanical garden as the north Bengal region does not have any, the Maharaj says they can consider a proposal only if the garden and the Ashram can exist side by side.

Even if a formal botanical garden does not take birth from this initiative, thanks to SWAN and the Ashram, northern Bengal is surely going to get an informal one.