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The natural witness

Hidden in the woods of Forest Campus, R S Puram, is a repository of jungle heritage, discovers Pheroze L. Vincent

Photos: K. Ananthan

Trail blazers’ diary At the Gass Forest Museum

Temperature drops as you turn in to Cowley Brown Road. That’s because of the forest campus which, apart from training institutes and a wealth of plants, birds and butterflies, has a botanical garden, a bambusetum (nursery for bamboo plants), th e Fischer Herbarium, and the Gass Forest Museum.

Gothic architecture

The Museum is a stately red stoned gothic mansion, forty feet high. It has a mezzanine gallery that looks over the ground floor display.

Iron pillars support this tiled structure, which has stairs of Burma Teak and castle archer windows.

Opened in 1915 by Lord Pentland, Governor of Madras Presidency, the museum exhibits various facets of forestry like arms, forest products, timber industry, forest engineering, geology and woodcraft, apart from eggs, foetuses, stuffed specimens and skeletons of wildlife. Most exhibits are the collection of H. A. Gass, Coimbatore’s former Conservator of Forests.

One man’s passion

Gass started the museum in his office in 1902. In 1906, it was christened after Gass by Lord Ampthill, Governor of Madras Presidency. It finally shifted to the present building when the Madras Forest College moved to this campus in 1915.

The college, whose red minarets and clock, tower above the wilderness, is now called Tamil Nadu Forest Academy (TNFA). Here’s where the state’s forest rangers are trained.

Centre for learning

This sylvan campus is shared by institutes like the TNFA, Central Academy for State Forest Service (CASFoS) and Institute for Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding (IFGTB), apart from other forest department offices, making it a hub of forest education.

Records show that the museum had as many as 11,484 visitors back in 1907. The museum was closed during the Second World War and the mansion was a camp for evacuees from Greece and Malta.

A stuffed gaur, gifted by the erstwhile Maharaja of Mysore, greets visitors at the entrance. From a roaring leopard to a cormorant, to a snake catching its prey, you can find stuffed specimens of many endangered species. Even Aesop’s Fables and the Panchatantra are displayed here with stuffed monkeys, a fox, a crow and even a couple of cats in The Foolish Cats and the Monkey.

Traditional body armours, uniforms and even the original ropes mahouts used, which were made from tree bark, are displayed. The arms section has a magnificent collection of blades and firearms used by tribals, foresters and princely armies.

Do not miss the cross section of a teak tree. Its 5.7m girth has a timeline of Indian history from 1448 to 1904 stuck on it, corresponding to the annual rings that show its age. Chief Conservator Dr. N. Krishna Kumar, director of IFGTB, which runs the museum, explains that the annual rings of a tree show stress periods (read droughts) in its life. “These are helpful in understanding climate change,” he adds.

Forest Engineering

The museum has models of timber stacking, timber seasoning, timber houses and forest bridges. There’s also a working model of a ropeway which runs between the two floors. The museum is also a xylarium- a collection of authenticated wood specimens. One can learn to identify the various kinds of timber, a skill used in forensics and to prevent smuggling of endangered trees.

Two huge specimens of wild sandalwood, tower right up the museum, supported by cables. They still have their parasitic root connections, to other plants.

There are plans for digitalising the museum and renovation is being done by the Indian Institute of Technology— Madras. The museum plans to run structured school programs for students and teachers.

Pioneers wanted

“We need forest scientists and taxonomists, to go out into jungles and identify species,” says Dr. Kumar, who was inspired to become a forester after visits here as a schoolboy in Stanes School.

Earthy colours and wild wonder fill this treasure trove of forest knowledge. There are collections of everything here. Mica, lac, cowrie shells, fungi, eggs, barks; the place is filled with wonderful artefacts that transports the visitor to the time when colonial pioneers trail blazed the wilderness and adivasis ruled the jungles.

The museum is open from Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m., with a lunch break from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. It is closed on all government holidays. Tickets are priced at Rs. 5 for children and Rs. 10 for adults. The IFGTB can be contacted at 0422 2431540 or 2431541.

As Curator Chandrasekar shows us the collection of dazzling butterflies and moths, a huge black butterfly, with sky blue markings, takes to flight. The museum is alive.

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