Chennai’s The Touch and Smell Garden

M S Swaminathan Foundation’s unique Touch and Smell Garden for the visually impaired was set up on the basic principle that it is not by sight alone that we perceive objects.From a distance it looks like an ornamental garden put there to break the monotony of the surrounding buildings. Swinging terracotta pots disgorge leafy vines, and lotus lined mini tanks glimmer in the afternoon sun. The narrow, neatly tiled pathways are embedded with smooth pebbles to show the three directions a walker may take. Every few feet a strip of red coir mat marks off the path. There is a central pergola with benches attached to its pillars. A picture-perfect piece of land set in the ordered, efficient beauty of the M S Swaminathan Research Centre in Chennai.

As you walk into the garden, the first thing that strikes you is the smell — a heady mix of mint, rosemary, basil, thyme, davana and sweet marjoram. So this is a herbal garden! But, move on and you realise the place is a pot pourri of odd-shaped plants. There’s bamboo grass under a peepal tree; a fruit-laden desi almond tree alongside a flowering pomegranate. Is this some kind of experimental garden? You need to go across to the reception area to find out. “The guides will tell you all about it,” says Dr Rajalakshmi from the Centre, as four teenagers walk out and lead the way.

At the narrow entrance to the garden Joseph Reegan stretches out his hand to touch the shiny aluminium board. He runs his fingers over it and begins to read: `Alternanthera phloxcroides’. That’s when you realise it’s a Braille board. And this is the Touch and Smell (T&S) Garden for the visually impaired. My four friendly guides are from the St Louis School for the Blind. The garden is part of the ‘Every Child a Scientist’ programme, initiated three years ago by the MSSR Foundation. Opened last August, it is based on the simple principle that it is not by sight alone that we perceive objects. Plants are very often identified by their smell. Their leaves tell us their history, through serration, venation, texture and thickness.

Nature perhaps is more bountiful to those who touch, smell and embrace it than to those who view it from a distance. And visually impaired children are as capable of exploring the surprises around them; they have as much right to the joys of learning in the field as do their sighted cousins. The T&S Garden is one of only seven in the world — the first in India to have a visitor programme.

The garden is divided into four identical blocks. The smooth pebbles of the inverted ‘T’ at the entrance and the corners indicate a change in direction when you step on them. The Braille board to the right spells out the topography of the garden. It tells the children how to walk about by themselves. In each block, smaller pebbles and mat strips indicate the presence of more Braille boards on stands along the edge of the path. The boards offer information on the botanical, English and local names of the plants, family and economic importance as well as biodiversity and the need for conservation.

“Mr Joseph and Br Swaminath of the school gave us tips,” says Vijayalakshmi. Her team chose aromatic, coarse-leafed, medicinal and thorn-less plants for teaching, and a plant commonly used in Tamil Nadu to ward off intruders, as fencing. The beds and hanging pots complete the ensemble with their distinct smells and shapes. All my four guides plan to be botanists. “Just tell us the name once and we’ll remember it,” says Maria-Augustine. “I grow flowering plants at home on my own,” says Kumaran, a smile splitting his face. “Geranium, lemon and jasmine are our favourite plants.”

Nityanandham wants to teach other blind children and research exotic plants. For the busload of children waiting outside, the T&S Garden is a wonderful picnic spot.  They come here week after week to touch and smell and learn; to identify plants and answer questions on the environment at an annual quiz; to talk to their mentor and  guide Dr Swaminathan; to shake hands with him. “Why can’t we have all our botany classes here?” they ask.

The eminent scientist is equally grateful. “It is these children who helped us develop the garden,” he says. “The children suggested that aquatic plants be included. They had heard of sky lotus and Ganga lotus and wanted to feel their leaves. So we added the tanks and grew the plants. The girls are now asking for more flowers.” He knows it is an experiment that will open a lot of eyes.

Contact: Dr Vijayalakshmi
M S Swaminathan Research Foundation
III Cross Street
Institutional Area
Chennai 600 113
Tel: 91-44-225411229, 22541698
Web address:

Posted on January 3, 2012, in Attractions, Ecological Restoration in Chennai, Gardening, Heritage of Chennai and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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