TBI Travel: Ovalekar Wadi – From Paddy Field To Butterfly Park

This week, Gangadharan Menon takes us along to see a unique sight – over 100 species of butterflies flitting across in a farm not far from Mumbai. You could spend hours observing and photographing these beautiful creatures, fast disappearing in our urban settings. One tip: Go soon, April-May is the Butterfly Season. You can also learn how to start your own little butterfly garden at home!

For those who want to see the spectacular sight of hundreds of butterflies flitting around hundreds of flowers, there are two options.

Make a long journey to Singapore, Malaysia or Madagascar. Or make a short one to Thane (near Mumbai) and 10 kms beyond on Godbunder Road till you reach a nondescript village called Ovale.

In Ovale, you will find Ovalekar Wadi, a 2-acre farm that attracts over a 100 species of butterflies like a green magnet. In this ‘open farm’ (most butterfly gardens including the ones mentioned above are enclosed inside gigantic nets), you will find butterflies that descend from the eastern side of Sanjay Gandhi National Park looking for food plants and nectar plants. And Ovalekar Wadi offers them a veritable buffet because every single plant and tree here has been handpicked for a single purpose: It has to be of some use to butterflies!

One of the many butterflies you will find at Ovalekar Wadi

How did a paddy field turn into a butterfly garden?

The Ovalekars have been living in this Wadi for four generations. After they gave up paddy cultivation a decade ago, the farm started wearing a deserted look. Meanwhile, Rajendra Ovalekar, the youngest in the family, took up a job as a school teacher and moved to Thane City. The farm kept drawing him back as he had a keen interest in the birds and the bees and the insects that frequented the place. Once in 2004, he attended a programme that changed his life and the life of his Wadi. It was called Breakfast with Butterflies and was organized by BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society). In the audio-visual presentation, there were two sections. One was an introduction to the various species of butterflies, and the other section was on the plants and trees that attract butterflies. To his joy, he realized that some of these plants and trees were already there in his Wadi, and he vowed to get the rest of them planted there.

Rajendra was encouraged by none other than the father of butterfly watching in India, Isaac Kehimkar. Under his watchful eyes, and over the next 7 years, Rajendra went on a planting spree. He not only planted trees and plants and weeds (yes, weeds too attract butterflies!), but also ruthlessly removed those that were of no consequence to them. And today there are over 5,000 such plants and trees here, spread across 180 species, each of which is used as a food plant or a nectar plant.

The result is a plethora of butterflies of all colours and hues, each one with a strange-sounding name: Gaudy Baron, Striped Tiger, Swordtail, Bluebottle, Commander, Common Crow, Wanderer, Crimson Rose, Monkey Puzzle, Grass Demon, etc.!

Rajendra Owale - The creator of the Butterfly Park

Rajendra Ovalekar - The creator of the Butterfly Park

As he took us around, Rajendra explained how to observe butterflies and even photograph them from close quarters. They are ideal candidates, he said, for lazy nature lovers. Unlike birds, they don’t get up with the sun. They get up two hours later. Since they are solar-powered, they have to wait till the sun is truly up and about. So they reach the Wadi around 9. That’s when they are most approachable. Then they become increasingly hyper, and by noontime they are thoroughly exhausted and rest in the shade. Interestingly, smaller butterflies choose smaller flowers and the bigger ones choose bigger flowers. Ample proof that at least in Nature, size does matter.

When Rajendra spotted a Tawny Rajah, he clapped like a child and told me to take a photograph. He advised me to have the camera in ‘shoot position’, so that I don’t make a sudden movement by lifting the camera and scaring the butterfly. Then he told me to move towards the butterfly, one step at a time, clicking a photograph at every step. Now he said, depending on my luck, and its mood, it may allow me to get ‘up close and personal’. At the end of the session, keep the best and delete the rest!

At the Interpretation Centre in the Wadi, there were photographs and descriptions of various butterflies and moths, to initiate the greenhorns. The best way to start the delightful pursuit of butterflying as Isaac calls it, is to learn to identify a few, and then you start seeing them everywhere, and you wonder how come you didn’t see them all these years!

As we stepped out of the Centre, we witnessed one of Nature’s most amazing miracles. On a lime tree, a butterfly was emerging from its pupa. A wet, rolled up butterfly came out of its cocoon, and slowly like a flower it blossomed in front of our eyes. As the morning sun dried up its glistening wings, it must have felt an unbearable lightness of being, and it flew away into the distance in slow-motion. I was told that the lifespan of a butterfly is just 2 to 4 weeks, and as if to make up for the lack of time, some of them start looking for a mate as soon as they are born! That left me wondering whether this newborn had gone looking for a mate, or for food, or just to find its own place in the sun!

How to create your own Butterfly Garden:

Choose a spot that has at least 3 to 4 hours of direct sunlight. Ensure you don’t use any insecticide, pesticide or chemical fertilizer. Pesticides can wipe out the caterpillars and the butterflies that visit your garden. Make sure you have 3 to 5 numbers of a particular plant, and keep them in a cluster. Be willing to accept ‘ugly-looking’ plants. Because if a butterfly lays eggs on your plant, its caterpillar will devour every single shoot, leaf, bud and flower, and make your plant look really miserable! But don’t worry, Nature will take its course and your plant will automatically regenerate. Choose from the following (remember, more the merrier!): Marigold, Mussaenda, Red or Yellow Lantana, Crossandra or Aaboli, Pink Ixora, Bryophyllum, Periwinkle or Sadaaphuli, Curryleaf Plant, Lime Plant, Poinsettia, Indian Labernum or Amaltas, Oleander or Kaner, Bamboo, Fan Palm, Areca Palm, the list is endless.

There are over 18,000 species of butterflies in the world, 1501 in India and over 140 in amchi Mumbai alone. If we manage to attract at least a dozen of them to our own private butterfly garden, in our balcony or terrace or window-sill, or in our housing society compound, we would have done our small bit to conserve this wonderful world of butterflies. Happy butterflying!

How to get there:

Once you reach Thane, take the Godbunder Road. 10 kms from Thane, on the left is Ovale Village.

Best time to visit:

There are two butterfly seasons. The first one is from the first week of March to the second week of May, and the second season is from the second week of September to the second week of November.

Ovalekar Wadi is open to visitors only on Sundays, from 8 to 2, for a nominal fee. For bookings, call Rajendra on +91 9820779729.

What to carry:

A camera and a pair of binoculars. And of course the “Butterfly Bible”: The Book of Indian Butterflies by Isaac Kehimkar. Call BNHS on +91 022 22821811 or +91 022 28402946 to buy a copy.

All Photos: Gangadharan Menon

After 28 years in advertising as a writer and creative director, Gangadharan Menon quit the profession to take up his first and second love: teaching and travel. He has over 60 published articles that recount the joy of travelling in this amazing country. A member of Bombay Natural History Society, he is an avid wildlife photographer too. He can be contacted on wildganges[at]gmail.com