Dr Naresh Swami knows exactly how much ground he has covered, searching for orchids in the eastern Himalayas. Till date, he has studied and documented more than 1,000 species of orchids from Sikkim, West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh, having trekked a distance of 75,668 km. It is this zeal towards discovering more of this glorious flora that keeps the 38-year-old priest-turned-explorer on his toes.
It was not by chance that this zoology post-graduate zeroed in on orchids. “When I was with my guru in Mathura and we were discussing about plants and trees mentioned in the Vedas and the Puranas, we came across several orchids mentioned in these religious texts.
The trail of the Pandavas also goes first to the northeast as mentioned in the puranas—purva disha—and so I connected the dots and went searching for orchids. That journey made me meet Karma T Pempahishey (Holumba, Kalimpong), who being knowledgeable about orchids suggested that I re-document the 449 species of orchids mentioned in the iconic book The Orchids of the Sikkim-Himalaya published in 1898,” says Swami.
The book, a bible of sorts for orchid lovers, was authored by Englishmen, Sir George King and Robert Pantling, 120 years ago. Throwing light on the seminal work, Swami says, “The Britishers had sent the indigenous people of the Sikkim-Himalaya, the Lepchas, to the jungles to collect orchids after briefing them about the same.
The latter, living up to their expectations of terrain knowledge and skill, had found 449 species and brought them down to the Chinchona Plantation where Pantling lived, who then created drawings by hand of the same. Hardly 200 copies of the book in its original print is available.”
Swami has ramped up the orchid collection from 449 to 564. “We see many articles and even books on orchids, but without photographic evidence. I felt great joy in photographing Corybas Himalaicus, the only petal-less orchid of the region,” he adds.
Swami is also the only person from Southern Asia to locate and document the ghost orchid Epipogium aphyllum and has authored three books—Terrestrial Orchids (April 2016), Hidden Treasures: Rare Plants of the Alpine Himalaya (February 2017) and Orchids of Ziro: Arunachal Pradesh (November, 2017). On the anvil is a mobile app in which Swami wishes to add all the orchid species from eastern Himalaya to help students and researchers.