Guwahati: As a young man, Dr. Abbareddy Nageswara Rao, now 68, had never travelled out of his home state of Andhra Pradesh. And his language proficiency was limited to his mother tongue Telugu.

Yet, with encouragement from his elder brother, a young Dr Rao started on a journey to the northeastern part of India by travelling 4 days and 3 nights – in general compartment from Vijayawada to Howrah (Broad gauge), New Jalpaiguri, New Bongaigaon, Guwahati (narrow gauge) and finally to Shillong by bus. 

This, despite his parents and friends advising against travelling to such a far off place in Northeast India, where language, climate and culture of people was very different from South India.

The thrixspermum indicum from Meghalaya

Today, however, Dr Rao is credited with the discovery of 33 new orchid species. Two orchid species have been named after him — Dendrobium nageswarayanum, which was discovered by Krishna Chowlu from Arunachal Pradesh and Tropidia hegderaoii by Sarat Misra from Tamil Nadu. He is also part of the team that developed five new orchid hybrids from Arunachal Pradesh.

Had it not been for the leap of faith that he took many years ago –  he got selected for the award of Research Fellowship – he probably wouldn’t have done the groundbreaking work on orchids and discovered 33 new orchid species — the highest by any scientist in independent India. Of these new species, 28 were found from Arunachal, two from Meghalaya, two from Manipur and one from Uttarakhand.

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Speaking to EastMojo from his home – aptly named Orchid Villa – at Eluru, in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, Dr Rao recalled, “The then Deputy Director of Botanical Survey of India at Shillong, Dr.J.Joseph, told me that ‘Orchids’ is an interesting group among plants for their ornamental and medicinal value, and a new subject that is not much studied yet in interior places like Arunachal Pradesh because of lack of proper roads and dense inaccessible forests.” 

“I took up Orchid Flora of Arunachal Pradesh as my Ph.D. thesis work with two research guides – Prof. R.S. Rao and J.Joseph, studied for 5 years and got a Ph.D. degree from Andhra University.”

A review study on the new species of orchids discovered from independent India between 1947 and 2021 says a total of 273 new orchids, including 237 species, 5 subspecies and 31 varieties, have been discovered from India.

The maximum number, i.e. 155 (56.7%) new taxa are from Northeast Himalayas (including Sikkim and Darjeeling) followed by 83 (30.4%) from Western and Eastern Ghats, 19 (6.6%) from Northwest Himalayas and 16 (5.8%) from Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The cymbidium henbungense from Manipur, also known as the white leaf cymbidium

Dr. Rao joined Arunachal government’s Department of Environment and Forests in 1982 and served for 30 years (till 30th June 2012) as Orchidologist (Orchid scientist) in State Forest Research Institute, Itanagar. From August 2012 to March 2016, he served as the Director for Centre for Orchid Gene Conservation of Eastern Himalayan Region (COGCEHR), Hengbung in Senapati district of Manipur.

Some of his outstanding contributions to Indian Orchidology are the discovery of 2 new genera (India, Jejosephia), 35 new species, 46 new distributional records to India including 3 genera viz. Chamaegastrodia, Sarcoglyphis, Stereosandra; 65 new records to N.E. India and 65 new additions to Arunachal Pradesh and about 70 to Manipur.

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Dr Rao said in the 80s and 90s, forests were intact and not much disturbed in all altitudinal zones. He regrets that nowadays, because of forest clearance for developmental works, most of the natural habitats are disturbed and locating orchid species has become difficult. 

“Some of them are feared to have disappeared from nature,” he said. 

According to the review study, “This number may be increased if diligent orchid field explorations and critical taxonomic studies are carried out in the so-far unexplored and under explored natural habitats. Necessary steps are very much needed by Botanical Survey of India, universities, state Forest Departments and non-government Organisations like WWF, ATREE, etc., to sponsor field explorations and taxonomic studies to unravel the hidden orchid wealth of the country.”

The biermannia jainiana from Arunachal Pradesh

K Haridasan, a long-time associate of Dr Nageswara Rao who worked at the State Forest Research Institute at Itanagar, told EastMojo: “Amazed to see the dedication from this brilliant scientist working through the microscope, dissecting orchid flowers and compiling data on orchids of Arunachal Pradesh. The area was infested with leeches and a menacing fly called dam dim that sucked on blood and left tiny spots on the skin. Rao’s legs and exposed parts would be full of these marks. Oblivious to these, he would continue his observations in the field and lab.”

“From my plant exploration in remote areas of Arunachal Pradesh, whenever I would see an orchid I considered to be of interest, I would take it to Dr. Rao for identification. It could turn out to be a new species or very rare,” recalled Haridasan.

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Recalling his research days, Dr Rao said he had managed to pick up some working knowledge of Assamese and Bengali but not the local dialects. 

“I received a lot of love and hospitality from local people, officers; recent Governors also highly appreciated our research and developmental works on orchids. I will never forget their affection.”

Dr Rao said he and his staff used to spend nights at residences of gaon burah in interior places and in Army Officer Camps in border areas during their explorations.

“Their main problem was that I was a strict vegetarian and also would not drink any alcohol. They were surprised and would sometimes call me Saibaba. They used to give me some rotis with boiled potatoes, salt, green chillies, and milk or soft drinks,” he recalled.

The sarcoglyphis arunachalensis from Arunachal Pradesh

“My wife is from Hyderabad city. She had to sacrifice her social circle from her city life and stayed with me in Arunachal. Later, after our son was born in 1989, we kept him in Hyderabad for studies, and my wife used to shuttle between husband and son.”

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“Now, when I look back and recollect those expeditions and trekkings, I simply wonder how I did it. Now I cannot even think of such ventures. At that time my aim and objective was only one – Orchids, Orchids, Orchids – No other thought came to my mind.” 

Krishna Chowlu, a scientist at Botanical Survey of India, Itanagar, who had named an orchid species after him, says, “He played a major role in establishing the Tipi Orchid Research Centre, Sessa orchid sanctuary and many more orchid centres in Arunachal Pradesh. He did research for orchid taxonomy and discovered orchids from Arunachal Pradesh which were new to the world of science.”

“He is a great human being who is very dedicated towards his research. He is very different from other scientists. Apart from his interest in research on orchids, I saw him taking interest in his free time in old movies as well,” Chowlu recalled.

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