Nothing can prepare you for your first encounter with Mangarbani. Then there's the Gurgaon–Faridabad toll road, a conventional highway on Delhi's outskirts that winds through a terrain where dusty scrub vegetation is rapidly being replaced by dustier high-rise construction sites. The Gurgaon–Faridabad Combined Solid Waste Management Facility is an eyesore, with acres of open waste where skinny cows and flying crows graze. There are deep, jagged-edged craters, relics from the stone quarrying practiced here until 15 years ago, in addition to the kutcha (unpaved) road along the dump's shattered boundary wall. The terrain is rocky and open, with trees and plants strewn around. The only sound is peafowl's plaintive call, and the only movement is their sluggish glide from one tree to the next. The sound of parakeets arrowing across the sky occasionally breaks the silence. A breeze ruffles the grasses near the outcropping of rocks beneath our feet for a few moments. Everything else has remained unchanged. We could be in the Centre of Sariska National Park, 200 kilometres away, but we aren't. We're in the National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi, 20 minutes from the tarmac–glass–concrete–stone carpeting, 20 minutes from traffic jams, crowds, noise, dust, and smoke. Nonetheless, it feels as if we've landed on another planet.

What makes Mangarbani unique?

It's not like Delhi is devoid of vast green spaces. The heavily wooded length of the ridge, the northern-most spur of the Aravalli range that runs all the way to Rajasthan, is in addition to various parks and gardens. The ridge, on the other hand, is severely harmed from an ecological standpoint. Much of it has been spruced up for human usage, with the underbrush cleaned and exotic plants planted. Vilayati kikar (Prosopis julifiora), the most damaging of all imports, has established itself by reducing indigenous plant species and the living forms they support.

Mangarbani has escaped the vilayati kikar curse in a remarkable way. Even more astonishing, it has remained virtually unaffected by human intervention or exploitation for hundreds of years. The forest has been safeguarded by the surrounding villages as sacred to the memory of Gudariya Baba, a hermit whose shrine is located at the valley's bottom. They think that anyone who cuts wood or grazes their animals in this 100-hectare forest would be punished by the Baba. Mangarbani thus stands out in the Delhi region as an un-spoilt old-growth forest of a type unique to the Aravalli range, offering a surprising glimpse of what these ancient hills may look like if they were protected from biotic pressure.

If Mangarbani had stayed a common, perhaps residents might have been more united in their efforts to defend it. It would have been more difficult to sell the undivided land if separate titles had not been assigned to landowners. However, this is only wishful thinking. Although the community no longer operates as a collective body in deciding the fate of the forest, it is clear that another collective entity has stepped in to save Mangarbani. A group of environmentalists, mostly upper-middle-class Gurgaon residents concerned about water conservation, launched a campaign highlighting Mangarbani's natural diversity and urging the government to fulfil its environmental duty. According to the activists, changing land use in Mangarbani would contradict a 1996 Supreme Court mandate that thickly wooded regions, regardless of ownership, be legally notified as forests and protected as such. They want the Mangar Draft Development Plan, which divides the land into residential and commercial zones, scrapped.

Mangarbani is a rare instance in some ways—a sacred grove on the outskirts of a modern metropolis—but it emphasizes the processes by which urban India gains or loses green spaces, as well as the political economy of landownership and use. It also identifies the societal changes that reshape the cultural connotations associated with green places.