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Enchanted gardens : June 04, 2000


Vatikas of lore

Priyaleen Singh

The author is with the Department of Conservation, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.

Gardens were an indispensable feature in house and town planning in ancient times. The Aryans of Vedic times were quite understandably lovers of nature. The name they gave to flowers, sumansa, "that which pleases the mind", reveals their aesthetic sensibilities. It is these sensibilities which were reflected in their gardens and a very refined art of gardening.

Toby Sinclair/Fotomedia

Gardens continued to be an equally important part of the urban landscape in subsequent periods. In Vatsayana's Kamasutra, "vrakshayur veda" is mentioned as one of 64 kalas or arts recognised in ancient India. It included the construction and maintenance of gardens and parks for health, recreation and enjoyment. In Jain canonical texts too, among the important parts of a city mentioned are pleasure gardens (arama), gardens (ujjana) and tanks (vapi). Gardens continued to be viewed as a source of joy and happiness throughout the ancient period. As the very first verse of the ancient text Vrkshayurveda puts it: "He is indeed a monarch if his house has extensive gardens, spacious gardens containing large pools of water with lovely lotus blossoms over which humming bees fly . . . That may be regarded as the consummation of all happiness . . . (giving) intense pleasure to the mind."

The ancient texts have their share of information on the subject. The pleasure grounds surrounding Indraprastha are described in the Mahabharata. The Buddhist text Lalitavistara mentions 500 gardens around Kapilavastu which were laid out for Prince Siddhartha, just as elsewhere there is the description of the pleasure gardens of kings Bimbisara and Ashoka. While, as mythology puts it, the common man contemplated the divine Nandanakanan in the god Indra's paradise, the ancient Indian kings built pleasure gardens of immense beauty for themselves. Megasthenes admiring the palace of Chandragupta wrote, "in the Indian royal palace . . . in the parks tame peacocks are kept and pheasants which are domesticated, there are shady groves and pasture grounds planted with trees, . . . while some trees are native to the soil, others are brought from other parts and with their beauty enhance the charm of the landscape."

The early Buddhist period saw the transition from royal to public gardens at many places. The Venuvana and Ambavana in the vicinity of Rajagaha, the Mahavana near Vaishali, the Nigrodharama near Kapilavastu and the Jetavanain the outskirts of Sravasti were all royal gardens of early Buddhist times which later were opened to public and converted into permanent retreats for the monks of different orders. Subsequently many monastries had their own gardens attached to monastic complexes.

This is how the Chinese pilgrim Hsieun Tsang who arrived at the monastic university of Nalanda in 630 A.D. saw it: "The temple arose into the mists and the shrine halls stood high above the clouds . . . streams of blue water wound through the parks; green lotus flowers sparkled among the blossoms of sandal trees and a mango grove spread outside the enclosure."

Shyam Jagota

As regards gardens attached to a private dwelling, obviously of the rich and opulent, we have a description in Vatasayan's Kamasutra. It states: "attached to every house there should be a vrksavatika or puspavatika, a garden where flowering plants and fruit trees can grow, as well as vegetables. A well or tank, large or small, should be excavated in the middle." The garden was to be in charge of the mistress of the house and she was to procure seeds of common kitchen vegetables and medicinal herbs every day. The garden was also to be designed with bowers and vine groves with raised platforms for rest and recreation. A swing was to be fitted on a spot well guarded from the sun by a canopy of foliage. She was to ensure that it was laid out with beds of plants that yield an abundance of flowers, with an emphasis on those with sweet perfume, like the mallika and the navamalika, as well as those "that delight the eye like the japa with its crimson glory or the kurantaka with its unfading yellow splendour. There should also be rows of shrubs yielding fragrant leaves or roots, like balaka and usirs".

As in all hot climates an expanse of water was an almost essential feature of the ancient garden. Gardens of the wealthy contained artificial lakes and pools as well, with steps leading down to them for bathing. Kalidasa mentions a palace garden called samudragrha which was a summer house built in a cool place surrounded on all four sides by fountains. A further refinement, for cooling the air in the hot season, was the water machine, variyantra which, from Kalidasa's description seems to have been a sort of revolving spray, rather like the one used to water lawns. The garden's irrigation was taken care of by means of narrow drains (kulya) full of running water with water fountains as their source. Water wheels incessantly threw jets of water to flood the flower beds and the circular ditch (alavala) at the base of the trees.

As noted earlier, along with the private gardens of the rich there were in due course public gardens (nagarupvana) as well. When situated outside the town they were termed bahirupvana. These were the favourite resorts of the townspeople for udyanyatras or picnics. The Kamasutra mentions how a party of well dressed nagarakas would go out of the town to these gardens early in the morning mounted on horses accompanied by ganikas and followed by servants to spend the day.

With gardens and parks emerging as an important backdrop to the social life in ancient India, horticulture (udyanavyapara) developed as a discipline and scientific knowledge was applied to the art of arbori-horticulture. In the post Vedic literature there is evidence to show that botany developed as an independent science known as Vrkshayurveda on which were based the science of medicine (as embodied in the Caraka and Susruta samhitas), the science of agriculture (as embodied in the Krsi Prasara) and the science of horticulture (as illustrated in the Upavanavinoda). While there are no treatises so far discovered on the subject of ancient horticulture as such, there is a small chapter, the Upavanavinoda as a branch of Vrksayurveda, in Sarngadhara's encyclopaedic work, the Sarangadhara Paddhati of the 13th Century, which is a compilation of relevant material from earlier classical sources.

The author compiled the treatise at the command of his king for the benefit of his subjects. The chapter "Upavanvinoda" among other things discusses the selection of soil for planting of trees, the classification of plants, the sowing of seeds and methods of their propagation, the process of planting, the rules of protection of plants, construction of garden house, details of nutrient solutions, treatment of plants in disease, botanical marvels and experimental results. Texts such as Garuda Purana also dealt with the laying out of pleasure gardens and pavilions along with notes on construction of religious, military and residential buildings.

Along with the horticultural practices, management and maintenance practices for parks and gardens too came to be formulated. In Kautilya's time there was a separate department entrusted with the care of gardens and forests. The cultivation of parks for public health and recreation was one of the duties of the forest officers. The aramas or gardens were kept in order by a number of junior officers known as aramikas. They were under a superintendent aramaprekshaka who supervised their work. There were settlements of park keepers known as aramika gama. Special classes of skilled artisans were patronised by the State. Vatsayana's Kamasutra mentions well trained experts, the aramadhipatis and a special class of skilled artists, gardeners and weavers, malakars and malinis. Gardens at times contained not only flowering plants but also fruit trees which used to bring considerable income to the exchequer.

Gardening in ancient India through design forms and mechanisms and by combining scientific and artistic principles thus ensured an integration of nature with everyday life in urban areas.


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