Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Enchanted gardens : June 04, 2000
Of European illusions
Hugh and Colleen Gantzer
Travel writers based in Mussoorie.
They began more than 3,500 years ago. In the New York Public Library there is a sketch map of a garden of an Egyptian official. It shows formal plantings of trees, bushes, reeds and flowers as well as four rectangular ponds filled with waterbirds. This planned garden dates back to 1400 BC. From its design it seems to have been a pleasure garden with pavilions, but it could also have been a sacred garden with shrines. Or, was it a haven for wild fowl, safe in a walled sanctuary?
All three purposes inspired three distinct types of gardens later in the history of the old civilisations of West Asia. The Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians had special pleasure gardens with shade and water. They also had sacred gardens with mounds and artificial terraces like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. And then, there were their large, enclosed, wildlife sanctuaries. Shorn of its mystical and religious overtones, the Biblical account of the Garden of Eden would have been a description of such a walled park.
Walls not only ensured privacy, but they also protected their owners from hot, dry, dusty winds. And they can be quite hot, dry and dusty, even in Greece. Consequently, the Greek house was built, like many of ours in India, around a courtyard, or peristyle, encircled by colonnades that led to the rooms of the house. There was a source of water and a garden in the peristyle to keep things cool and green.
An Arabian garden in Granada's Alhambra.
The Romans, who conquered the Greeks but loved imitating them, tended to do things on a much grander, often too extravagant, scale. The demented Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, known better as the 5th Roman Emperor Nero, had a 120 hectares estate in the heart of Rome. The ruins of the great Colosseum rise where his artificial lake once stood. And visitors to Rome can still walk in the great garden complex of Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli. For some reason which we have not been able to fathom, we found them disturbing as if the shadows were developing a life of their own! Perhaps we knew too much about this unpredictable and often cruel Emperor and felt his dark deeds still trembling in his garden.
The anguish and excesses of Roman Emperors were overtaken by history. In the 4th and 5th Centuries, the Barbarian invasion destroyed Roman civilisation though many of their gardens survived. In time, even the most brutish of people succumb to the lure of civilisation. 200 years later, a new influence began to illuminate the dark ages of Europe: the lifestyles of the Arabian conquerers started to spread out from the Mediterranean.
The "exquisitely woven carpet" of Versailles.
The desert-born Arabs treasured water, they loved to see it give life to plants, to hear the sound of its movement, to feel it cool the air. When we visited the gardens of the Arabian-designed Alhambra Castle in Spain's Granada, we were struck by its resemblance to a walled Mughal Garden. Cool pools mirrored the sky, fountains splashed, avenues led the eye to illusions of endless space. All these features were adopted by the Saracen Emirs when they conquered Sicily and they were then taken over by the Normans when they ousted the Saracens in the 11th Century. Slowly, these garden styles spread to Italy and, from there, they were carried into France when the French over-ran Italy in the 16th and 17th Centuries.
The French, however, as they always do, gave their own touch to the Arabian idiom. They felt no need to create oases of coolness and they also had more space to reach out and expand. Most importantly they were driven by their compulsive sense of order. Flower beds, walks, ponds and avenues had to be geometrically perfect. They even used brick dust, earth and sand to create stylised patterns. Their gardens spread like exquisitively woven carpets around their palaces. We have been told that a storm, not so long ago, wrecked havoc on the famed gardens of Versailles. We have no doubt, however, that the methodical French will restore it to the knife-edge perfection we remarked on when we visited it some years ago.
The "natural garden" of Stourhead.
And in spite of, so-called, "Frenchified ways" being scorned by many Englishmen, the formality of the Versailles style did have an impact on English garden design. We were told that the gardens of Hampton Court, and of many other stately homes, evolved out of the cloistered gardens of English monasteries. Possibly. But the famed mazes of such gardens bear a striking resemblance to those of France.
In 18th Century England, however, the rigidity of the Versailles style began to be shunned. We believe that this movement had much to do with England's increasing interest in trade with China. Inevitably Chinese ideas of natural harmony rather than formal symmetry, crept into England. In 1772 the English architect Sir William Chambers wrote his famous Dissertation On Oriental Gardens. English landscape designers, who were largely architects or artists, turned their backs on the "tyranny of the straight line", and began to create "natural gardens". These had meandering streams and lakes, stone bridges and massive plantings of trees. Even the flower beds followed the contours of the land. In the famed gardens of Stourhead in Wiltshire, the 18th Century architect Henry Flitcroft had planted the sloping meadows with golden daffodils. They were in radiant bloom when we walked around these landscaped gardens one spring.
Tropical ferns in a glasshouse in Kew.
But though these natural gardens tried to replicate their creators' ideals of "England's green and pleasant countryside", they went beyond traditional English flowers, encouraged by the growth of the East India Company. It was about this time that explorers and botanists, following the John Company's traders, started sending back specimens of plants collected from around the world. In many of the great gardens of England, bushes of rhododendron blaze in white, pink, red and mauve and all the shades in between. The original stock came from our Indian Himalayas.
The increasing demand for exotic trees and flowers led to the establishment of a very special garden in England. One summer's day, we walked around Kew Gardens, officially called the National Botanical Gardens. Exotic vegetation from all over the globe grew here. Some outdoors, others in state-of-the-art glass houses in which electronic sensors created arctic, desert, alpine and rain forest environments with humidity, temperature and light carefully controlled. It was like exploring the wildernesses of the world in a virtual reality experience, except that this wasn't virtual. We stepped into a huge glass house where palms grew and water flowed. Only the Pyramids were missing. We were admiring a lush growth of reeds when a man, he could have been a gardener, walked up to us. "That's a very interesting plant," he said. We said we knew: "paper" had got its name from papyrus. "Oh, its much more interesting than that", he said. "They say that this plant is a direct descendant of the papyrus that grew in the garden of an Egyptian nobleman a long time ago." He smiled, a little smugly. We looked up at him and smiled back. "Yes", we said, "It grew in Thebes." And then we added, "More than 34 centuries ago."
Copyrights © 2000, The Hindu.
Republication or redissemination ofthe contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of The Hindu.