Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Enchanted gardens : June 04, 2000
Oases of peace
Freelance writer based in Mumbai.
It is not that the Japanese love man less. It is just that they love nature more. Naturally, it follows that their gardens do not strive for the man-made symmetrical beauty of pleasing flower bushes. They reach out for more. Their gardens strive to bring down the vast unpredictability of nature itself, into a few square feet of ground. With complete representations of hills, water and open spaces. And, of course, the tranquillity that comes with it.
Always the tranquillity. That is what makes Japanese landscapes popular across the world and so welcome in India. Based on the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, they are designed to quieten the mind, not stimulate the senses as tropical gardens tend to do. Little wonder then that havens of peace are now fast springing up in nooks and corners of bustling Mumbai. "They are the antidote to high-stress urban life", says Sadhan Roy Choudhury, a landscape artist who has designed "Nirvana", one of the better known Japanese gardens in the city. "Places where one can worship nature in peace."
"The beauty of the Japanese landscapes is that it conveys philosophical messages through each feature," continues Roy Choudhury. "The use of curving pathways rather than straight lines, for instance. This feature springs from the belief that only evil travels in straight lines, good forces tend to wander. Then, odd numbers of plants or trees are used in these gardens because these numbers are considered auspicious. Even the plants used are symbolic. For example, the cyprus represents longevity and the bamboo symbolises abundance."
In Japan, nature is said to be so closely intertwined with human life that parents actually plant a sapling in their garden when a child is born in the family, letting the growth of the child coincide with the growth of the plant.
There are two distinct styles of creating nature in miniature. The Tsukiyama style where mounds and stones represent mountains and a pond represents the ocean. And the Karesami style where sand represents the ocean and stones symbolise the hills. "The symbolism in Japanese gardens is often so intense that it involves active imagination on the part of the viewer", says landscape artist Vijaya Chakravarty. "Sometimes the pruning of bushes is done only to suggest the overall shape and it is left to the mind to complete the image."
Chakravarty recalls the experience of visiting the famous Kyonji gardens in Japan - a garden fashioned purely out of raked sand. "Different images are raked on the sand and tourists from across the world come up with different interpretations of these designs," she says. "For instance, for some the designs represent a ship, for others they stand for something else altogether."
The beauty of raked sand gardens is that they are easy to achieve in Mumbai, given the small apartments and constriction of space in the city. Where tiny balances of even window boxes can be turned into oases of peace with sand-and-stone arrangements.
A Japanese garden offers a lot of compromise for lack of space. For instance, where a pond is not possible, a psukubai or a stone water container does fine. "Most often I use the base of a grinding stone for this", adds Chakravarty. "For it is cheap and takes up very little space, yet provides one of the most important features of a Japanese landscape, which is water. The Japanese are insistent about it because they have the custom of washing their feet before entering the garden - yet another way of showing that they worship, rather than admire, nature."
From this devotion stems the obsession of these landscapes for natural asymmetry. A Japanese garden never follows a geometrical pattern but an undulating landscape of sudden ups and downs even within a small area. "The idea is to create the element of surprise that any natural landscape would have", explains Roy Choudhury, whose "Nirvana" follows this principle religiously. "The entire garden should not be seen at a glance. There should always be questions like: 'what's behind that bush?'"
The Nirvana garden.
Another sharp contrast that these landscapes have with tropical gardens, is the lack of vivid colours. Aimed at achieving calm, the colours here come from shades of green rather than reds or oranges. Of course, there just might be one bush of bright red flowers round the corner to catch you off guard.
Bonsais are a part of these gardens, but again, not mandatory. In keeping with the spirit of compromise, other plants, kept well pruned, do just as well.
As history shows, the concept of the Japanese garden was born out of compromise, in China. The story goes that during the rule of the Tang dynasty, a fashion had developed among Chinese poets and painters to withdraw from the city to the mountains to work on their art in peace. A few centuries later (around the 14th Century), a compromise was made to this trend. Where instead of retreating to the hills, artists began replicating the wilds in urban spaces. This "wilderness gardening", as it was called, later came to be a trademark of the Sung dynasty. But like all things Chinese, it soon went to Japan where it got its final sophisticated form. And even began to be known as the Japanese garden, the world over.
Today, the garden may not be used for drawing inspiration to write poetry, but it does provide an ideal atmosphere to read or think about winged words written by others . . . .
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