Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Enchanted gardens : June 04, 2000
Our colonised havens
Freelance writer based in Delhi.
A largish soft pink rose family sits demurely in its bed in the immensely colourful Mughal Gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Its name: Queen Elizabeth.
A commemorative gesture, which had a precedent in Queen Victoria who planted fir, beech, and cedar for, of all things, better European relations, many of which in splendid maturity signpost the events of those times.
But here in our Capital, the credit surely goes to that countryhouse specialist Edwin Lutyen, for creating a feast of the garden, one which was British, colonial, Mughal and, most of all, truly royal. The best and probably the largest example of a colonial garden in our land.
But what really are the colonial inputs in this formal green space? A walk around the Mughal gardens with the senior gardeners of the President's House, where I found Queen Elizabeth blushing, gives me some clue. Lutyens who described Mughal architecture as turnips in concrete, did not like the Taj Mahal as much as the gardens around it (What gardens, a visitor today might say), certainly incorporated Mughal strains by having lotuses adorn the larger fountains. But the English gentleman in him laid out a geometrically unchallenged garden on a grander scale with hedges, neat and distinct European flower beds, a central rectangular lawn and little green patches along each bed, and he married these with Mughal water terraces. An ingenious exercise in dealing with the Delhi summer heat. A symmetrical touch was the planting of the same flowering species on either side of the garden. And of course the stiff upper lip resulted in stony walls encasing the whole space. And provided succour for each head of state seeking privacy and solutions on that morning stroll.
So those really are the little elements that have seeped into many a neat official residence. From Teen Murti to the Chief of Staff's house and to every colonial construction in other cities. Not to mention the hundreds of botanical gardens that abound in our hill stations with their landscaping, hedges of all kinds of animal shapes and of course greenhouses. Daffodils, lilies and roses dominated them and in the case of the Presidential gardens, with the current First Lady showing an abiding interest in additions of scores of tulips, orchids and bonsais, every incumbent has added his own native flavour and flourishes to the colour scheme. For the initial austere Gandhian Presidents, not used to such leviathan dwellings, the garden was the place where they felt most of home. This was especially true in the case of C. Rajagopalachari and Zakir Hussain. It was Jawaharlal Nehru who commented that Rajaji looked upon a palace as a cottage and a cottage as a palace.
In the book Royal Gardens Of England, George Plumptre talks about the psychology of landscape, the harmony between the style of gardens and the character of the surroundings. Wherever the gardens came up around a country house, it automatically meant prune, organise, beautify as per will and design to impress the visitor, but wherever the garden was laid without a house plan, the natural antiquity in little lakes, a seemingly untidy mesh of nature left to itself, was preferred.
In the larger scheme of garden history, whether in cottages or palaces, no one can really deny that the British had a great love for their gardens. This passion for flowers and gardening is eloquently mentioned on many instances in their history. For instance, a love expressed by the Duke of York to the Countess of Stair through a letter which used all the scientific meanings of the rhododendron species to describe his feelings. A love that made Edward VII (when he had been coronated) remark to Admiral Fisher, that if he could have chosen his own career, he would have become a landscape gardener. An all-consuming love that made Ernest Henry Wilson, the greatest British plant collector during the Great Wars, collect over 3000 species from China and Southern Europe. And in the particularly arduous task of locating a lilium regale in China, break a leg in an avalanche, get attacked by bandits and nearly lose his wife!
In our own land, greenery was a cultural given, but between the Lodis and the Mughals, their great love for terracing, water channels and of course the red red roses redefined the look of our shaan-e-baghs, and as with all things colonial, the British predictably and constantly introduced their native species or species discovered at heights in their Himalayan travels back in their city flower beds. And the bigger the beds, the more the need for artificial fertilisation. Despite a country rich in tropical splendour, a lot of cold climate plants came to stay, and the British were keen on making the smallest bungalow have the grace and superiority in execution as they thought fit for a king and lavish entertaining. The burra sahibs had to have a stylish garden and one that brought back memories of home.
Thomas Gray in 1766, preempted this in his description, "From the stately brow of Windsors heights, the expanse below of grove, of lawn, of mead survey, whose turf, whose shade, whose flowers among, wanders the hoary Thames along his silver winding way."
In England, the history of the Royal gardens goes back to the feudal ages when monastic land allowed for scaping to the transition from forts to stone settlements to the enchanted woodlands of the county shires. And then to the Victorian era's desire for continual privacy, to a haven away from the strife-ridden state affairs when Queen Victoria's widowhood at Buckingham Palace was symbolised by more dense shrubberies; to a later Victorian era of roseries, mazes, formal flowers, pruned hedges to whatever today means a quintessentially British garden.
So here in our little potted plant gardens, green public enclaves, stately homes of the royal and the rich, they all give hints to another legacy. But our culture being as old as it is, we probably have more style that evolved and died than the British would ever gift to the rest of its colonies. Come to think of it, Queen Elizabeth is a pretty name for a soft tinged high and mighty rose species.
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