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Sunday , November 29 , 2009
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- Garden delights and botanical imperialism

In Gardens of Delight — Indian Gardens through the Ages (Roli, 2008), the architect, Rahoul B. Singh, provides a select historical sweep of the history of the Indian garden. Referring appropriately to gardens as living works of art, he shows how architectural interventions in the form of gazebos, pavilions and viewing platforms became integral to the presentation of cultivated green spaces. The earliest records of such spaces belong to the oral tradition, engravings on temple walls and columns; then come the great classics such as Kalpavriksha and Chaityavriksh that deal with the flora of ancient India, also mentioned in the Kamasutra. Landscape design, the use of water for display as well as irrigation and overall structural concepts are dealt with in the Vaastu Shastra. Specific trees are said to embody members of the religious pantheon: the roots of the peepal (Ficus religiosa) represent Brahma, the creator, its trunk Lord Vishnu, and Shiva, the destroyer, resides in its beautifully formed leaves. It is also the peepal under which Gautama Buddha achieved nirvana.

Singh traces the development of domestic gardens to the post-transition phase, when communities of hunters and gatherers started putting down roots. Initially, these were used to grow medicinal plants; in time, they became objects of aesthetic pleasure. Soon, sacred groves and temple gardens became “sanctified spots particularly suitable for ceremony”. When Hindu domination of the garden gave way to a very different aesthetic, that of Islam, some of the finest gardens came into existence. Garden-building under Muslim rule often reflected the world-view of their designers. Thus, Emperor Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra and its gardens were an amalgam of many influences, and Singh implies that this syncretism in nature was a true reflection of the emperor’s secularism and commitment to the Din- i-Ilahi, a new faith based on all the religions.

Several centuries later, Hindu royalty adopted much-valued features of Mughal architecture and garden design; for instance, the 19th-century image (picture) of the latter-day Deeg palace in Rajasthan shows how “the Jats’ own aesthetic vision” is combined with the classical Mughal Char Bagh gardens. The planting, too, appears to be a strange combination of banana groves, cypress and a variety of native and exotic flora.

Where Rahoul Singh’s extensively illustrated book falls short is his lack of any serious attention to the last 300 years or so of garden history; though he deals with the Mughal Gardens that embellish Edwin Lutyen’s and Herbert Baker’s opulent Rashtrapati Bhawan, he does not engage with the imperial phase when flora, garden styles and designs became a part of colonialism’s expanding discourse and process of acquisition. After the arrival of the Hon’ble John Company, the desire back home to know more about the land to which many younger sons and, later, single women in “fishing fleets” were headed, grew.

An integral part of the imperial process was to keep up a constant flow of information on life in the colonies for those who stayed behind. The British penchant for collecting, cataloguing and reporting found great opportunities in these alien lands. Material objects of all kinds — toys, masks, books, manuscripts, paintings, stuffed animals and birds soon made their way to homes in England. And for the more adventurous, caches of the flora of exotic India were carefully carried home. Soon enough, commercial exporters entered the scene, and a little known part of British imperialism took off with the import of flora for individual collectors, and of course, to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

If daisies, daffodils, peonies and hydrangeas came to inhabit Indian gardens, brought by those longing for a bit of home in alien lands, the reverse too was true. Many of these migrants pre-dated imperialism, and have got ‘nativized’ over the centuries. Though what Lucille Broadway has called “botanical imperialism” had roots in the Middle Ages, European imperial expansion helped greatly in the cultivation of exotics at home.

For those who could not travel, explore and experience, at first hand, the landscapes of the Other, the import of exotics was “as important in shaping the imaginative geographies of British imperialism as exploration and travel abroad” (Rebecca Preston). From the middle of the 19th century, as mental travelling or Mesmerism, as it was called, reached almost “epic proportions in the popular imagination”, it hardly required a visit to the tropics for many an avid gardener to become familiar with unknown terrains. The English country garden that now became host to exotics allowed a private — if somewhat specialized — understanding of empire.

Suitably orientalized garden architecture provided the look and feel of the “torrid zones”. As Rahoul Singh has shown, built up specialized spaces became very important in the overall structure of the Islamic garden. There was, however, on the whole, a harmonious blending, unlike many British gardens designed by specialists who somewhat dishonestly suggested to pliant gentry that “a glazed Mosque, Pyramid or Pagoda, containing palms, etc., might give a pretty good idea of the scenery of the torrid zone” (John Loudon).

Descriptions of exotics cultivated in conservatories that imitated Indian pleasure pavilions all but transported their owners to the land of their origin: a particularly amusing 1831 account of the sensuous hallucinogenic, the Datura or Brugmansia in the Gardener’s Magazine, led the correspondent to comment that “the delicate whiteness of its large pendulous bells, contrasted with its ample green foliage, and as viewed in the imperfect illumination of candlelight, made a grand and exhilarating spectacle, one that seemed to us Orientally luxurious”. One admirer of this grand flower was even moved to quote Virgil as he threw himself into a spacious armchair.

Not unexpectedly, in time a nationalistic response grew, and by the last years of the 19th century, gardeners, many of them women, started working on the Old English garden; some even experimented with the Shakespearean. The overpowering influence of the mysterious East had to be kept at bay in the garden, if not in real life. It could be there, argued gardener Barbara Campbell, as a mere hint as otherwise, if “allowed to dominate, it [oriental suggestion] becomes incongruous, and would denationalise the garden”. Xenophobia came in many forms, and it was all very well to be seduced by the single Datura on an intoxicated evening: to be surrounded by many others of its kind would be threatening at the very least. All such forays into large-scale visions of Oriental flora had to be reserved for visits to, for instance, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

At the institutional level, by 1880, its director was to describe the Royal Botanic Gardens as one in which “a vast assemblage of plants from every accessible part of the Earth’s surface is systematically cultivated”. Two men, greatly influential in the growth of Kew, were the father-son team of the botanist, Sir William Hooker, and his son, Joseph. Sir William’s personal collection of dried plants was the basis for Kew’s Herbarium, while his son, Joseph, specialized in living flora. He visited India between 1847 and 1851, and apart from gathering material to write his seven-volume opus, Flora of British India, Joseph Hooker carried back 30 new species of the Himalayan Rhododendron for the Royal Botanic Gardens.

If Rahoul Singh reminds us of the intermingling of the native with the exotic in the five planting zones of the Mughal Gardens, he is merely confirming an established trend in landscaping today: the beautiful golden Rhododendron, rarely seen in Indian gardens, co-exists with the English rose in cottage gardens, reminding us that many plants are unwitting bearers of an unusual colonial legacy.

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