The Garden Guide

Book: C.M Villiers Stuart Gardens of the Great Mughals
Chapter: Chapter 1 On some early garden history

Horticulture and garden design in India

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Though the beauty of design and the charm of garden symbolism have been lost sight of in India, botanical gardens and horticultural colleges are always improving well-known shrubs and flowers and acclimatizing new ones, and their actual cultivation appeals keenly to nearly every one, and especially to Anglo-Indians. Indeed, I should say that the average Englishman in India takes a far more practical interest in his garden there than he would do at home in England. The rapid growth and beauty of the strange new flowers and trees attract him; while life is spent so much out of doors, that the garden plays a larger part and the house a much smaller one than they do with us in colder countries. What cause, then, in latter-day India has led to this divorce of horticulture and design ? Why is 'the art, so well understood by the Mughals, of planning and planting gardens in direct harmonious relation to the house, palace, or mausoleum to which they belong, now rarely if ever practised ?' There are two main causes which have contributed to the neglect of Indian garden-craft. The first is the obvious change of habits and manners. The railway train brings the cool hill station within comparatively easy reach. There is no need now for the long journeys of the Court to Kashmir,-such journeys as the Emperor Jahangir and his consort, the famous Nur-Jahan Begam (better known as Nur-Mahal), undertook no less than thirteen times, crossing the snowy passes of the Pir Panjal on elephants -a strange and dangerous undertaking. These adventures, however, were for the Court alone; for most people a garden close to the city walls took the place of hill stations and summer resorts. Every omrah (noble) and rich man made one or more of these gardens, with running water, fountains, and cool, airy pavilions in which to take refuge from the stifling summer heat of the great white city palaces. Running water was the essential feature of these gardens. Even the city palace had its fountain and inner court planted with shrubs and flowers for the special use of the ladies of the zenana. Bernier, writing from the Court of Aurungzeb at Delhi, mentions that the garden-houses of the omrahs, 'though mostly situated on the banks of the river and in the suburbs, are yet scattered in every direction. In these hot countries a house is considered beautiful if it be capacious, and if the situation be airy and exposed on all sides to the wind, especially the northern breezes. A good house has its courtyards, gardens, trees, basins of water, small jets d'eau in the hall or at the entrance, and handsome subterraneous apartments which are furnished with large fans, and on account of their coolness are fit places for repose from noon until four or five o'clock, when the air becomes suffocatingly warm. Instead of these cellars many persons prefer kas-kanays, that is, small and neat houses made of straw or odoriferous roots, placed commonly in the middle of a parterre so near to a reservoir of water that the servants may easily moisten the outside by means of water brought in skins. They consider that a house to be greatly admired ought to be situated in the middle of a large flower garden, and should have four divan-apartments raised the height of a man from the ground, and exposed to the four winds, so that the coolness may be felt from any quarter. Indeed, no handsome dwelling is ever seen without terraces on which the family may sleep during the night. They always open into a large chamber into which the bedstead is easily moved in case of rain, when thick clouds of dust arise, when the cold air is felt at break of day, or when it is found necessary to guard against those light but penetrating dews which frequently cause a numbness in the limbs and induce a species of paralysis.' Nothing could be more charming or more suited to the climate than these country houses round Delhi as seen by Bernier in 1660, and the ill-adapted, modern Anglo-Indian bungalows, with their sloping roofs, haphazard-shaped compounds, and dusty gardens open to the public gaze, cannot be said to be a great advance in appropriateness or taste.