The Landscape Guide

Gardens of India and Sri Lanka

When we include India in our group of the gardens of Western Asia, we do more than. merely overstep geographical boundaries, for there is also much in the civilisation of its wonderful people that binds them closely to the countries of Eastern Asia; and more than. anything else we must attend to the course of the great religious movement, Buddhism,. which here takes its beginning. Almost everything we know about the early Indian gardens is closely connected with this religion. If then, in spite of it all, we separate India from the Eastern civilisations of China and Japan, and draw her into the circle of the West, we are driven to take this course by all the information we can get about her gardens. There is nothing that can distantly suggest that India adopted a picturesque style, as was the case with China and Japan. And neither to the foreign invader, like Alexander and his successors, nor to travellers arriving from the West, does there appear to be anything different here from their own parks at home, whereas in China every traveller is struck by the difference. Unhappily very few sculptures are preserved, and of  these not one relates to the main continent. So much the more will the sacred texts have to tell us of the love felt by this people towards their gardens.

The worship of trees was a very ancient custom among the Hindus, just as it was in Western Asia, and there are innumerable Buddhist pictures of a scene that is always the same. There is a tree standing in an enclosure, the hedge made either of woven osiers or wooden stakes, or possibly of stone with a decorated balustrade, There are people offering sacrifices, generally a man, a woman, and some boys carrying the gifts, some times a whole number of believers, or again sometimes only animals, who reverently take their place—lions or gazelles, or perhaps whole herds of creatures. This scene occurs at least sixty-three times on the gates of Sanchi.

To each Buddha a different tree was sacred, and under it he received his Illumination. It was also under a tree that Queen Mâyâ brought forth the infant Gautama, whose destiny it was as the most holy Buddha to enlighten the world. The garden where this tree grew was called the Lumbini garden, and it had been laid out for the mother of Mâyâ-Divi as a present from her husband. When Mâyâ felt that her hour was come, she wandered in the garden from bed to bed, looking at the trees, until she came to the plaksha-tree, which bent before her, greeting her as the chosen woman. The garden was one of those pleasure parks which Indian grandees owned in front of the city, for Mâyâ betook. herself to a carriage that was waiting on the beautiful road.

Pleasure gardens with their flower-beds and lotus ponds, shady avenues and leafy pippala and sal trees, play an important part in the story of Gautama’s life. [EDITOR’s NOTE: The pippala-tree would probably be the peepul- or bo-tree, the sacred fig (Ficus religiosa) of India. The sal might be the hard-wooded Shorea robusta.] The prince was on his way for a pleasure excursion to the gardens of his parents when there came to him the fourfold Illumination of the transitoriness of this life, which caused him to flee from the home of his fathers.

But it was not only the kings but the community as well who owned great recreation parks near the city. These were accessible to everybody, and contained buildings of all sorts made for the convenience and pleasure of the townsmen. Such parks appear to have served from the first as headquarters for the Indian anchorites, and all the pictures of Buddha on his road to illumination show him visiting the holy penitents, who lived in huts made of bamboo or in stone grottoes in a palm grove or some sort of park. When the lure of Buddha had become powerful, men vied with each other in giving to him and his pupils parks where they might take repose during the rainy season. Their scriptures always describe them in the same formula: “Not too near the town, and not too far away, well provided with entrances, easily reached by the people who like to come, not too noisy by day, perfectly quiet by night, removed from disturbance and crowds, a place of retreat and lonely contemplation.”

One of the most famous parks was the Dshetavana, given to the Buddha by one of his very open-handed votaries, the great merchant Anathapinta. In the fifth century A.D. the Chinese pilgrim Fa Hian thus describes it: “The clear water in the pond, the tall greenery, and the countless flowers of many colours combine to make the picture that is called the Vihara of Chi-un (Dshetavana).” The park had once been a royal seat, and Anathapinta was only able to get it after long negotiations with Prince Dsheta, by offering to give him as much gold as would cover the whole of the ground. His reward was that the holy Buddha chose it as his favourite home. Not only this merchant, but kings who had become Buddhists, presented such properties as this to the yellow-clad monks, for in that way they could keep them attached for a longer time to their own cities, and every fresh conversion made by the envoys of Buddha after his death ended with the presentation of a sacred garden.

Rather more than two centuries after Buddha had entered Nirvana, Ceylon was converted to his creed. To this there is not only the testimony of the great Pali Chronicle, the Mahãwanisa, which throws light on the marvellous royal parks that grew up there in the course of the centuries, but we also have ruins, long concealed under ancient forest growths, but rediscovered in the last decades by English excavators. The accounts of the Buddhist writers, obscured by the network that covers a history written in verse, are confirmed by these discoveries, and are found to be accurate, and topographically remarkably trustworthy.

The first act of King Tissa after his conversion was the presentation of a wonderful park. The Apostle Mahinda had first of all preached in the garden of Nandana, which means the garden of Heaven, and the king wanted to present this place to the monks; but they scorned the gift because it was too near the city of Anuradhapura, and quite close to the king’s palace. So then Tissa offered them the Mahamigha garden, which his father had laid out, “not too near the town, and not too far off, a valuable estate, well provided with water and shade.” The very next day, with great pomp and ceremony, the boundaries of the place were removed, the king in person ploughing around it with a golden plough. Then they built temples and shrines to hold relics; but the chief treasure of all was a branch from a fig-tree, under which Gãutama had once received Illumination—a miraculous branch, which in a few minutes grew to be a tree. Round it there are still preserved fragments and ruins of mighty forts, barriers, halls and gates (Fig, 43). Saplings from it are planted round the sacred grove.

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Henry Cave thus describes the building by which the tree used to be enclosed:

A wall of great blocks of granite, the projections and sloping parts inlaid with chunam, which resembles ivory, encloses the marble-paved court. Four entrances of high architectural pretension admit to this court, each covered with a metal roof like a baldachin, which rests on twenty stone pillars, each cut out of a single block. The plinth is made of huge granite plates with steep projections. A number of steps lead up to the lower part, with fine carving on them. The lowest step, which projects in a semi-circle, is wonderfully carved, and has side-posts of stone, ornamented with bas-relief pictures. Inside the court there are beautifully decorated halls, in which there are set up portraits of Buddha, sometimes carved in stone, sometimes made of a precious metal, and an inner wall with three stone terraces encloses the sacred tree itself. This tree and its surroundings are the most remarkable sanctuary in the whole island.

The Mahãwamsa gives an account of an imitation that was made of this tree, out of very costly materials. In the second century before Christ, King Dutthagamini had it put up in the great Ruanweli or Gold Dust Dagoba, of which we have the ruins to-day on a great hill overgrown with trees.

In the middle of this shrine made for relics, the king had a fig-tree set up wrought in precious metals; the height of its trunk was eighteen yards, the roots were made of coral, and were fixed in an emerald floor. The trunk was of pure silver, and the leaves set with precious stones. The fading leaves were of gold, the fruits and the young foliage of coral, On the trunk were pictures of the eight lucky signs  above the tree spread a handsome baldachin . . at the foot were fine vases arranged in rows, in which flowers shone that were made entirely of precious stones, and in the vases were the four kinds of sweet waters, which wafted their pleasing scents around.

This is certainly one of the earliest descriptions of an artificial tree. The religious character, the imitation of so great and holy an object as Buddha’s tree, entitles us to discern in this piece the original source of that remarkable work of art, which - handed down continuously from age to age - eventually found its way as a fine garden decoration into the western and northern countries of Europe.

The excavations, which naturally cannot give any picture of the garden as a whole, have at any rate revealed traces of its beauty, in water-basins and baths, called pokuflas, of which the chronicle has so much to tell. The whole cultivation of ancient Ceylon depended on its excellent artificial irrigation, and the ability of the chief men displays itself, not only in their important religious buildings, but particularly in the way they provided immense, artificial tanks, so that the water could be taken all over the island in the time of drought. A good water-supply was one of the first requirements of a Buddhist grove, and many of the baths now dug up prove to be more than forty-five metres in length, over eighteen metres broad, and upwards of seven metres deep. The floors are paved with marble, and there are often marble pillars round them; also there are marble steps on each side with good balustrades. At one of these there is in addition a smaller bath, and a platform; this made a separate place, and was roofed over with a canopy on pillars. This inner bath opens on a room whose walls are made of wrought freestone (Fig. 44).

The Mahãwamsa has more to tell after the story of the capital city Anaradhapura, for we come at a later date to the period when under the great King Parakama in the twelfth century the city of Polonnaruwa rose to an unforeseen height of glory. Scarcely

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had the strong hand of the king secured peace when he began to build lordly temples and palaces, and by the side of his palace there arose a garden, which he called Nandana, in memory of the place where the Buddhist apostle first preached when he came to Ceylon.

This park is carefully described:

Jessamine climbed about the trees .  . swarms of bees fed on the honey of various flowers; there were fruit-trees, some brought from abroad; . . . fruit-blossom and other flowers were there to delight the eye . . there were many ponds, their borders decked with beauty, lovely with the abundance of lotus and of lilies . . . and there was the trumpeting cry of the crane (in India called the Cry of Sara).

The palace was girt round with pillars and rows of carvings in ivory, but the best decoration of all was a bath, blinding to the eye of a spectator: in it spouts of water, conveyed thither in pipes and machines, made the place appear as though clouds were incessantly pouring down drops of rain. There was a great array of different baths that delighted masters and men, We hear also of other parks and other baths, and even of gardens that the rich made for the recreation of the poor. The stories in the Mahãwamsa stretch back farther than the times we know about, and much of what we read suggests that there may have been some European influence. In its leading features, however, the garden seems to differ but little from those of the monks in the fifth century at Anaradhapura.

Our knowledge of Indian parks is helped by very few carvings, and it is to the tenth century that the great strip in relief belongs, of the Bôrô-Budur temple in Java. The life of Buddha is depicted here, and quite in accordance with legend, it is all played on the ,background of a park. The trees are drawn with extreme delicacy, but too conventionally to show what kinds they are (Fig. 45), and they remind us in their arrangement of similar Assyrian pictures. Basins are rarely absent, and they are generally rectangular, with stone walls and floating lotuses, and in between waterfowl roving about, and in most examples also fish. The religious feeling of India provides that animals should play a great part, and we always find birds sitting on the bushes, and squirrels or monkeys playing about. In grottoes or rocks, which are conventionally drawn antelopes are often found lying down, and lions too, as well as other beasts.

Flower-beds we do not often find here, but Indian stories and legends have much to tell of flowers as votive offerings. In the Mahãwamsa every festival procession has an abundance of them. Any person out of the numerous participators who also went up to the shrine of relics would lay his flowers there as alms, till altar and steps were literally

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buried under them; and on days of high festival the lofty domes were. wreathed from top to bottom. Whenever the chronicle takes us into a garden, we are at once sur rounded by an intoxicating mixture of perfumes; and the eyes rest admiringly on the beds, and on the climbing plants in flower, which twine between tree and tree. So wandered Mâyâ, the Buddha’s mother, admiringly from bed to bed in the royal garden.

The picture of Indian Buddhist gardens grows out of many individual examples into a whole. It harmonises with the great development of Western Asia, but not with that of Eastern Asia, where we shall find a completely different feeling for art.

Indian monks were the first to choose the garden as the proper setting for their lives, which were devoted to the contemplation of the divine; but with a prophetic eye we may see that the garden will often be dedicated in a like manner: at a later time Greek philosophers, and monks in early Christian days, will retire into their gardens for united, yet silent, contemplation.


[See additional note on Persian Gardens on CD]