garden tales from a Brit abroad
Today we visited the sumptuous Mughal Gardens that lie behind the President’s Palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan) in New Delhi. Normally private, the gardens are opened free of charge to the public for just a few weeks every February and March, when flowering in the gardens is at its peak. [Sadly, for security reasons, cameras are not allowed, so I am using images from other sources for this post.]
A successful mix of Indian and European influences, the fifteen acres of gardens were laid out by Edwin Lutyens, the British architect who designed the palace itself and much of the surrounding colonial city of New Delhi in the 1920s and 30s.
As this plan shows, the gardens divide into three areas: first, the grand section immediately behind the palace with its lotus fountains and spectacular stepped geometry. At the other (western) end, there is a more private butterfly garden around a gentle circular pool and, joining these two together, is a long narrow walled garden, edged on both sides by tennis courts, and planted with roses and bougainvillea.
Lutyens was famously not a fan of Indian architecture (or indeed of Indians). He described the former as “cumbrous, ill-constructed… the building style of children” and dismissed the latter as “odd people with odd names.” With such views commonly held, Lutyens and the other Brits involved in the creation of New Delhi debated how far Indian influences should be reflected in the design of their colonial capital. For the palace gardens and other landscape features, the issue was coloured by two important books published during the time New Delhi was being built, and both probably deliberately seeking to influence the debate in favour of traditional Mughal elements: first, Constance Mary Villiers Stuart’s Gardens of the Great Mughals, published in 1913; and second, Indian Gardens [Indische Gärten], also by a woman, Marie Luise Gothein, which appeared in 1926. Certainly Lutyens’ original plans for an artlessly planted English-style garden behind the palace were to change dramatically.
The plan he finally produced for the site, inspired by gardens he had visited in Agra and Kashmir, reflected the pleasing geometry and balance of Mughal gardens, their beautiful stonework, and the plentiful use of water in rills and fountains to divide the gardens into quadrilateral patterns. These ideas were to some extent a natural progression for Lutyens from the arts and crafts style he had established in his English designs, such as the delightful garden at Hestercombe in Somerset. To these Mughal influences at the palace gardens Lutyens added two very British lawns designed for entertaining, and many large geometric flower beds usually described as English in style (although originally many Mughal gardens would have had similar masses of colourful flowers). To provide year-round structure among the flowers, the main garden is punctuated by clipped specimens of the fragrant native maulsari tree (Mimusops elengi) and by columnar cypress.
British garden historian Tom Turner (whose wry blog at Garden Visit I highly recommend) has been critical in the past of these gardens. In an article in 2005 in Historic Gardens Review, he wrote disparagingly of the inappropriately coloured tiles in the pools, the spotty old-fashioned planting and the poor standard of maintenance, citing leaking basins and obtrusive plant supports.
Many of these issues seem to me to have improved since 2005. Today I saw no sign of leaks and very few plant supports, and the flowers, while traditional in choice, were spectacular in colour and range (although the pool tiles did perhaps still have something of the swimming pool about them).
My one big criticism of these gardens would be that, apart from the sandstone pergola in the long walled garden, there is a decided lack of shade. The trees in the main garden are too fastigiate or too clipped to provide any meaningful shadows, and elsewhere there are only low flowerbeds and lawn. Even today, before the Indian summer has really begun, it was too hot to linger for long among the garden’s delightful fountains, flowers and intricate geometric patterning.