Archive for the ‘Cemeteries and monuments’ Category

Decadence is defined as

moral or cultural decline as characterised by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury.

In terms of Mughal design, Safdarjung’s Tomb in Delhi is a fine example of decadence. It follows in the pattern of the great garden tombs, which began with the sandstone mausoleum and geometric garden of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun, laid out by his widow around 1564.

An aerial view of Humayan's Tomb, from a photograph on display at the site

An aerial view of Humayan’s Tomb, from a photograph on display at the site

The tradition reached its undoubted peak with Agra’s supremely elegant Taj Mahal, created in marble amidst park-like surroundings in the 1630s for the wife of fifth emperor Shahjehan. Both Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal today are World Heritage Sites.

The Taj Mahal viewed from across the Yamuna river

The Taj Mahal viewed from across the Yamuna river

The Taj represents the artistic pinnacle of the Mughal empire, created at the height of its cultural and political power. Just over a century later, Safdarjung’s Tomb was the last Mughal building to be created in Delhi, and the last of the Mughal garden tombs. It is the mausoleum of the prime minister to the fifteenth emperor, created as his empire disintegrated. According to some accounts, Safdarjung himself played a part in the the downfall of the Mughals.

The entrance gateway to the site.

The entrance gateway to Safdarjung’s Tomb.

Sunset view of the tomb with its walkways and water courses.

Sunset view of the tomb with its walkways and water courses.

Safdarjung’s Tomb is a strangely appropriate monument. It sums up in stone the decline of the once-great empire. The mausoleum and its Mughal gardens are clearly modelled on Humayun’s. But the proportions of the main building feel strange, with an over-sized dome and chunky corner-towers, and the decorative marble elements are ostentatious, lacking all the elegance of the Taj Mahal’s exquisite inlaid stone work. The garden’s four water courses, one leading from each side of the tomb, also have a rather clunky, overly-literal feel. It is as if the architect was trying too hard to show off the main features of the design, without understanding the subtleties and balance require to create a great building.

One of the showy marble panels (left).

One of the showy marble panels (left).

View of the mausoleum.

The strangely scaled vertical elevations of the mausoleum.

Despite its central Delhi location, Safdarjung’s Tomb is today little-visited. The garden has that typical combination of lawn and little clipped shrubs that bears no relation to the orchards and scented flowers that were once essential features of a Mughal garden. Much of the stonework is rather shabby, some of the pathways are uneven and overgrown, and all the water channels have long been empty. But it undoubtedly remains important as a late, decadent example of Mughal funerary design.

Poorly maintained plaster around the site's library.

Poorly maintained plaster around the site’s library.

One of the derelict water channels.

One of the derelict water channels.

Sandstone slabs.

Sandstone slabs, stacked among weeds in the garden.

This week the Archaeological Survey of India (the Government agency that maintains the tomb) has announced plans to restore the fountains and water channel at the entrance to the site. The original Mughal drainage system has been unearthed and apparently the water should soon be flowing again. Similar work may be possible in the other three channels. It is hardly full restoration but, in a country keen to look forward, and where heritage is often viewed as an unnecessary relic of an irrelevant past, it is still encouraging to see state intervention such as this for a great example of decadent Mughal design.

The water course at the entrance, soon to be restored.

The water course at the entrance, soon to be restored.

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The death of former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher last week has led her supporters to cast around for ways to commemorate her. Ideas include a statue in some central London spot, perhaps outside the Houses of Parliament, or on the empty fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square. This would seem to me a bad idea, not just because Thatcher remains a highly divisive figure whose life many would not want to see celebrated, but because Trafalgar Square’s empty plinth already has a role.

The plinth was originally destined to display an equestrian statue, to accompany figures of Lord Nelson, two generals and a king, but it was never installed. So from 2005, the plinth has exhibited a series of specially commissioned artworks in a splendid scheme run by the Greater London Authority. The idea is both to make Trafalgar Square a vibrant public space, but also to “encourage debate about the place and value of public art.”

Trafalgar Square 1

It has been a great success, allowing the display of (so far) five artworks, all different, some controversial. None of them would have been chosen in a soulless, lowest-common-denominator competition for a single, permanent piece. I don’t much care for the current display (a bronze sculpture of a boy on a rocking horse by Elmgreen & Dragset) but know that it is only temporary, and that the next one may be more to my taste (well, unless it does turn out to be of Margaret Thatcher…).

Here in New Delhi, we have our own empty plinth in the heart of the city: on the great ceremonial procession known today as Rajpath, and built by the British even as their control over their Indian Empire was waning. In 1936, Edwin Lutyens designed a white marble memorial to the late King-Emperor George V, to be erected close to the war memorial known as India Gate.

The memorial to George V, complete with statue,; photograph from Irving's Indian Summer.

The memorial to George V, complete with statue; photograph from Irving’s Indian Summer.

After Independence of course, the Indians did not relish having a British monarch lording it over this great thoroughfare and eventually his statue was removed. Since the 1960s it has sat rather glumly in a park to the north of the city, once the site of major British pomp and ceremonies, but now little known.

The statue has gone, but Delhi’s plinth remains, sheltered under its fine baldachin or canopy, but resolutely empty.

George V memorial 1

There have long been arguments about what or who might replace old George on the plinth, but even obvious contenders such as Mahatma Gandhi have proved too controversial for plans to proceed. It has often struck me that Delhi might follow the example of Trafalgar Square and invite the best of Indian artists to produce a rolling programme of temporary installations for this most prominent spot. It would be a great shame if London’s novel example, rather than being replicated, were now to be lost.

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... or why we should(n’t) put the nose back on the Sphinx.

The merits -  or otherwise – of historical conservation was the subject of a splendid debate last week at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Delhi.

In one corner was Sam Miller, BBC man and author of Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity, who argued in favour of a gentle sort of conservation that quietly shored up picturesque ruins, preserved only what was genuinely historical without replacing lost elements or incorporating new additions, and that paid full regard to the importance of personal memory and nostalgia. In a sentence, his position was perhaps that old places should feel old.

In the other corner was Ratish Nanda, project director at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, who contended that the original intent of the creator was the most important factor in preservation, and that on occasion it was appropriate to use traditional skills and materials to restore a site to its original state. In other words, old places could be best served by becoming new again.

The recently restored Humayun’s Tomb.

The main example both men discussed was the area around Humayun’s Tomb, a sixteenth century world heritage site in Delhi, where Ratish Nanda has been leading a major programme of conservation. His work has been criticised for ‘too much use of the paint pot,’ with formerly crumbling Mughal buildings becoming suddenly dazzling white and red. He showed us a number photos to illustrate the work he has been doing (drawing some gasps of horror from the journalists in the audience):

One of the buildings in the Tomb complex before restoration (left) and after.
Image from the project website.

It was easy to sympathise with those who chorused the restored buildings looked too bright, too new, too like images (as Sam Miller said) on a chocolate box lid.

An archway before restoration…

…and afterwards. Both images from the project website.

But Ratish Nanda explained that years of substandard restoration work to the buildings – often using cement – had led to waterlogging, structural cracks, and corrosion. After extensive research, his team had removed the ill-advised materials, and uncovered and repaired many original features. Nowhere had been painted – the bright whites and reds were coloured plaster which exactly replicated how the Mughals themselves had first decorated the buildings. After two or three monsoons, the colours would soften and start to look more mellow and appropriate. But Ratish had resisted calls for the plaster to be made ‘biscuit’ coloured from day one, as white and red was the authentic scheme.

Sam Miller maintained his position that such extensive restoration was a kind of fakery. At the very least he argued that any new materials or repairs should be clearly marked, so that people knew what was original and what was contemporary work. Ratish Nanda agreed that, in some cases, simply preserving what was left would be the best option. But so much of Humayun’s Tomb had survived the centuries, and it was so significant a site and so well-documented, that full restoration in this case, he argued, was the most appropriate action.

After all this discussion and dispute on Humayun’s Tomb, the two men did agree on one thing: neither of them would put the nose back on the Sphinx.

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It was 64 years ago today that Mohandas Gandhi (known as Mahatma, the great soul) was murdered by a Hindu extremist, who believed Gandhi had been too sympathetic to the Muslim cause during the British withdrawal from India.

Delhi has two Gandhi memorials, one the site of his cremation at Raj Ghat, in a park on the banks of the Yamuna river where several other Indian leaders have since been commemorated, and the other at Birla House, in New Delhi, where he was shot.

I visited both places with friends last week, seeking to commemorate Gandhi quietly and away from the grand ceremonies that today will mark the anniversary of his death.

The site at Raj Ghat (literally the riverbank of the king or leader) was designed by Vanu G. Bhuta, an American-trained Indian architect who won the Government-sponsored competition to create a suitable memorial to Gandhi. His was a stark, modernist solution, intended to reflect the profound austerity of Gandhi’s life. The design, which was completed around 1956, is a square, sunken garden, surrounded by walls that serve as viewing platforms. In the centre of the garden is a raised, black marble slab, decorated solely with an engraving of the phrase “He Ram” [Oh God], supposedly Gandhi’s last words, and an eternal flame burning in a large lantern.

Originally the surrounding garden was red earth, but it has been changed several times since its installation and is now British-style grass punctuated with trees planted by visiting foreign dignitaries (from Queen Elizabeth II and Dwight Eisenhower to Ho Chi Minh).  When we visited last week, we admired the proportions and scale of the garden, and the way it can be experienced first in a broad sweep from above, and then intimately (and barefoot) at the memorial itself. The bright marigold petals add a typically Hindu touch (and on occasions the whole memorial is smothered in patterns of flower petals). For me, however, the dignity and repose of the space were somewhat spoilt by the bright green matting laid for mysterious reasons over many of the stone paths, and by the retractable barriers that discouraged visitors from getting too close to the memorial.

The second Gandhi memorial in Delhi is at Birla House, where Gandhi was shot. It is now a national museum, known as the Gandhi Smriti.

I had read of the footprints cast in stone marking his final walk from the house to a planned prayer meeting. But the reality was disappointing: the footprints were not, as I had imagined, gently sunken into the earth, as if preserving the exact tread of his final few steps. Instead, they are oddly raised and too numerous to bring much poignancy to the site  -  and apparently any child who sees them as an invitation to walk in Gandhi’s footsteps is quickly disabused of the idea by the museum guards. The whole site seemed to me slightly dispiriting: I’ve written elsewhere about its surfeit of information boards, and the much-trumpeted interactive displays in the house were one of the strangest museum experiences I have had.

For me, the memorial garden at Raj Ghat, ideally shorn of its bright matting and barriers, is a far finer way to commemorate the founder of the Indian nation.

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My favourite definition of the word preserve is to “to maintain or keep alive a memory or quality.”

It sounds so simple – and yet in reality of course the process of historical preservation throws up impossible challenges. Here are three very different approaches to the preservation of iconic medieval sites. All have their undeniable appeal; all have their unacceptable downsides. See which one you like best.

First, Tughlaqabad, an extraordinary 14th century site to the south of Delhi, where in just three or four years the Sultan (and former slave) Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughlaq constructed a new citadel – a vast, impregnable symbol of the dynasty he founded. Yet on his death, the place was believed cursed, soon abandoned, and never again served a role in the Delhi Sultanate. Now, just remnants remain – a wall here, a gateway there, these fragments of a once-great city being slowing subsumed back into nature, calling to mind the legend of Ozymandias.

The Indian authorities have called it a “symbol of lost heritage” and there are those who would berate them for allowing it to fall into such a state of ruin. Important as it is historically, Tughlaqabad has been denied the chance of world heritage status because there is simply not enough of the city left.

Yet the contemporary visitor to this site feels a great sense of the history of this place, of its antiquity, the inexorable passage of time, and the brief, mistaken hopes and dreams of its creator.

Next, let’s look at the Great Wall of China, in reality a series of fortifications commenced in the 5th century BC, with what remains today largely from the time of the Ming Dynasty (14th century onwards). While many parts are completely lost or in ruins, masonry sections near Beijing have been extensively renovated and serve as major tourist attractions. In complete contrast to Tughlaqabad, these are so fully restored and carefully maintained that they give a strong sense of how the walls must have looked when they were first constructed centuries ago.

Indeed they have been condemned as too “picture perfect” – appearing to have been built yesterday, and offering no sense of antiquity or what Ruskin called “that golden stain of time.” With their ski-lifts up to get up and toboggans to get back down, the walls can feel like a Disney version of Chinese history.

And for my third example, the Hindu temples of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, created by the Chandella dynasty between 950 and 1050 AD. Twenty or so of these soaring, intricate buildings have survived over the centuries, and have recently been designated a world heritage site. (These days, they are probably best known and visited for their sexually explicit carvings.)

After the Chandella dynasty declined, the temples were largely forgotten and, by the nineteenth century, the site had been reclaimed by the surrounding jungle. Only the local villagers remembered the existence of the temples and one day told of them to a young British captain in the Bengal Engineers. The British then cleared away the trees and restored what they described as “these splendid monuments of antiquity,” with replacement sections clearly differentiated by their colour from original material.

Nowadays such an approach is often seen as aesthetically unpleasing and unnecessary, a disfigurement of the original appearance of the site. Yet there is arguably an honesty in the way new material does not pretend to be old, and a pleasure in the way visitors are thus reminded of the history of the temples, their virtual loss and dramatic recovery, and the role of the British in preserving many sites of cultural heritage during the Raj.

So where is memory or quality best maintained? Is it in the deliberately patched temples, or the perfectly renovated wall, or the fortifications gradually fading into oblivion?

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In our first few weeks in India, we have seen several examples of ancient Hindu or Mughal architecture surrounded by gardens that turn out to be partly or largely twentieth century British. I’ve already posted about the controversial gardens at Lodi, from where two villages were relocated in the 1930s to allow an English-style park to be installed.

Next up, the sixteenth century Humayun’s Tomb, one of the most beautiful and significant sites in Delhi, and an inspiration for the Taj Mahal. Arranged symmetrically around the elevated marble tomb, its grounds retain the four-square layout of the traditional paradise garden. But the sandstone of the rills and many of the planting choices, although recently restored, apparently owe much to a British intervention in the first decade of the twentieth century, itself intended to correct an earlier British project that had replaced Mughal water features with Victorian circular flower beds.

The red and white marble of Humayun's garden tomb, with the sandstone rills and planting added later by the British

An aerial photograph of Humayun's Tomb, showing the grid layout of the gardens. Image on display at the site.

At the Agra Fort, a World Heritage Site 200km south of Delhi, we learnt that the lawns and planting around and within the stronghold (which was constructed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) were again put in place by the Brits, establishing grass and shrubs where formerly had been paved and carpeted gathering spaces.

British shrubs and grass at the Agra Fort

Twentieth century lawn inserted among seventeenth century buildings at the Agra Fort

The Taj Mahal was also influenced by its time under British management. While the exact layout and planting of its original gardens in the seventeenth century are not known, there are early descriptions of the monument surrounded by a profusion of roses, daffodils and fruit trees. As part of a major conservation programme, the gardens were replanted in 1903 in a more Western style, with lawns and clumps of trees.

Irregular clumps of trees and lawn adjacent to the Taj Mahal

English-style grass long established in the grounds of the Taj Mahal

All these horticultural and design changes were part of well-meaning efforts to restore or enhance crumbling historic sites. Some would now argue that much of this work was inappropriate, examples of misguided attempts at restoration by people who did not understand the culture of the country or the history of its landscapes. (It makes me wonder which conservation projects of today will in future years be seen as ill-judged or unwise, introducing incongruous elements or removing historically significant features.)

Yet gardens are always going to change over time. For me, one of their joys is the layers of history that they contain, with designs and planting from different periods jostling and intermingling around the largely static architecture. The British are just one of many influences on Indian landscapes, and there is a certain pleasure in seeing their (our) brief, particular impact.

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The tour Montparnasse is the only skyscraper in Paris. Whatever its architectural merit, its viewing terrace gives wonderful views over the capital. From above, you get a different sense of the scale of the cityscape – the green expanse of the parks and cemeteries, the proximity and juxtaposition of landmarks, the great scars of the railway lines.

In the foreground are views of the jardin Atlantique, a late twentieth century park, placed dramatically on top of the Montparnasse railway station.

jardin AtlantiqueAlso adjacent is the 19th century Montparnasse cemetery, which seems surprisingly large viewed from above.

Montparnasse cemeterySlightly more distant, in the 6th arrondissement, is the lush, 17th century jardin du Luxembourg, with the iconic cemetery Père Lachaise (the city’s biggest green space), located in the 20th arrondissement, visible beyond.

jardin du LuxembourgTo the west is the 101 metre high, golden dome of Les Invalides with its grand esplanade leading to the Seine.

InvalidesAnd, of course, arguably the original ‘skyscraper’ in Paris, here’s la tour Eiffel straddling the half-mile long processional space of the Champs de Mars with, as backdrop, the business district at la Défense.

Tour EiffelOften, it’s the little details of the city that catch my eye – a cluster of plants, a sign, the face on a sculpture – so it’s good to be reminded of the large scale and drama of this splendid place.

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The Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale on the edge of the Bois de Vincennes is a curious relic of France’s colonial past. Yesterday I joined Adam of Invisible Paris for a guided tour of the garden in springtime, and it struck me that it raises some fascinating issues about landscape conservation.

Obscura DayObscura DayCreated in 1899 to test and redistribute plants from the country’s territories abroad, the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale was the site of a Colonial Fair in 1907 which used displays of plants and buildings to provide a sense of the French colonies for well-to-do Parisian visitors. Elephants and camels were brought in and, extraordinarily, so were des indigènes – people literally shipped in from the colonies to live in huts and tents in the garden and be gawped at by visitors. Adam showed us some wonderful 1907 photographs of the Fair’s buildings, with elephants careering down a specially created water slide, and the indigènes wrapped in blankets against the Northern European chill, staring stoically at the camera.

Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale

The entrance to the 1907 Colonial Fair. Image from http://www.expositions-universelles.fr

The human attractions disappeared after six months (sadly no records remain of their experiences or their ultimate fate) but the buildings and the plants were left in situ after the Fair ended. The site became a hospital during the First World War and home to memorials for colonial soldiers morts pour la France (killed in the service of France).

Madagascar war memorialCambodian war memorial

Some of the buildings were co-opted for other uses, but over the decades that followed most of the site fell into disuse and neglect. Some structures burnt down or were destroyed by weather or time. The exotic plant species gradually died out, to be replaced by volunteer trees and vegetation. The only remaining original plantings are some persimmon, lots of bamboo and a single eucommia ulmoides, or Chinese rubber tree.

Obscura DayObscura dayObscura Day

Then in 2003 the city of Paris took over the site. It trumpeted its wish to restore the garden and its listed colonial structures, and run it as a model of sustainability. A beautifully illustrated book was published about the garden and its history, the Indochina pavilion was expensively restored, and signs of sustainability – such as a mass of beehives – started to appear on site.

Indochina pavilion

But the management of this garden raises some difficult questions. Without an obvious new use for the buildings, why invest the large sums needed to restore and maintain them? The story of French colonisation is undoubtedly important, but it is an awkward – sometimes shameful – part of the country’s history, and so is it likely to provide a popular visitor attraction? In any event, what value do these buildings have historically, as quickly constructed French interpretations of vernacular architecture in Asia and Africa? The garden may be owned by the city of Paris, but it is located in the leafy suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne; how far should Parisian tax revenue be spent restoring a site away from the city?

But if the city does not restore the garden, then its options are limited. Some might argue that the garden should simply be left to continue to decay and eventually disappear, remembered only through old photographs and stories. Such abandon has a certain romantic appeal, while dilapidated structures and wilderness could be a suitable metaphor for the bygone values and beliefs of colonisation.

At the moment, the city seems to be trying to find a middle way between these two approaches. Its staff are trying to stabilise decaying structures and to keep the garden accessible and safe for visitors, by clearing paths, putting up warning signs and fences, and cordoning off dangerous areas. Save for planting the odd new tree, little is being done to change the existing vegetation. Instead the city argues that it is preserving both the mysterious charm and the biodiversity of the site.

To be honest, it feels to me like an uneasy compromise – essentially trying to conserve the sense of history and neglect, while keeping the space safe and useable. The garden is no longer abandoned, but is being managed to appear as if it is. But I have no easy solutions for what else could be done.

With thanks to Adam for a fascinating tour of this little-known garden, and for allowing us to to ponder on the many issues it raises.

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Next week I’m off to Philadelphia for a few days.  I’ll be speaking at a symposium at the UPenn School of Design, called Foreign Trends on American Soil. It promises to be a fascinating look at the many influences on landscape design in the US. My paper will compare Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris with its American interpretation at Mount Auburn in Massachusetts.  And I’m looking forward to attending a related lecture by Blanche Linden at UPenn on preservation problems in historic rural cemeteries, and to visiting the gardens of fellow blogger and shade plant specialist Carolyn Walker.

Sadly I’ll just miss the Philadelphia Flower Show, which is happening this week. Its theme this year is “Springtime in Paris.” Philadelphia is a city with strong historical, political and cultural links to the French capital; it would have been fascinating to see how exhibitors are interpreting the topic.

Instead, I shall console myself with a few photos taken this morning in parc Monceau of, well, springtime in Paris.

corylopsis ?paucifoliaPhotinia leavesForsythiaMagnolia budsCherry blossom

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Signage. It sounds the most boring of topics. But in public parks and gardens, signs can make such a difference. Good ones make us feel welcome, confident, wanted. Bad ones leave us confused and irritated, sensing that our presence is merely tolerated.

I’ve been noticing some examples in Parisian landscapes.

Tuileries TuileriesFirst, some new signs in the jardin des Tuileries. Located in sensible places and frequently consulted, they are sleek and modern, with a map of the whole garden, and some arrows showing you the direction of the main features. To me they say: We don’t want you to see this as a fusty historic park: it’s a contemporary place. And we want you to stroll around and enjoy it all.

My only complaint about the Tuileries signs would be about this one at an entrance on the rue de Rivoli. Same simple design, but way too much information on some pretty complex opening times. It’s telling me: We don’t care if you feel welcome. We have our own elaborate systems and you just need to fit in with them. That panel along the bottom is also slightly discomfiting: We have already thought of two things you can’t do here, but we have left lots of room to list other forbidden activities when we think of them.


Here’s a terrible example. It’s the entrance to the historic cemetery at Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. Those forbidding stone walls have a tiny brass plaque with opening times, and then some random interdictions: no dogs; no parking because the firefighters need access; oh, and no parking anyway. With that forlorn rubbish bin and the glimpse of a barrier beyond the walls, it must be one of the most unwelcoming entrances in Paris. It says: We never give a moment’s thought to our visitors. Except when they do something annoying, and then we tell them to stop.

MontparnasseHere’s another poor one, this time in the newly restored glasshouses at the jardin des Plantes in the 5th. Each glasshouse has lots of these obtrusive, multi-coloured information signs, set on twiddly metal frames. To me they mutter: We don’t really think our plants are interesting enough. We don’t trust them to hold your attention. We hope to distract you with these signs.

Jardin des Plantes

Disneyland ParisOne final example for now, at Disneyland Paris.

Generally the signage there is woeful, but here’s a good one, from the Alice in Wonderful labyrinth. It’s fun, appropriate, and shows you the way to something you may otherwise have missed. It says: We think a lot about your enjoyment. Have some more fun over here!

The next time you see a sign in a public park, think what it tells you – not about opening times or toilet locations – but about the attitude to visitors of that place.

I am going to look out for more examples too.

Post script: If you’re interested in signage, you might like to visit my gallery of other wonderful and woeful examples.

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