Archive for the ‘India’ Category

The start of the World Cup tomorrow has been overshadowed by concerns about the readiness of the infrastructure, and hostility from many Brazilians to their government spending so much money on sport, rather than healthcare or public transport. Even bigger problems lurk for the 2016 Olympics, due to take place in the same country.

The costs and benefits of hosting such events are controversial. Beforehand, governments will claim long-term advantages for their citizens from being host. Afterwards, legacy arrangements are often disappointing. Here in Delhi, the 2010 Commonwealth Games brought mixed benefits, with the wonderful new metro system probably its lasting success. The ruthless eviction of slum-dwellers in places likely to be seen by visitors was a less appealing aspect of Delhi’s role as host. And four years later the stadiums themselves now sit largely unused and falling into disrepair.

So it was interesting earlier this summer to visit the newly reopened site of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in East London, and see how far it had been adapted for the long-term benefit of Londoners. Before it was chosen for the Olympics, the site was an industrial part of the Lower Lea Valley. It was characterful and much-loved, or bleak and noisome, depending on whose view you seek.

Pre-Olympic Lower Lea Valley, photograph from the Guardian

Pre-Olympic Lower Lea Valley, photograph from the The Guardian

There are more photographs here of the area in its pre-Olympic days.

Now named the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the site is costing about £300m to convert from its short-term stint as a Games venue into a “new piece of London.”

The new park is  at the centre of a splendid array of public transport links, with rail, tube and bus complemented by cycle paths, pedestrian walkways, coach and car parks. Unsurprisingly then, it was packed when we visited during the Easter holidays. Around 50,000 people were apparently at the park during its opening weekend.

Although it is enormous (about 250 hectares), the park is surprisingly difficult to find from the nearest train/tube station, at Stratford. In fact you have to walk though the adjacent shopping centre (taking an escalator up and “bearing left past the Cow pub,” according to the park’s website). Once at the park, signage is plentiful but some of it is out-of-date and all is in need of some clear “You are Here” stickers to help people navigate their way around.

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Other people are better placed than I am to comment on the planned re-use of the various stadiums and other venues. The park itself has been developed by big names such as Dutch master plantsman Piet Oudolf and US firm James Corner Field Operations (probably best known for their work on New York’s High Line). It is divided into various areas, from the more touristy features of the southern end, including the mad ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture, to the meadows and wetlands further north.

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The quality of much of the work is apparent, with beautiful high-end benches and a mass of well-designed pathways and fences.

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The wonderfully inventive playgrounds are a real feature. These have clearly been designed with kids’ wishes foremost – featuring much sand, water, climbing and risk-taking, and very little that is staid or controlled.

The planting is generally excellent, creating distinct characters for various parts of the park. There are swathes of large pine and birch trees (although perhaps too many Betula pendula) with interesting ground cover, large patches of rough meadowland, and beds of fancy grasses and bold perennials.

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Some of the areas are only recently planted and it is too soon to judge how they will fare, while others were suffering from (hopefully) temporary overflows from the kids’ water play.

Olympic Park23Less successful were the central walkways, which were dauntingly wide and very exposed, especially in hot weather.

Olympic Park15I was also sad to see no obvious reference to the area’s previous industrial past. It feels like a brand new place, sprung fully-formed from the earth.

Much more development is planned around the site in the next few years, including office space and apartment blocks. For the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park itself, currently new and rather splendid, the key of course will be whether sufficient funds and expertise are allocated to its future maintenance. It will be fascinating to see how it fares, and if all that legacy work really does produce a new and sustainable piece of London.


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I am delighted to have joined the rosta of writers at ThinkinGardens, a British website eager to encourage serious, stimulating and critical writing about designed landscapes.

My first piece is Worthy but Wasted? on the challenges of sustainable parks (and from which I’ve taken the title of this brief post). It has already attracted lots of interesting comments. Please do go over and have a look.

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As you might expect, the British Library has an extraordinary wealth of archive material, including much that is essential study for the serious landscape historian. Its strap line, with some justification, is “The World’s Knowledge.” Yet it is far from my favourite repository, partly for its dreadful website, and partly for what might charitably be called its rather high-end charges for image reproduction and permission to publish.

But it has just done something to gladden the heart of every researcher. It has published a Flickr photostream of over a million images from some of the books in its collection. Examples include this lovely 1881 drawing of the gardens at Versailles, entitled “Plan des Bosquets à l’Epoque actuelle” [contemporary plan of the groves] from page 529 of Le Château de Versailles. Histoire et Description by Louis Dussieux.

11143880845_c44f5db04d_kAll the images are in the public domain (the books are from the nineteenth century or earlier) but for most of them this is the first time they have been available online at such high resolution – or indeed at all. Many are of good enough quality for print publication, a rare occurrence for images on the internet. And the British Library makes clear that the images are available for anyone to “use, remix and repurpose” as they see fit. There is no charge; the Library would just appreciate an attribution.

The purpose of releasing them – and there are delightful hints that many more are to follow – is to explore ways of navigating, finding and displaying these currently rather hidden images. At the moment, finding them is hard, even now they are on Flickr. Only the books’ titles and authors are tagged in the photostream. So search for “Taj Mahal” for instance, and there are no results. But search for “India” and – among hundreds of other images – are ones like this, from Our Life and Travels in India by William Wakefield, which shows how very different were the gardens around the tomb in the 1870s:

and this even more detailed one from the following decade, which appeared in Sir Edwin Arnold’s “India Revisited … Reprinted, with additions … from the “Daily Telegraph:””


Searching in this way, by broad geographical sweep or topical area, produces all sorts of splendid surprises. So among the many India images, I found this one from the 1860s of Chandni Chowk, the main street through Old Delhi, labelled interestingly “Main Native Street” and utterly different from the chaotic thoroughfare of today:

and this one of Humayun’s Tomb and its gardens from a Pictorial tour round India; with remarks on India past and present, alleged and true causes of Indian poverty, supposed or real, twelve means available for promoting the wealth of the country, etc. by John Murdoch, p47, published in Madras in 1890, seemingly available nowhere else on the web, and certainly new to me:


But searching (as researchers tend to do) for a specific subject is frustrating. None of the visible text in the images is indexed, so even clear image titles (such as “Humayun’s Tomb” above) are not found in searches – you simply have to wade through books with possibly relevant titles and know what you are looking for. And even more frustratingly, the details of the source volume do not seem to be stored with the image: so if you download a picture without keeping a proper note of its source at the time (as I did with the Chandni Chowk image above) it can be all but impossible to find it again afterwards, or know where it came from.

All to be played for, then. The British Library is planning a “crowdsourcing application” in early 2014 better to identify and describe these million images. It is an exciting, potentially hugely important project for researchers, and the Library is to be applauded for embarking upon it.

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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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Joseph Allen Stein was a twentieth century American architect who spent much of his professional life in India. I have written before about his work at the India Habitat Centre, a late example of his blend of modernism and environmental care.

Stein argued that “reverence” guided the work of architects in previous centuries as they created “profoundly right structures, often on sites of great natural beauty” and that around the world “there are abundant examples of architecture enhancing nature.” In the face of twentieth century population pressures and mass industrialised production, he saw the role of architects as needing consciously to “seek not to spoil the earth.”

Today I joined a tour of one of his earliest buildings in New Delhi, and one of the few private houses that he designed.

Plan by Joseph Allen Stein with Benjamin Polk, 1955, from Building in the Garden by Stephen White.

Plan of High Commissioner’s Residence, New Delhi by Joseph Allen Stein with Benjamin Polk, 1955, from Building in the Garden by Stephen White.

The Australian High Commissioner’s Residence was built in the late 1950s in the Chanakyapuri district of New Delhi. It was one of a series of grand residences laid out for India’s burgeoning diplomatic community in the years following Independence. Unlike most countries, Australia chose an architect who was permanently based in India to design a home for its head of mission, and the wisdom of that choice is clear in the resulting building.

Stein’s design is beautifully simple. Using local materials and with a deep understanding of the harsh Delhi climate, he produced a house that related perfectly to the lush green landscape in which it sat. Local design details, such as open stone jalis or perforated screens, combined with large expanses of glass in a way that respected both traditional knowledge and modernist principles. The current High Commissioner’s wife confirmed to us that the house was a joy to inhabit, the space flowing around the splendid central hall and each room feeling airy and open, with ready access to the outside.

Less is more was one of the fundamental concepts of modernism and our guide for the tour, architectural historian Aman Nath, thought that it played out nowhere better than in Stein’s work in New Delhi, where it perfectly complements the Indian respect for simplicity. Nath was lucky enough to know Joseph Stein and his wife Margaret, and described them as self-effacing, almost – in Joseph’s case – to the point of hermitism. He did not care to publicise or proclaim his work and, perhaps as a result, it is not as well-known or documented as it might be. My explorations of his Delhi work continue and I plan to post soon on the India International Centre (1959-62), the American Embassy School (1960-70) and the Gandhi-King Memorial Plaza (1970).

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Faith in the future

Born from the trauma of partition, the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, in the Himalayan foothills, was designed as a model city and a decisive break with India’s colonial past.

Le Corbusier with Pandit Nehru in Chandigarh. © FLC/ADAGP

Le Corbusier with Pandit Nehru in Chandigarh. © FLC/ADAGP

Nehru, the country ‘s first prime minister after Independence, famously described it as “a new city unfettered by the traditions of the past. ..an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.”

From 1951, the design work was led by the great Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, working with three other Europeans and a team of young Indian architects.

Much has been written about the city – on the irony of Western design becoming the symbol of India’s future; on whether Chandigarh really adapts European style to the very different climate, values and lifestyles of northern India; on the seeming success of the new city in terms of wealth creation, sanitation and human well-being.

I was lucky enough last month to join a private tour of Corbusier’s capitol – the great civic centre of the city, with its high court, assembly building and secretariat arranged around a vast courtyard. There is no easy public access to any of these buildings, and it was a privilege to visit them in the company of international architectural historians and preservation experts.

To my eyes, the buildings were an extraordinary mixture. The expected monumentality was everywhere, in line with the city’s role as a symbol of the new India. We saw three vast columns dramatically painted in primary colours at the high court:Chandigarh 04

Chandigarh 03 Chandigarh 14the great curved concrete parasol of the assembly building, reflected in its rectangular pool:

Chandigarh 15the striking drum shape on the assembly roof, reminiscent of some industrial-scale cooling chimney:

Chandigarh 08and the towering Open Hand sculpture, now the symbol of Chandigarh.

Corbusier sketch for the Open Hand. © FLC/ADAGP

Corbusier sketch for the Open Hand. © FLC/ADAGP

Chandigarh 10But there were many fine details as well, reminders perhaps of Corbusier’s early grounding in the precision of watch-making and the arts and crafts movement, from the mosaics in the courtrooms:

Corbusier design for courtroom tapestry, 1961. © FLC/ADAGP

Corbusier design for courtroom tapestry, 1961. © FLC/ADAGP

Chandigarh 06to the precisely modelled door frames, rhythmic ceiling supports and geometric window patterns:

Chandigarh 12  Chandigarh 07 Chandigarh 02Chandigarh 11I was in Chandigarh to speak at a conference on 20th century heritage. We discussed how Corbusier’s great capitol may be admired by experts the world over, but is little appreciated by many locals, for whom it is distant from the town centre and irrelevant to their daily lives. We witnessed the challenges of building and maintaining structures on a scale and at a cost unfamiliar to most Indian cities.

And, particularly striking for me as a landscape historian, was the sad impact of a sectarian attack in the 1980s, which led to Corbusier’s once glorious open courtyard being divided up by barbed wire. Instead of being the heart of the complex, the space is now meaningless, neglected and overgrown. Given these issues, the city of Chandigarh proved a perfect example for conference delegates of the joys and challenges of managing designs from the recent past.

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soiled_and_seeded_issue_09I am delighted this month to have co-authored an article in Soiled and Seededa splendid on-line garden magazine that aims to provide “a rich and eclectic source of ideas, learned practices, history and heritage… to dig deep to offer a refreshing and engaging take on garden culture.”

My co-author is Saima Iqbal, a conservation architect working for INTACH in Kashmir, and in the brief article we explain plans to establish authentic planting patterns at the Mughal gardens in Kashmir.

Please do go and take a look.

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One of the best and most beautiful expressions of Mughal culture is its gardens. Sadly, few examples survive, but among the finest are the terraced gardens in the Kashmir valley. On a visit earlier this month I saw how these exquisite sites are being restored to something approaching their seventeenth-century glory.

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Dr Jan Haenraets, an expert on the restoration of historic landscapes, is advising on the work in Kashmir and I am delighted that he has agreed to be interviewed here.

Jan, what makes the Mughal gardens of Kashmir so important?
First, they are just exceptionally beautiful. They also provide irreplaceable physical evidence that helps us understand Mughal – and Mughal garden – history. People think of the great garden tombs such as the Taj Mahal when they think of Mughal garden history, but in Kashmir the gardens were created just as gardens, not to accompany a tomb. The mountainous topography also produced a specific type of design – the terraced garden.

It feels as if Kashmir was the ultimate gardening playground of the Mughal Emperors; indeed it is said that, during the height of Mughal glory in the mid-17th century of Shah Jahan’s rule, the Kashmiri city of Srinagar boasted around 700 gardens.

They also represent a pinnacle in the long gardening tradition of Kashmir, although the horticultural influence from Kashmir on the Mughal tradition still needs much research.

When I think of the Kashmir gardens, places like Kyoto, Japan and Suzhou, China, come to my mind. Both places are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites, with dense numbers of gardens playing a key role in these UNESCO listings. The Mughal gardens heritage of Kashmir is, in my opinion, of no lesser significance. For me, they are one of the peaks of Islamic garden art.

How did you get involved in the project to restore them?
I had been aware of some ongoing conservation planning for the Mughal gardens in Kashmir since 2004, when the Jammu and Kashmir chapter of INTACH [the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage] started their first management planning surveys. In 2010 I had the chance to help for some months on additional research and management recommendations. The INTACH J&K team wanted some expert advice to help with more detail, especially in relation to the horticultural and soft landscape aspects, as their expertise was mainly architectural conservation.

What state were the gardens in when you first got involved?
The gardens were managed and open to public, with many people visiting, mainly locals and Indian tourists. 2010 was a turbulent summer in Kashmir, with almost three months of strikes, daytime curfews and protests in the valley, meaning that places were closed down most of the season. Although by 2010 INTACH J&K had already started some architectural conservation works, they stopped when unrest occurred.

At Achabal Bagh the central water channel and pools had been repaired, with work ongoing on the main baradari [pavilion] and the side channels. In Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh work had started on the water features and, although it was not complete, they were working. The main work in these two gardens was on some of the buildings, including the hammam in Shalimar Bagh and the baradari in the Zenana at Nishat Bagh.

What has now been achieved?
INTACH J&K continues step by step to restore architectural features. The Department of Floriculture maintains the gardens, and aims to keep the key six gardens presentable.

One success was that we managed to get the key gardens [Nishat Bagh, Shalimar Bagh, Achabal Bagh, Chashma Shahi, Pari Mahal and Verinag] as a serial nomination onto the Tentative List for UNESCO World Heritage. Now we are developing a project that hopefully can result in a holistic conservation approach. It feels like now the gardens have largely been stabilized, with architectural features being partly restored, but with the real challenges only starting.

What remains to be done?
The main focus now must shift towards the wider gardens and landscapes. The management so far has focused on the central channel areas only, and so the wider landscape features are frequently damaged and much at risk. Most visitors only see the central parts of the gardens for a short time, and enjoy that. But mostly they do not realize the layout and importance of the wider gardens and landscape. For instance the Shalimar canal between the garden and Dal Lake is of key significance, but is in a dire state. The surrounding cultural landscape and the lake are also at risk.

The Department of Floriculture needs to be more skilled at managing heritage gardens, rather than presenting them in a typical urban park style. Plus, maintenance needs to be better, to tackle the wear and tear in the gardens from visitor pressure, with for instance lawns compacted and central parts in a poor state, and the less-known gardens generally need more maintenance. Horticulture and planting schemes need to improve in the gardens: for instance there used to be many orchards on the terraced side wings of the gardens, but little remains of these plantings.

We basically need now to develop actions such as archaeology, conservation propagation, interpretation, conservation skills training, restoration planting schemes, legal protection, a Kashmir Mughal gardens database and buffer zone protection.

Which is your favourite of the six gardens? and why?
All the main gardens have something very special. I believe that for instance Shalimar Bagh should be seen as a ‘cultural landscape’ – different periods of history have created historical layers in the garden with distinct markings, and its wider setting and features are amazing.

If I must highlight one garden, then maybe I’d say Nishat Bagh because its terraces are so extensive. Most visitors only see the central axis, but the ‘side wings’ in Nishat are incredible. I don’t feel that anyone truly recognizes the sophistication of these terraces, and how ingenious the making of them must have been in Mughal times.

Remember that there used to be over 700 Mughal gardens in Kashmir; today we speak often about the six main ones that are open to the public. Just to illustrate, I’ll mention a seventh, and that is Jharoka Bagh at Manasbal Lake. It also is struggling conservation-wise, but still worth a visit. Its location on a hillside next to the lake makes beautiful use of the genius loci.

What has been the biggest challenge in the project?
Convincing the management authorities of the need to have a conservation management approach and stop the ongoing damaging developments. Awareness remains low and it is hard to see people put much time into the safeguarding of the project while damage continues to occur.

And what is the greatest joy?
Doing so much work on the historical survey, sometimes the greatest joy lies in finding that one new previously unknown photograph, to experience how we slowly start to understand the gardens. For instance, when I gave a talk in London about the gardens, someone had brought to the lecture unseen early 20th century photographs that his mother had made of the gardens. That often is what keeps the motivation alive.

In the gardens there is also always joy to experience. For instance just watching the local kids play cricket in the Zenana under the ancient Chinar trees is fantastic, or strolling through the gardens and being offered fresh berries or fruit from the garden by the locals.

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With many thanks to Dr Jan Haenraets for this interview. For more on the Mughal gardens in Kashmir, see Jan’s article here and the UNESCO World Heritage entry here.

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Srinagar 4Kashmir is a beautiful state of fertile valleys, rivers and lakes surrounded by mountains so steep, high and snow-capped that it looks as if a child has drawn them. So often has it been called Heaven on Earth that this is now almost an official title. Sadly, its disputed borders (involving India, Pakistan and China) have meant that travellers visit at their own risk.Kashmir13We were there last weekend, and came quickly to accept how fitting is that Heaven on Earth title. I will write soon on the magical seventeenth century Mughal gardens cut into the hillsides of the Kashmir Valley, and currently undergoing major restoration.

The main line of work in Kashmir is agriculture, and we saw a fascinating example of this, in the floating vegetable gardens and sunrise markets centred on Dal Lake in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. Vegetables have been produced on islands in the lake since at least the time of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.

Many of the vegetable plots are located on artificial islands, their soil supported on reed rafts and enriched by composted pond weed. Vegetables including radishes, carrots, onions, cauliflowers and turnips, plus brightly coloured flowers, are all cultivated on these floating plots; during the rains, the small-scale farmers turn to melons, peas and squash for their ability to clamber up supports and away from the risk of rot in the wet soil.

Floating gardens on Dal Lake, 1881, from the splendid site http://www.searchkashmir.org

Floating gardens on Dal Lake, 1881, image from the splendid site http://www.searchkashmir.org

One of the floating plots today.

One of the floating plots today.

Every morning at sunrise the farmers gather on the lake in their narrow boats (known as shikaras) and sell the produce they have harvested. When we were there, there was something of a glut of kohlrabi, but it was still magical to see the boats gliding quietly through the water, the brightly coloured vegetables and flowers laid out for purchase.

Kashmir 2 1 Kashmir 2 2

Kashmir14Srinagar 3 Kashmir11

By 6.30am the sales for the day are complete and the little boats slip away.

Kashmir 2 3The work is no doubt hard – and are there are increasing worries about the impact on the lake of encroachment and soil run-off from the many vegetable plots. Yet at sunrise among the shikara-wallahs and the local farmers it was difficult not to feel we were indeed experiencing Heaven on Earth.

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Kashmir 2 6

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As someone who came to the study of landscape history from a love of flowers and gardening, I write surprisingly little about horticulture. So, to make amends, this whole post is about some of the plants we saw on our recent trip to the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Up in the Cardamom Hills, we toured a delightful spice plantation (apparently the one featured in Monty Don’s TV programme Around the World in 80 Gardens). Our guide not only showed us the plants, but let us taste and smell and feel the spices, all of which were grown organically. We often struggled to guess what they were, given how unfamiliar we are with the plants that produce even well-known flavourings.

The cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) is not native to India but thrives in the Kerala climate. Its flowers and beans grow directly from the trunk.

The cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) is not native to India but thrives in the Kerala climate. Its flowers and the chocolatey beans grow directly from the trunk.

Young flower buds on a clove tree (Syzygium aromaticum).

These are the young flower buds on a clove tree (Syzygium aromaticum).

Ripening coffee beans. Coffee has been grown in India for centuries.

Ripening coffee beans. Although not native, coffee has apparently been grown in India for centuries.

Cardamom flowers and seeds are produced at ground level on a large herbaceous perennial (Elettaria cardamomum).

Cardamom flowers and seeds are produced at ground level on a large herbaceous perennial (Elettaria cardamomum).

Workers harvesting black peppercorns from the vine Piper nigrum.

Workers harvesting black peppercorns, which grow on the vine Piper nigrum.

One of the ornamental plants grown at the spice plantation, this is Thunbergia mysorensis, commonly known as the ladies shoe plant or clock vine. It is pollinated by sun birds.

One of the ornamental plants grown at the spice plantation, this is Thunbergia mysorensis, commonly known as the ladies shoe plant or clock vine. It is pollinated by sun birds.

The holy cross orchid,  Epidendrum radicans, which is commonly grown in Kerala.

The holy cross orchid, Epidendrum radicans, which is commonly grown in Kerala.

While much is changing at a frantic pace in India, many traditions around spices remain, and they are still usually sold loose, scooped from open baskets into paper packets. The smell of the uncovered spices in large markets, such as the one in Old Delhi, can be almost overpowering.

Indian spice market, c1875. Image from 19cphoto.com.

Indian spice market, c1875. Image from 19cphoto.com.

The spice market today in Old Delhi

The spice market today in Old Delhi.

Many of the hillsides in Kerala are covered in a single plant – camellia senensis, the tea bush. It is native to parts of India, but apparently was not cultivated commercially until we Brits arrived and, in typical colonial fashion, brought in other Europeans to establish and run large tea plantations. The climate in Kerala is perfect for tea production and the young buds and leaves can be harvested more or less throughout the year, which means constantly clipped shrubs cover the hillsides like vast mad parterres.

Tea plantation near Thekkady, Kerala.

Tea plantation near Thekkady, Kerala.

It is easy to take evocative photos of the female tea pickers with their baskets and colourful clothes among the bright green plants, but the work is slow and hard and the conditions sometimes murderously grim. As with the spices, practices do not seem to have changed much in two centuries, although sometimes now the pickers, instead of pinching out the tips of each branch, use scissors to collect the young leaves. Certainly when we were taking these photos, all we could hear was a gentle snipping sound.

Tea pickers in Kerala today.

Tea pickers in Kerala today.

Tea pickers in the 1880s. Image from oldindianphotos.in

Tea pickers in the 1880s. Image from oldindianphotos.in

India today is the world’s biggest consumer of tea, most of it drunk as the splendid sweet, milky version known as chai, which is boiled up in vats in every Indian market, often flavoured with cardamom, and sold in little cups for a few rupees. One of the less appealing signs of progress is that the cups used to be made of clay, and would be discarded after a single use, gradually to decompose back into the soil. The practice of throwing them on the ground remains today – but the little cups are now plastic, and are strewn as litter in every Indian town.

An Old Delhi chai-wallah at work.

An Old Delhi chai-wallah at work.

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