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Posts Tagged ‘Delhi’

... 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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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.]

Aerial view of the main part of the Mughal Gardens, with the palace in the background. Image from India Perspectives Vol 24.

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.

Plan of the Mughal Gardens, from Irving, Indian Summer.

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.

Lotus fountain and flower beds in the main garden, January 2010, from the Aga Khan Visual Archive.

The circular pool, in January 2010, from the Aga Khan Visual Archive.

Pergola and rose beds in the narrow walled garden, from the Aga Khan Visual Archive.

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.

An aerial image of the palace shortly after it was completed, showing the new gardens in the foreground, as part of the grand axis along which New Delhi was being constructed. Image from the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge.

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.

The shade-giving pergola in the walled garden. Image from Irving, Indian Summer.

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