a landscape lover's blog

garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad

Old Mughal structures and new British lawns

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.


28 comments on “Old Mughal structures and new British lawns

  1. Malinda
    September 21, 2011

    I’m suprised to see so much lawn. It really is beautiful – if resource intensive. The architecture is amazing. The water is my favorite part – are they reflection ponds?

    • landscapelover
      September 21, 2011

      Malinda, thanks for calling by. The lawns are attractive, if incongruous, this time of year – although outside the monsoon season, they must be either irrigated or very yellow.
      The water is an essential part of these Mughal gardens, with four channels symbolising the four elements (water, air, earth, fire) and a reminder of the four rivers of milk, honey, water and wine, described in the Koran’s version of paradise. As you say, they also serve as reflection ponds for the beautiful architecture.

  2. College Gardener
    September 21, 2011

    Great post! I think it is very interesting how intrinsic to people’s understanding of some of these sites the “British” lawns have become. Most people are shocked, for example, when I tell them that as late as the end of the 19th century, the grounds of the Taj Mahal were densely planted with trees and the cypresses along the pools much larger than the trimmed specimens in place today, and that there are actual photographs of this to boot!

  3. Tom
    September 22, 2011

    They Aga Khan funded a major restoration of Humayun’s tomb and it is a terrible pity that they did not give detailed historical consideration to the planting design. As you say, it is British inspired.

    • landscapelover
      September 22, 2011

      Tom, yes, the official line from the Archaeological Survey of India is that the Aga Khan work was “based on research on the site itself, other Mughal gardens and a minimalist approach to restoration.” I do not necessarily object to retaining the British influence on the gardens, but it would be good if such a decision was rather more candidly acknowledged.

  4. Anonymous
    September 23, 2011

    Yes for sure gardens are going to change over time. Maybe it’s sort of living in the moment and appreciating as it is. Maybe it’s just looking and not taking photos instead. (mind you I still take photos. but it’s important to just sit and look sometimes) Kerry

    • landscapelover
      September 26, 2011

      It’s fascinating how different countries view garden preservation – the US always seems to me rather purist about these things, wanting to identify and conserve what is historically significant and often remove or discount anything newer; in France there was more of a view of history as a linear process, with dazzling new additions being valued almost as much as the original feature. I’m still musing on the approach here in India, but there certainly may be something of your view of simply appreciating things as they are.

  5. Taswar
    September 25, 2011

    for more information on mughal history…check following link.

    • landscapelover
      September 26, 2011

      Thanks for the link. Sadly I have no Arabic, but have enjoyed reading the few posts that are in English.

  6. I am excited that I am now going to be learning all about Indian gardens after my year in Paris. Remember when we ate at that Indian restaurant. I wonder what the food is like when you are really there.

  7. maggie
    September 27, 2011

    I AM glad that Humayun’s Tomb had its circular flower beds removed and the axial water rills restored. A rest for the eye, certainly!
    Those green planes, inappropriate as they may feel, particularly to a dry Californian, do make a unifying setting for vertical planting and architecture, and your excellent photos show both to their respective advantages.
    But descriptions of paradise, and their earthly approximations, are more appealling to me when they’re full of perfumed flowers and fruiting trees and water and music and carpeted resting places, so I’ll have to fall on the side of lawn becoming a past part of linear pentimento of garden restoration you mention…

    • landscapelover
      September 27, 2011

      I am very fond of comments that teach me new words and concepts, and shall now try to smuggle pentimento into my vocabulary as if it has always been there…

  8. gardenmad
    September 28, 2011

    Hi Landscapelover…..lovely post (as always). The buildings are so beautiful.

  9. Stacy
    October 1, 2011

    Sometimes I think we really do just need to go post-modern and say, “Preservation efforts, no matter how sensitive, will always reflect the values of the dominant paradigm. There is no such thing as a ‘true’ original separate from the time that created it, there is no such thing as restoration to an historical original, and that’s that.” Then we can value each contribution for what it is (i.e., the imposition of the values of the dominant paradigm…). You’re right–in 100 years, people will be shaking their heads over present efforts and saying, “They did what???” Because we aren’t “innocent” of our current social/political/cultural system, either, and will only be sensitive to whatever aspects of the past resonate with today’s values. The ones that don’t resonate, we will discard or fail to notice.

    But I’m also glad the circular flower beds are gone.

    • landscapelover
      October 2, 2011

      Stacy, thanks for the thoughtful comment. There are amusing tales of people trying over the centuries to recreate the gardens of Pliny the Younger, which we only know through the descriptions in his letters. Each recreation over the years has been drawn entirely from his descriptions, yet each reflects the aesthetics of its age (views and vistas during the Renaissance, for instance, and rural, more naturalistic elements during the eighteenth century). It’s a great example of your point, that we cannot free ourselves from our early twenty-first century viewpoint, no matter how neutral and informed we think we are.

  10. Elephant's Eye
    October 1, 2011

    Victorian circular flower beds – with the gaudy municipal style bedding plants?Must have been seen at the time as criminal. Were there protests? (Will have to investigate pentimento, sounds Italian)

  11. Elephant's Eye
    October 1, 2011

    Ah Wikipedia shows me Jan van Eyck’s Marriage of the Arnolfinis!

    • landscapelover
      October 2, 2011

      Diana, I’ve been reading a bit more about the Humayun gardens in Victorian times, and the project director for the recent restoration (in an article in the Historic Gardens Review) describes the incongruous circles as “roundabouts” rather than beds. Sadly I can’t find any images, so it’s difficult to know exactly what they were. Maybe the landscape was spared gaudy municipal bedding-out!

  12. Lula (onbotanicalphotography.blogspot.com)
    October 5, 2011

    Jill, thanks for your comment to my last blog, I am very happy to have time again to continue posting regularly, I have some collections of photos from past weeks and will be sharing. thses topics are an open window to learning about history of gardens in India and is amazing the large scales of some of the places you are showing, my camera would be willing to have the possibility to shoot them! Thanks again

    • landscapelover
      October 13, 2011

      Lula, thank you. It would be great to have your expertise here to take photographs. I am actually finding it quite difficult to capture the colours and the light and the scale of Delhi, but will keep trying! And I look forward to more of your posts.

  13. Cathy
    October 12, 2011

    Your post highlights some of my own frustrations with “preservation” and “recreation”. A photograph is a moment in time but gardens and plants are not static. They change over time and the caretakers groom them, add new plantings and rework others over time. Those changes are bound to be influenced by the current “style”, design trends, multicultural influences, and even changes in the environment and surroundings. (Our neighbors just removed all of the weeping willows from their property, leaving some of our deep shade gardens in bright sun.)

    What creates a quandary for me is how one defines “authentic”. Given that as you note, the Taj Mahal was built in the mid 1600’s, one has to wonder how the garden evolved over the subsequent century and how that affected subsequent plantings (if at all).

    Changes in the environment around a garden can dramatically affect the garden. In our own gardens, the invasion of red lily leaf beetles and the difficulty in controlling them forced us to replace massive lily plantings with other plants.

    We also experienced this dilemma with the recent project Steve and I were involved with at the Masonic Center. We were in charge of a project to rebuild a garden on the grounds of this phenomenal structure in the middle of the city. (I say rebuild, since it was not a replication of the original garden by any stretch!) What was once a private residence on a tree lined side street in a city neighborhood is now a public center on a heavily traveled thoroughfare in a part of the city that has been more dense building and development, never mind that the side yard was taken over for a driveway… how horrible!

    Although we had a photograph of the original garden, the plants that were there 75 years ago would not have thrived in the bright sunshine and exposure to car exhaust that affect that area today. And some of the selections just don’t do well in this area to begin with, and even in the photograph, were showing evidence that they were not faring well.

    My guess is that over time, the garden as it now exists will continue to evolve and will be influenced as much by the caretakers as by new trends in landscape design, and even the development of new plant varieties that work well in a low maintenance garden. While I hope that as has happened before, no one decides to pull out all the plantings and replace them with grass, I’ve seen more than one garden come full circle in this way!

  14. landscapelover
    October 13, 2011

    Cathy, thanks for your comment, and for the information about your project creating a new garden at the historical Masonic Centre. It illustrates the point so well that restoring or recreating a garden according to some original plan is rarely the best approach – and I say that as someone passionate about landscape history!

  15. Cathy
    October 13, 2011

    As history buffs, we share your passion. Steve and I plan our summer trips around historically significant or important gardens. We’ve toured the Biltmore Estate, James Rose Center, Fuller Garden, and Wyck home and garden to name just a few during the past few years. It’s rare to be able to find a garden that has been maintained exactly as it was originally laid out. We learn a lot though by researching the history of the garden, which often gives insight into why changes were made.

    When we were looking into the history of the Wyck garden this summer, we heard how virtually all of the roses in the historical gardens in that area had had been replaced with modern roses except for the Wyck;s, which is what makes that garden so special. More than one tourist speculated on the sanity (or mire likely, the lack thereof) of two people who were so excited to see a rose garden that was not in bloom in July LOL…. only a landscape historian can truly know what we felt standing next to the Lafayette rose shrub when it wasn’t even blooming!

    Love your posts and your approach to each area and garden you share with us!

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  18. Landscape Designs
    May 21, 2014

    Really beautiful post.I’m surprised to see so much lawn.I am very happy to discover such a beautiful post “Old Mughal structures and new British lawns” in this site-https://landscapelover.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/old-mughal-structures-and-new-british-lawns/

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This entry was posted on September 20, 2011 by in Cemeteries and monuments, Gardens, History, India, Parks and tagged , , , , , .

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