x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The roots of a British legacy

When they arrived in India, many Brits set about reshaping the strange, exotic landscape into something more familiar. More than 60 years after British rule ended, their horticultural stamp remains.

Britain’s Lord Curzon ‘clear-felled’ fragrant trees, shrubs and other plants to open up views of the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Britain’s Lord Curzon ‘clear-felled’ fragrant trees, shrubs and other plants to open up views of the Taj Mahal in Agra.

NEW DELHI // India's monument to love, the Taj Mahal, was once even more romantic, cloaked behind towering foliage and only shyly revealing its contours as visitors approached - until a British viceroy removed the mystery.

Lord Curzon, an enthusiastic gardener and Britain's viceroy to India between 1899 and 1905, "imposed an imperial stamp" on what has become the nation's most famous monument, said the US historian Eugenia Herbert.

Curzon "effectively clear-felled" fragrant trees, shrubs and other plants to open up views of the Taj, said Ms Herbert, the author of Flora's Empire - a detailed history of British gardens in colonial India.

Today the Taj, which attracts millions of tourists each year, is surrounded by neat rectangles of manicured lawn.

"The gardens would have had to be trimmed back but those who saw them before spoke of how the greenery gradually revealed the mystery" of the Taj's stunning facade, Ms Herbert said.

Her book was published recently to rave reviews in India, with news magazine India Today calling it a "scholarly tour de force".

The viceroy was not alone in putting his stamp on the Indian landscape, and a horticultural legacy remains more than 60 years after the end of British rule.

Homesick colonials left their imprint on India's parks and gardens, many of which are still full of tidy lawns, trimmed hedges and flower beds filled with British blooms.

The British left "a lasting horticultural mark on India - much as India did on them", writes Ms Herbert, whose book was compiled from letters and diaries of British colonialists and official archives.

When the British arrived in India in the 17th century, they discovered a continent brimming with strange but lush exotic flowers that made them yearn for their carefully tended gardens back home.

"The farther from home they ventured, the more they longed for familiar cowslips and hollyhocks and Michaelmas daisies, for well-trimmed lawns and neat flower beds," said Ms Herbert, professor emeritus of history at Mount Holyoke College in the United States.

In India, where frequent outbreaks of malaria, dysentery and other illnesses often brought death, many colonialists desired the comfort that a well-ordered garden could lend, she said.

For the British in India, "like tea, gardens offered colonials reassurance in situations of stress".

The joy of recreating an English flower garden in a foreign landscape was recounted in rhapsodic terms by a military officer's wife, Edith Cuthell, in 1905.

"My violets are in bloom," Cuthell wrote in a letter to her mother. "You cannot think how one treasures out here the quiet little home flower. Dear little English flower."

Wherever the British went, Ms Herbert wrote, they took with them, as part of their "cultural baggage", their love of gardens and their view of what a garden should look like - "and nowhere was this more evident than in India".

Large houses drew inspiration from country estates back home, with their "sweeping park, copses of trees and water", while bungalows had their "gravel paths, shrubs, flower beds and attempts at a lawn".

Usually, the garden was the responsibility of the woman of the house, who was "terribly bored with her husband busy running India", Ms Herbert wrote.

She said the book took her "the better part of 10 years" to write.

British women in India relied on the services of a gardener to do the actual groundskeeping.

With labour so cheap, sometimes the grass was planted blade by blade to create the lawn - the essential part of any proper English garden - and also cut painstakingly by hand.

But the tame landscapes created by the British were a far cry from the extraordinary beauty of Mughal gardens. Humayun's Tomb in New Delhi - the inspiration for the Taj Mahal - is a stunning example.

The Mughals, famed for their architectural splendours, are one of the Indian subcontinent's great dynasties, ruling from the early 16th to the mid-18th century.

The gardens of Humayun's Tomb, with their pools, plants and trees, are meant to symbolise paradise and are one of the earliest examples of a royal-garden tomb in the Indian subcontinent.

But they fell into neglect as Mughal power waned and were only restored a decade ago when the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Archaeological Survey of India brought back to life long-dormant fountains for the first time in about 400 years.

Water started flowing through narrow canals representing the four rivers of paradise described in the Quran, and gardeners planted thousands of mango, lemon and pomegranate trees and sweet-smelling hibiscus and jasmine plants - Mughal favourites.

Despite such splendour, the British stamp on gardens remains elsewhere in India.

The Taj has become a "bit of a template" for Indian official monuments and gardens, said Ms Herbert, while English annuals and perennials have become the mainstay of many gardens in the subcontinent.

It is "one of the more benign legacies" of British rule in India, she said.