In search of India’s original rose gardens

From Brindavan in the South to Mumbai’s famous Hanging Gardens and beyond, is the rose garden only a part of our album of memories today?

August 18, 2023 09:45 am | Updated 10:11 am IST

Rose bushes at Rashtrapati Bhavan’s Amrit Udyan, New Delhi.

Rose bushes at Rashtrapati Bhavan’s Amrit Udyan, New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

A garden is an idea, a delight for the eye and the imagination, an intimation of paradises lost and found. A park is for people, a meeting place for myriad forms of activity, be they romance or recreation in a shared space.

It’s not impossible that these two concepts intersect and become amusement parks. If not musical fountains with entrancing dancing lights, you might fill these arenas with food courts, skating rinks, boating facilities and statues of those who made such places possible.

The enchanted garden on the other hand belongs to history. Some will tell you it’s the Persians who conceived of it in their often dry and arid plateaus. They designed elaborate systems of underground water channels, or qanats, intersected with similar blue- and green-tiled water canals on the top with sloping waterfalls and fountains to create the idea of eternal spring.

Though there are many other sources for roses to be found, it may have been left to the Persian poets to celebrate the idea of both the rose and the nightingale as symbols of exquisite beauty. The nightingale is a tiny, even drab-looking creature in daylight. But on some dark nights when it chooses to sing, its clear notes ripple like water and fill the air with sweetness. So, it is with the fragrance of a rose. Through many centuries of cultivation, the flower itself has evolved into as many different petals and colours as the human eye and senses have been able to bestow upon it.

Everyone will have a rose garden in their album of memories. If we should mention just a couple of them it’s not to create a scale of preference but to celebrate the infinite variety. For those of us in the South, the Brindavan Gardens near Mysuru in their earlier glory must stand as an example. They combine the visions of Sir Mirza Ismail, the Diwan of Mysore in the early part of the 20th century, and of German botanist and landscape gardener Gustav Herman Krumbiegel, who laid out the initial plans for the garden. There were cascades of water, fountains, rose gardens and topiary. A meeting of two different streams of garden planning, Eastern and Western.

Change of focus

Some scholars will tell you that it all began with the Zoroastrian idea of dividing the elements into water, wind, fire and earth and that the first gardens were at Pasargadae in Central Iran under Cyrus the Great. Unless the soil is cleared, you cannot make a garden, and needless to say, you need water and air.

At the Hanging Gardens of Malabar Hill in Mumbai, you will find one of the earliest gardens to be created in 1881. It was built over the earliest reservoirs of water supply to the city. Here too, it’s the topiary that is mainly in evidence rather than the rose garden.

For those in search of the original rose gardens of the Mughals, the seeker has to travel to the now almost-mythic gardens of the North. It’s difficult not to become melancholic at the way some of these famous gardens devoted to the cultivation of roses have changed focus. One might be forgiven for sighing like the poet Lawrence Hope, who wrote: “Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar. Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell.” There is something exquisitely sad yet beautiful at the way Mughal emperors like Jehangir lined their avenues with Chinar trees, whose five fingered leaves wave gracefully as they fall upon the ground in autumn as if to signal the loss of the beloved.

A Mughal-style miniature from the collection of Edwin Binney III displayed at the San Diego Museum of Art.

A Mughal-style miniature from the collection of Edwin Binney III displayed at the San Diego Museum of Art. | Photo Credit: Creative Commons

In the capital, Rashtrapati Bhavan’s Mughal Gardens, as they used to be known till recently, were a particular joy to behold when the roses in their designated squares, like pieces of a chessboard, were in full bloom. Do we add that no portrait of any of the Mughal emperors or princes and princesses would be complete without the figure holding a rose, or displaying one perfect bloom in a buttonhole.

Equally magnificent at one time were the roses at the Zakir Hussain Rose Garden in Chandigarh when it was created in 1967, under the supervision of Mohinder Singh Randhawa. It was reputed to have 50,000 rose bushes spread over 30 acres.

To collect and tabulate

It’s difficult to decide where to place Bengaluru’s Lalbagh. It probably comes under the category of botanical gardens, which were often an offspring of the colonial mindset to collect and tabulate different species of trees and plants. Though Lalbagh also has an earlier parentage, in that of Hyder Ali, who first laid out its grounds, it was left to the later superintendents of gardens to create the collections of ferns, or cacti, or crotons and exotic palms, and introduce what became its most popular feature — the annual flower show under the famous glass house that spawned a thousand and more garden enthusiasts, giving the Garden City its name.

As for the trees and legends of our own subcontinent, we will include just one story to show how in a tropical country of such incredible variety, the wish-fulfilling tree, or the parijata, that floated up during the churning of the milky ocean in the Mahabharata was indeed a gift filled with stories.

According to mythology, Indra, as the leader amongst the gods, took the parijata and gave it to his wife at Indraloka. It was said to spread the most enchanting of fragrances. Eventually, upon seeing it, or being advised by Narada, an agent provocateur as he would be called today, Krishna nicked the parijata from the celestial garden and gave it to his wife Rukmini.

Naturally, when Narada mentioned this to the second consort Satyabhama, she extracted a promise from Krishna that the tree would be placed in her garden at Dwarka. And so it came to pass that the tree had its roots in Satyabhama’s garden, but its branches leaned across the wall and shed its creamy white flowers with their orange heart in Rukmini’s garden, spreading its fragrance over her domain.

Let us hope that a million roses bloom in our gardens and in our hearts.

The writer is a Chennai-based critic and cultural commentator.

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