Colonial roots

Print edition : July 12, 2013

Attractive fruits of Bixa orellana, a species brought from South America.

Cassia fistula is one of the few native trees that can hold their own with exotic flowering trees.

The book shows how gardens were one of the most visible manifestations of the British presence in India.

EUGENE W. HERBERT’S Flora’s Empire: British Gardens in India tells the story of the gardens the British created for themselves in India. The book is packed with precise and interesting information about the establishment of British settlements in the coastal plains and hill stations and the floral surveys conducted in India, and contains wonderful descriptions of gardens in India, which I cannot do justice to in a few hundred words. In this review, I have attempted to present a mosaic of bits and pieces of stories and facts from the book.

The book explains that the British were not mere transients in India. Over three centuries, they founded great cities—Madras, Calcutta, Bombay—and vastly altered others such as Delhi, Lucknow and Bangalore.

Everywhere, they created gardens large and small, private and public, that embodied not only their aesthetic ideals but also their philosophical understanding of good life, of civilisation and of social and political order. According to them, a honeysuckle-covered cottage door was not only picturesque but also a sign of the sobriety, industry and cleanliness of the inhabitants within.

The British originally travelled to India not as conquerors but as traders vying with many other nations for a share of the subcontinent’s riches. In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I, a contemporary of the Mughal emperor Akbar, initiated the earliest merchant ventures that would eventually evolve into the British East India Company.

The company’s immediate objective was to challenge the Portuguese, Dutch and French presence in the East Indies and gain a foothold in the lucrative spice trade. But by the mid-18th century, it found itself increasingly caught up in military confrontations with Indian rulers and the other European powers.

William Hawkins was the first commander of an English vessel to set foot in India, landing at Surat on the western coast in 1608. From its modest trading station, the company then sent a series of embassies to the court of the Mughals with the hope of obtaining a royal licence that would smooth the path of commerce for them. From Surat, English merchants fanned out down the west (Malabar) coast and up the east (Coromandal) coast of India, competing with the Portuguese, the French, the Dutch and other nationalities.

Initially, while operating from the plains and the coastal belt, the British endured terrible health in India. It has been estimated that about two million Europeans, most of them British, were buried in the subcontinent in the 300 years before Independence. It is also reported that sickness, death and sepulture followed each other, not infrequently within four and twenty hours.

English gardens

With the British came the gardens. Maintaining a garden was one of the ways a person could establish and constantly reinforce his identity as a member of a group distinct from the indigenous society. Well-kept gardens with manicured lawns and flower beds were a means of distancing oneself from the smells and dirt of India. Gardens gave the British ample opportunity to set an example of “civilised” life for the “natives”. In the gardens, lawns became the centres of social life. The memsahibs played a pre-eminent role in the garden history of British India in the 19th and 20th centuries. With a house full of servants (the ratio was 1:10), husbands on tour or shut up in their offices and children sent to England to boarding school from an appallingly early age, time and loneliness often hung heavily upon the memsahibs. Gardening offered some diversion for those able to brave the heat. Most of them made an enormous effort to replicate their homes in England, which often meant imitating English gardens and growing or trying to grow English flowers. They were also guided by many manuals, which provided information on soil, manure, watering, grafting and poisonous insects along with designs for flower beds adapted from England and the continent. Several groups in England also sent seeds and plants that could be grown in India.

Comfortable houses with attractive gardens and impressive lawns initially sprang up in Madras (now Chennai) and were replicated in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata), but the British found the low-land coastal weather pestilential, and men and women died like flies. The health-restoring benefits of the higher altitudes were known to them, where disease-ridden soldiers and enervated officials retired to escape the oppressive summers and rejuvenate their health. Higher altitudes were providentially at hand: from the Himalayas in the north to the Nilgiris in the south, 80 hill stations ranging in altitude from 2,500 feet (750 metres) to 8,000 feet (2,400 m) were identified. Dominating all was Shimla, the summer capital of the British Raj. Darjeeling should possibly have been chosen as the imperial summer capital as it was far closer to Calcutta and also offered spectacular views of some of the world’s highest mountains, but the fear of travelling through the terai, infested with malaria, possibly discouraged the English from this move. There were many hill stations for the provincial governments: Ooty, or Udhagamandalam, and Kodaikanal in the south, Nainital and Mussorie in the north-west, Darjeeling and Shillong in the east, Mahabaleshwar in the west and Mount Abu in central India.

However, reaching these hill stations when the roads were rudimentary at best was difficult even for the British, but they could manage it with the huge labour force of natives and their beasts of burden. In 1827, only three years after the first house had been built in Shimla, 1,700 coolies were needed to drag the baggage for Lord Amherst’s suite of 600 up the mountain (not counting the accompanying regiment and bodyguards). Ten years later, the procession swelled prodigiously to “ten miles of beasts of burden which included horses, camels and elephants” when nine Europeans, led by Lord Auckland, climbed their way to Shimla.

Assault on the Nilgiris

The British had trouble replicating idyllic English villages atop the narrow mountain ridges of the Himalayas, but the grass–covered, undulating hills of the Nilgiris, with large patches of dark forests of stunted evergreen, offered this possibility. Ooty received torrential rains during the monsoon. Richard Burton (a captain in the army of the East India Company) on sick leave from the army in 1847 found the combination of the monsoon weather and the dull society intolerable. But Lord Lytton found in the rain a reinforcement of his view of Ooty as a “paradise”: “the afternoon was rainy and the road muddy but such beautiful English rain, such delicious English mud.” Sadly, in the following years, the large patches of dark forests, or sholas, were felled for firewood and replaced by imported species such as wattle and eucalyptus from Tasmania and Australia, an unhappy example of arboreal globalisation. By the end of the century, it was difficult to find vestiges of pristine beauty, and the invaders and tea bushes had colonised every conceivable part of the Nilgiris. The assault on the Nilgiris goes unchecked even today, with the picturesque carrot and potato fields now giving way to mushrooming concrete structures. The garbage left by thoughtless tourists is an eyesore. The monsoons fail miserably, even in Ooty.

Bangalore, situated at an altitude of 3,000 feet (900 m) on the Deccan plateau, was acclaimed by the British as “India without its scorching sun and Europe without its snow”. The plains of Mysore are described as the most beautiful habitation that nature has to offer to mankind on earth. Soon after defeating Tipu Sultan in the fourth Anglo-Mysore war in 1799, the British realised that Bangalore was a far healthier place for a military camp than the old fort at Srirangapatnam—a pestilential island in the Cauvery near Mysore where soldiers were dying in huge numbers. In Bangalore, Winston Churchill and his two colleagues took a palatial bungalow festooned with purple bougainvillea, which stood in a compound of two acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) with a garden containing about 150 varieties of roses.

The most extensive of Bangalore’s numerous parks is Cubbon Park, named for Sir Mark Cubbon, who cared for Bangalore from 1834 to 1861. It was a lush, green, grassy expanse with flower beds, shady bowers and flowering trees. Even today, the annual flower show at Bangalore’s Lal Bagh, which has a wealth of indigenous and exotic trees and plants, attracts a large number of people. Haider Ali, the ruler of Mysore and Tipu Sultan’s father, gave the order to establish Lal Bagh in 1760. The garden was called Lal Bagh (red garden) because of the abundance of red roses and other red-hued flowers. After the death of Tipu Sultan, Lal Bagh passed into the possession of the British and prospered under the care of a Kew-trained gardener.

The book has information on Kew Gardens (or the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, Surrey), which obtained plants and seeds from every corner of the habitable world, and the botanical gardens of Calcutta, which cultivated plants from every part of India. The book also provides details about the cultivation of quinine, opium and tea. In India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the botanist was, more often than not, a Scottish surgeon in the employ of the East India Company. Scottish universities such as Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen offered the best in medical education, and botanical instruction was an integral part of the training of every aspiring doctor, since plants were the primary source of medicine.

Understandably, Scotland had more than its share of sons on offer for empire building through collecting, studying and propagating plants. Prominent names associated with the study and collection of plants are Francis Buchanan, Joseph Hooker, Robert Wight, Thomas Hardwicke and William Jones (who established the Asiatic Society of Bengal). By the time Wight left India in 1853, he had published no fewer than 2,464 plates of Indian plants, claiming with justifiable pride that “the Indian flora can now … boast of being more thoroughly illustrated than any other country under British (rule), Great Britain alone excepted”. Jones died at the age of 47 without finishing his Treatise on the Plants of India, which was later completed by well-trained and well-travelled botanists.

A passion for gardens was by no means limited to India or to the British. The French and the Dutch put their own stamp on their imperial landscapes, but no one did so on the scale or with such lasting effect as the British. Gardens were an integral part of the template of power relations, the ability of the British to govern so many with so few: at the height of the empire 165,000 Europeans ruled 300 million Indians. Gardens were one of the most visible manifestations of British presence and British civilisation.

Mughal gardens

The author asks why the British are such “plantaholics”. Some 80 per cent of the households in Britain have their own gardens or access to one, by far the highest proportion for any European country. The British travelled to other countries not so much for the purpose of studying the manners of other lands but to establish and display their own, and gardens became a means for doing so. Only the Mughals matched the British in the intensity of their love of gardens. Mughal gardens were essentially male domains (one notable exception was Nur Jahan, wife of Emperor Jahangir), but with the British it was a largely female contribution.

The author laments the disappearance of such gardens and green spaces in India today. She mentions the threats posed to the Taj Mahal in today’s polluted age and points out the increasing death of naturalness in Delhi and the ruthless destruction of the Delhi ridge. Owing to the presence of a large number of army and paramilitary personnel, Srinagar is now called a “city of bunkers”, and the overcrowding of Shimla mars the glory of the former summer capital of the Raj. However, there are some bright spots. She draws attention to the Tollygunge Club, Kolkata, which is thriving under a new management, and to the fact that the Botanical Gardens in Ooty is still an oasis, with its verdant slopes, exotic trees and floral map of India.

What is the contribution of the gardens established by the Mughals, maintained and improved by the British and by present-day Indians? In a vast continent where temples, churches, mosques, forts and even palaces serve to mark off and divide men, all might yet meet in a garden. One of the profound legacies of the Raj, through the gardens, may be the gradual reorientation of urban Indians from spending their evenings sitting and chatting in the courtyard to strolling through gardens. This is conspicuous in cities such as Bangalore and Delhi where families, particularly on holidays, saunter through the gardens established in the past and in recent years, relieving their stress and enjoying the beauty and bounty of nature. In this way, one could say that the British have shown Indians the way to lead a better and healthier way of life.

A.J.T. Johnsingh is associated with Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and WWF-India.