The Secret Garden

A spectacular introduction to the circle of life that shares space with the President of India

Written by Mahesh Rangarajan | Published: November 28, 2016 2:01:29 pm


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Name: First Garden of the Republic: Nature in the President’s Estate
Author: Edited by Amita Baviskar
Publisher: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting
Pages: 255
Price: Rs 1,889

News of a male leopard in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurgaon, the first confirmed sighting of the big cat near the capital in decades, has thrilled nature lovers. But the sad fact is that New Delhi and the larger region around it resemble a battleground, one where we are fast making our very environs unlivable. Fish and birds have dwindled in a river which is highly polluted. The Ridge, for long a green lung, is being eaten away and the air we breathe is so polluted that Delhi ranks as the second most polluted city on the planet.

But this book is a celebration of a little-noticed jewel of green in the heart of Lutyens’ New Delhi: the gardens and grounds of the First Citizen of the Union of India. This is a vast estate of over 300 acres. The book is both a celebration of the birds and flowers in the grounds, and a tribute to the gardeners who keep it in order.

The sections by Amita Baviskar, who has edited the volume, and by acclaimed tree aficionado Pradip Krishen and the ecologist Ghazala Shahabuddin, are uniformly crisp and lucid. What emerges is a picture of a vibrant and living garden, comprising small water bodies, relatively unruly bits of scrub jungle, vegetable patches and the well-known gardens consisting of lawns and flower beds.

The book reminds us of how both the formal pattern of the garden and the southern Ridge beyond are products of empire. While Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker set about building the Viceroy’s new home, it was the less well-known WR Mustoe who selected the trees to be planted. Through detective work in the archive, Krishen traces which trees were selected, and how. As in much of New Delhi, a handful of evergreens, mostly from moister areas, were preferred.

The Islamic Charbagh, so distinctive of pre-Mughal times, was then combined with flowers which were seen as distinctively English. After all, in the 1920s, the empire seemed to be indestructible to its rulers, and the rows of petunias and violets made them feel at home under the harsh tropical sun.

Lord Hardinge had entertained hopes of “a splendid white Government House with red tiles and a gilt dome” commanding the countryside, evoking memories of Versailles. This was far from what emerged. What Mustoe did do in his enthusiasm was to sow the Ridge behind the new Viceregal Lodge with seeds of the Mexican mesquite bean. This acacia would go on to take over most of the Ridge and much more acreage, an exotic that today dominates the tree cover of the city.

Enclosure of the grazing commons of villages was critical for greening and the village of Raisina was displaced, to survive only as memory. The making of the garden, and of imperial New Delhi, marked the end of a rural Delhi, a novelty even in a city that has risen and fallen for a thousand years.

The acacia was one winner, but there were many losers. Shahabuddin’s essays show us the wealth of nature that survives and thrives — more than 35 species of butterflies and as many as 121 birds. It is not merely numbers. The President’s Estate has a small population of golden jackals that mostly emerge at night. Huge colonies of flying foxes roost on Arjuna trees while smaller insectivorous bats and many owls chase after 35 species of moths. This is an introduction not to one garden but to many, and is a good guide to the flying, humming, buzzing creatures great and small that share with humans the world of the city.

It is true, as the book notes, that the environs bear little resemblance to the sun-drenched stretch of boulders and rocks that made up Raisina Hill before the city came up. There was denial and uprooting, but it was followed by a very specific kind of landscaping. In putting together this treat for the eye and mind, the authors have reminded us of the community of life that shares space with India’s President. One only hopes that versions are brought out in Indian languages, with fewer colour plates, so that more, many more, can dip into the feast of living nature that it provides.

The author teaches history and environmental studies at Ashoka University

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