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Beyond the Mughal Gardens: The rich history of Rashtrapati Bhavan’s gardens

The lush gardens , designed to display colonial power and style, was once a secluded oasis for the private enjoyment of the viceroy. This was reoriented to serve the sovereign democratic republic after Independence.

December 27, 2020 6:30:35 am
Though the layout of the garden was in place by 1917, the planting was taken up only in 1928-29.

Written by Pawan Kumar Sain

On November 13, 2019, Prince Charles, the longest-serving heir apparent to the British throne, walked down paths quite familiar to British aristocracy. He was taken to the Herbal Garden in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, where he planted a champa sapling. Accompanied by President Ram Nath Kovind, the Prince of Wales not only exuded charm but also exhibited childlike curiosity when experts from the Ministry of AYUSH briefed him on the medicinal properties of various plants in the garden. He was told about the collaboration between the All India Institute of Ayurveda and the College of Medicine, UK.

The Herbal Garden is one among an array of gardens that impart a touch of mystique to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. They hark back to mythology — the way to paradise or firdaus passes through gardens. Or, consider the Garden of Eden, the paradise on earth. The lush landscape surrounding the Rashtrapati Bhavan, designed to display colonial power and style, was once a secluded oasis for the private enjoyment of the viceroy. This was reoriented to serve the sovereign democratic republic after Independence.

If the Rashtrapati Bhavan is an architectural marvel, the 15-acre Mughal Gardens are its soul. On the west side, behind the central wing of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, are the elegant gardens, planned in the formal Mughal style while also incorporating some elements of British gardens. They follow the exquisite symmetry of the Persian-inspired charbagh (quadrilateral) tradition. In their three sections, architectural and arboreal features are equally emphasised.

Robert Grant Irving, in his acclaimed study, Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker, and Imperial Delhi (1981, Yale University Press), describes the ambience thus: “The massive, nobly severe walls which enclose the garden literally grow out of the lower basement, resembling an imposing fortress. Channels of water intersect in a grid pattern, with the intersections marked by impressive sandstone fountains constructed in a petal design based on the hexagram. Sandstone-paved paths continue the grid pattern, set amidst a formal plantation of trees, grass and flower beds.”

Though the layout of the garden was in place by 1917, the planting was taken up only in 1928-29. Director of horticulture William Mustoe, who planted the garden, was especially skilled at growing roses and is said to have introduced more than 250 different varieties of hybrid roses gathered from every corner of the world. Lady Beatrix Stanley, a prominent horticulturist, noted in 1931 that she had not seen better roses in England. Later, more variety was added, especially during the presidency of Dr Zakir Husain.

The gardeners of the Rashtrapati Bhavan have kept alive the tradition of nurturing the defining feature of the gardens — the multitude of rose varieties. They include Adora, Mrinalini, Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Scentimental, Oklahoma (also called Black Rose), Black Lady, Blue Moon and Lady X. There are also roses named after personalities: Mother Teresa, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Mr Lincoln, Jawahar, and Queen Elizabeth — not to forget Arjun and Bhim. The ingenious gardeners also introduced new, exotic varieties of flowers like birds of paradise, tulips and heliconia in 1998.

The Long Garden, a part of the Mughal Gardens, is known for its varieties of roses. It lies a few steps below the highest level of the Mughal Gardens. It is enclosed by 12-feet high walls with pergola creepers running through the passage. The Long Garden leads downward into a circular sunken garden, which consists of a large pool surrounded by tiers of plants. In the words of Irving, “The tranquillity of a circular pool climaxes the main urban axis and faintly echoed the War Memorial rotary, more than two miles distant.”

After Independence, the Indian occupants of the place added pragmatism to aesthetics and promoted new kinds of gardens. During the food shortage of 1950, Governor-General C Rajagopalachari made a powerful gesture when he rolled up his sleeves and ploughed a part of the premises to grow food grains. Today, the Nutrition Garden, popularly known as Dalikhana, stands there. Perennial and seasonal vegetables and fruits with high nutritional value are grown organically there.
When R Venkataraman was the President, a cactus garden was added. A large number of new types of cacti, developed via intergeneric hybridisation and growth manipulation at the Regional Plant Resource Centre at Bhubaneswar, were added in early 2005.

During the presidency of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, many theme-based gardens came up on the premises. Among them, the Musical Garden offers a spectacular show when scintillating lights, in perfect synchronisation with the tunes of veena and shehnai, fall on cascading jets of water. Two herbal gardens were created to promote natural and gentler remedies for the well-being of the common people. A Spiritual Garden came up with plant selections based on information gathered from the sacred books of different religions. Based on the theme of “sense”, the Tactile Garden was introduced for the visually challenged so that they can also enjoy the beauty of nature.

The most important aspect of these glorious gardens, of course, is the democratic spirit of the presidents of India: The Rashtrapati Bhavan gardens, particularly the Mughal Gardens, are thrown open to the public during the bloom season, and this Udyanotsav attracts millions of visitors. Thanks to the cornucopia of nurseries, the President’s Estate remains filled with colour, fragrance and tranquillity, through the year. Nature lovers visiting the Estate are richly rewarded with the experience of the beauty and insights into the web of life.

Pawan Kumar Sain is director, President’s Secretariat

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