Did the Raj mar the Taj?

English gardens are famous all over the world, in Australia, America and even France. They have not always been flowery. In the 18th century the “English garden” abroad was a green landscape park of grass and trees. Flowers and gardens then spread with the help of a controversial ally, the British Empire. The Empire has not had much of a press lately from post-imperial historians but even its admirer Niall Ferguson has left gardens out of his positive balance sheet. They belong there as much as the other so-called “killer apps” on his controversial list.

In India, above all, I have come across this legacy. Up in Kashmir I have even discussed bedding plants with the local gardeners of one of the great old Mogul gardens and discovered that they were still growing annuals left by English ladies when the Empire fell apart. We now have an excellent history of British gardens in India by Eugenia Herbert of Mount Holyoke College. She writes with gentle wit, elegance and love of her subject which are rare in books on garden history. She also sets the social and historical context in a readily absorbable way. I have learnt so much with such pleasure.

Never underestimate Englishwomen abroad when “time and loneliness” hang on their shoulders. A female observer remarked that “nearly unmitigated ennui is the lot of the majority of luckless women in India.” So they took to gardening, often in their husband’s absence. Herbert well reminds us that husbands often died before their wives and children. They were the ones who caught fatal diseases because they had to tour imperial territory. India was a great killer of its rulers. The sister of a governor-general in the 1880s commented that “almost all the people we have known at all intimately have in two years died. None of them turned 50”. Coffins were stocked as a “necessary precaution” in stations along the British-laid railway lines.

Nonetheless, oh to be in India, now that winter’s here ... Englishwomen’s Indian gardens came to life in October and lasted in many areas until March. The flowers would be enviable in an English February. In the Deccan, sweet peas, petunias, phloxes and clarkias used to be in full flower at Christmas. Up in Assam, tea planters noticed the “new smell” in misty October when “the compound filled with English flowers mixed in with mimosas and poinsettias.” Annual borders made up for herbaceous borders, which could not survive the hot summer. In Lucknow, the violets flowered profusely in January and were wonderfully reminiscent of England. Please may we have a bit of our Empire back, I feel, as I wait impatiently for the first signs of crocuses?

The English tended only to plan and inspect, although some of their books recommended work outdoors for health and happiness. Fortunately the local Indian garden-labourers, the Malis, were abundant and willing. They soon learnt to grow sweet peas. In Assam, however, they “shocked the wife of a resident by gardening in the nude.” She gave them pairs of bathing trunks “to inculcate decency”. When she looked out of the window, they were using them as turbans. From letters, diaries and books, Eugenia Herbert has worked together some telling glimpses of the problems of multicultural life.

The flowery history of the big Indian cities is not often considered. Madras grew up on a lousy coastal site but the English soon turned its hinterland into a garden city. Gentlemen lived in “garden-houses” with lush greenery and soon, even the town had fine street trees to complement the glittering façades of houses which were decorated with burnt sea shells. “Madras from the sea,” wrote the wife of a governor-general, “looks like a scrap of Brighton, except that the houses are very large.” Directors of the old East India Company lived in a style which became as controversial as a modern banker’s. In Calcutta, Warren Hastings had 100 Indian servants, a vast Georgian house and spare time to “experiment with curious and valuable exotics from all quarters”.

Every Englishwoman wanted flowers which recalled her beloved homeland. Surely they would grow if given enough manure and English attention? Often they would not, so the only answer was to “go native”. Indians in many areas already had their own style and traditions. They liked “moon gardens” whose flowers were pale yellow and cream-white. Soon, English gardeners learnt to mix proven Indian plantings with English favourites and even to experiment with India’s own wild flora. In Brazil, by contrast, the fashion remained simply to imitate the imported flowers of Europe, a fashion which persisted in the 1950s.

Naturally, the English loved lawns. In some of the Indian towns there were already open squares, or “maidans”, of grass, but the English wanted much more. The landscaping of “neglected” monuments and historic buildings began to attract educated Englishmen’s attention. Was it always as felicitous as the new landscapers believed?

The burning question here concerns the Taj Mahal. Did the English mess it up? The culprit, or saviour, is none other than the famous Viceroy, Lord Curzon. Nowadays, crowds of Indians and tourists are photographed smiling in the wide, open formal gardens which lead up to the world’s most wondrous shimmering building. The lamps on low lampstands are a hideous modern Indian intrusion but otherwise, nobody seems other than delighted with the “gardens” round the great “national” monument. Herbert takes a different view. From drawings and images she shows that the pre-Curzon landscape was more prettily treed and that parts of the building beyond it were obscured by the tall green growth. Curzon considered it “overgrown” and cleared it out, opening the view. In fact he lost the original Mogul conception of the setting. I do not blame Curzon, though Herbert is more quizzical. By 1900, surely, the gardens had become overgrown and messy in a way which their Mogul founder, Shah Jahan, would also not have wanted. The real irony is that he did not understand the building’s full context anyway.

In his view, the Taj’s gardens should be formal, flat and terminated by the great building. Since the 1990s American garden-archaeologists have established that the Taj was originally only the centre-point of formal landscaping on either side of it. Curzon’s terminal point was nothing of the sort. Beyond it, now lost to modern viewers, lay a broad, matching garden, the Moonlight Garden or Mahtab Bagh. Curzon did not know about it and so he “restored” the Taj to a setting which was never the original plan. Today’s Indian visitors stroll proudly in an imperial pastiche.

Eugenia Herbert has done a fine job and anyone with family links to the Raj or India will love it. The English ladies are gone but their annual Cosmos daisies and marigolds live on. Now, the Indians’ own love of flowers and gardening has picked up the legacy. In Vikram Seth’s superb novel A Suitable Boy, the kindly Mrs Kapoor used to find that her garden was her haven from her bullying husband. Her lawns were in the best English style, as were many of her scented flowers. When she dies, her husband too finds his only solace in her garden, “dominated when he closed his eyes, by the least intellectualisable sense – that of scent”.

Eugenia W Herbert, ‘Flora’s Empire’ (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) $45

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