Sunday, February 28, 2010

Happy Holi!

For those of you who are not familiar with this holiday, Holi is a joyous festival mainly Hindu in origin but often celebrated across religious lines in much in many parts of South Asia and among South Asian diaspora communities around the world. Holi has various religiously significant mythological associations in Hindu tradition but it is also thought to mark the beginning of spring. The most distinctive element of the celebrations, also known as the Festival of Colors, is the throwing of brightly colored powders and and colored water.
I spent quite a bit of time considering what pictures I should use for this post - considering the nature of this holiday, bright, cheerful colors are certainly the most appropriate but I also wanted something that would tie into an Indian cultural context and not just a picture of some colorful flowers. As a result I decided to use this post as an occasion to finally use my pictures of some Indian parks and gardens which I had the luck of visiting on a trip to northern India two years ago. We will begin our little tour in Delhi, progress to Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, and end in Jaipur. From among the gardens I visited, only that of the Taj Mahal will not be featured, since I already posted several pictures of if in my My 50th Post!

Delhi, National Capital Territory of Delhi

The Qutb Complex

The Qutb Minar, which forms the main attraction of the Qutb Complex UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a massive minaret of red sandstone begun in 1193 under Qutb-ud-Din Aibak, the first Muslim ruler of Delhi. It i surrounded by a number of beautiful buildings and ruins, among them mosques and tombs, as well as manicured lawns and a great variety of trees. I visited shortly after the monsoon had arrived and so everything was freshly watered and verdant.

The Gardens of the Tomb of Humayun

The tomb of the second Mughal Emperor Humayun, constructed in red sandstone and white marble beginning in 1562 at the behest of his widow Hamida Banu Begum,was the first tomb of its kind in South Asia and served as an architectural precursor to the much more famous Taj Mahal. It is surrounded by a serenely beautiful garden layed out according to the classical Persian pattern of the chahar bagh, or "fourfold garden", with pools and fountain connected by a net of intricate runnels intersecting at right angles. The water channels and walkways are lined by cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens), and the lawns are springled with various trees and shrubs, including gardenias (Gardenia jasminoides) and elegant stands of silver date palms (Phoenix sylvestris).

In Front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan or Presidential Palace

These potted bougainvilleas (Bougainvillea sp.) caught my eye just outside the front gate of the Presidential Palace. The Rashtrapati Bhavan itself has an architecturally fascinating garden designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and inspired by Mughal garden designs. Unfortunately this garden is only opened to the public when it is at its floral peak in late winter or early spring and so I did not get to visit it but based on the pictures I have seen it must be stunning.

Agra, Uttar Pradesh

The Anguri Bagh of the Agra Fort

Anguri Bagh means "Grape Garden", and this courtyard garden in the Mughal Fort of Agra does this name justice with two gnarled old grapevines. The garden is layed-out in the classical Persian chahar bagh pattern with a raised water tank at the center of the intersecting walkways. However, its most striking feature are the flowerbeds themselves, which are divided geomterically into many smaller compartments by red sandstone dividers and are planted in a checkerboard pattern with contrasting green and red-leaved ground covers. Though the garden dates to the 17th century, the design struck me as quite modern, reminiscent of the bold designs of some 20th century landscape architects such as Roberto Burle Marx.

The Garden of the Tomb of Akbar

In terms of overall layout and the plants featured, the tomb garden of the great Mughal Emperor Akbar is quite similar to that of his father Humayun in Delhi. The tomb itself, however, is much less clearly Central Asian in design, featuring instead of central domes a cascade of pillars and umbrella-like turrets borrowed from indigenous Indian architecture. There are also plenty of plant and flower motifs in the ornate decorations of many parts of the complex, and part from tourists, large flocks of graceful gazelles also roam the grounds.

Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh

Fatehpur Sikri, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar as a new capital for his empire begining in 1570. However, the new city was largely abandoned after only fourteen years, presumably because of issues with the water supply. Constructed almost entirely of red sandstone on a rocky outcrop, what remains of Fatehpur Sikri struck me as being of rather stark beauty. I personally prefer lusher plantings to the vast expanses of paved ground found in the courtyards of this palace fortress. Nevertheless, the "gardens" that can be found at the site are interesting from a design perspective. There is, for example, the square platform in the middle of a larger square tank reached by four delicate stone bridges in a virtual inversion of the traditional chahar bagh design, or the lone planter set abruptly in the center of an enormous courtyard of red stone. According to legend, Akbar's Hindu queen grew her tulsi or holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) in this planter, in a grand royal version of a custom still found quite commonly today. Nowadays a spider lily (Crinum asiaticum) occupies the exalted place, perhaps because it is a bit hardier and self-reliant than the basil and therefore does not need to be replaced as often.

Jaipur, Rajasthan

Kesar Kyari Bagh, Amber Fort

Unfortunately at the time of my visit this famous garden was not planted with any vegetation, nor had there been sufficient rain to fill the lake that is supposed to surround this unusual jewel of landscape architecture. Nevertheless, the beautiful design is quite clearly visible. Though constructed by the Hindu Kachvaha Rajput Dynasty of Jaipur, the garden consists of a fourfold chahar bagh with geometrically arranged pools and runnels, spread out over three terraces. Within this framework, the flowerbeds are divided into intricate patterns by small stone walkways, creating an effect, in my mind,  not unlike that of a classical French parterre.

The Interior Garden of Amber Fort

Like the Kesar Kyari Bagh, the interior garden of the fort was unfortunately not planted at the time of my visit since some repair works were being carried out. The underlying design of narrow, zigzaging stone walkways was all the more clearly discernible as a result. Besides, despite the less-than-perfect state of the garden itself my visit to the fortress was not without floral interest since much of its interior is covered in flower based designs. Represented in every fathomable material, from marble to paint to mirror work, luxurious roses, cypresses, poppies, lilies, lotus plants, tulips, marigolds, and irises sprout across the walls, accompanied by all manner of imaginary vegetation.

The Gardens of Rambagh Palace

Rambagh Palace is a palace of the royal family of Jaipur which was originally built in 1835 and has been converted into a luxury hotel. I was lucky enough to stay there during my much-too-short stay in Jaipur, and greatly enjoyed the flawlessly maintained formal gardens.

I hope you enjoyed my pictures of these parks and gardens - maybe they will give you some ideas - and I wish you a wonderful Holi!

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