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Home > History > Gardening Through The Ages
Gardening Through The Ages
Buddha Gardening has been popular in India from ancient times. In the Ramayana, mention is made of the Ashokavana, in which Sita was held captive. `Ashoka trees (Saraca indica) were predominant in this garden. A description of the layout of gardens and parks and artificial lakes in the city of Indraprastha is given in the Sabha-Parva of the Mahaharata. Several trees, such as Saraca indica, Terminalia arjuna, Mesua ferrea, Ficus benghalensis, F.religiosa, Michelia champaka, Butea monosperma and Casia fistula, have been mentioned in the Ramayana. Almost all of them have also been described in the Mahabharata. The association of Lord Krishna with the Kadamba tree (Anthocephalus indicus) is well known. In the ancient Sanskrit work of Panini in Ashtadhyayi, several beautiful trees are mentioned, such as Ficus (F.religiosa, F.benghalensis, F.infectora), Butea monosperma, Prosopis spcigeraKadamba and a few others. The poet Asvaghosa described the Nandanavana in which Siddhartha Gauthama saw flowering trees and lotuses. During the Buddhist period, gardens were laid out around the monasteries and stupas and there were beautiful gardens in Nalanda and Taxila. It is said that Lord Buddha was born under a tree in a garden, the pipal. The Bodhi tree under which The Buddha attained nirvna, is sacred to the Buddhists.

As most gardens and landscapes are usually associated with major buildings and the study of them is intricately bound up with the history of architecture. Most of the buildings surviving from pre-Islamic times are temples because till a fairly late period temples were generally the only buildings built of stone. The remains of some palaces exist, particularly their stone foundations.

The basis for the construction of a temple is a mandala, (specifically a vaastu purusha mandala). Given the geometric and symmetric layout of mandalas, one would expect the layout of a temple and its compound to follow an equally geometric layout, and this is generally so.

The mandala and the temple are representations of the world or the cosmos. A classic view of the world has Mount Meru at its center, with the mountain standing in the island of Jambudvipa, itself set within an ocean. Temples usually contain representations of these three primary elements, at least in part. Meru or Mount Kailasha is represented by the temple shikara itself, Jambudvipa by the temple and its base or the compound, and the ocean by a tank. The basic plan of a temple is a square or rectangle, though this can sometimes be reduced to a linear axis. Where a temple is found within an enclosed space, this is in most cases a rectangular space aligned with the temple. In many cases a water feature is found, often as a tank within the temple compound. The alignment of the temple with the compass directions emphasises its basis in the world. While the symbolism is not always clear, the rectangular layout of the land around a temple is still the rule. There is always water present in some form, for washing and for symbolic purposes.

Surya templeAmong the best examples of these elements in the Indian subcontinent are the Surya temple at Modhera, the Minaksi temple at Madurai, and the Harimandir at Amritsar. The symbolism is probably at its most elaborate at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Temples or temple complexes may contain representations of other landscape elements, although it is not clear that these were always present in pre-Islamic times.

Representations of forests occur in the `thousand pillared halls`. Representations of rivers occur regularly, either on the temple itself, in the shape of goddesses, makaras, etc., or as carvings of rivers on the temple or on its surrounds. Presumably for religious reasons, these representations are more common in Hindu temples than in Buddhist.

SigiriyaOther important buildings, including palaces, would probably have designed landscapes and gardens associated with them. However there are few early palaces left, or even the traces of these. The outline of the formal gardens of a palace, from about AD400 can be seen however at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka. This is has a strong rectangular layout, based on the axis of the palace. The remains of other palaces can be seen in their foundations, such as in the stone bases to the palace pillars in the royal center of Vijayanagara. There are references to town, house and palace gardens in the early literature, but this needs further study to try and determine the details of the layouts.

There are many references to forests, forest glades, and flower filled clearings in the passages about life in the forests in the Puranas and the epics. Typically these mention flowering creepers, shading trees, singing birds, fragrant flowers, and ponds, often associated with an ashrama or other simple dwelling. They are common in the accounts of the exiles of the principal characters of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and in the accounts of the lives of rishis. These descriptions occur in such number and detail that it is apparent that an informal garden based on a forest clearing, and probably by a river or stream, was seen as an ideal. Of course any such garden or dwelling would have vanished into the forest almost as soon as the gardener gave up, so these accounts will probably have to remain the main evidence. Subsidiary evidence can be seen in the detail of some paintings.

In some cases, such as the descriptions of early Pataliputra under the Magadhas, accounts of informal gardens are given in relation to cities, or in the immediate neighbourhood of cities.

It appears from the above, that there were two different traditions of garden and landscape design in pre-Islamic India, which could be called the formal and the informal traditions. The formal is based on the geometric surrounds of a civic building, aligned with the compass directions, and is based on the mandala and cosmic order. The informal is that based on the forest clearing and is based on the simple life of a forest dweller living as part of nature.

Islamic and western traditions
Persian paradiazaMost of the gardens of the various Islamized cultures are traditionally lumped together under the title `Islamic gardens`. The common square pattern of the garden or the compound of a tomb probably developed from a fusion of the walled garden, thought to have originated in the Persian paradiaza, with the Semitic concept of the Garden of Eden. The paradiaza is a walled enclosure that shuts out the outside world and encloses a garden. The Garden of Eden is a mythic place from which four rivers flowed out in the four cardinal directions. The fusion of these developed into the `chahar bagh` (the Persian term, which I will continue using here), the quartered garden. The first known walled tomb garden in India is Sikander Lodi`s tomb in Delhi, predating the Mughal tomb gardens. Taj MahalIn the main, the chahar bagh as seen in India is a square or rectangular enclosure, quartered by water channels that are said to represent the four rivers flowing out of Eden (as described in Genesis). Examples of these include the principal Mughal tombs - Sikandra, Taj Mahal, and Humayun`s tomb. These show a layout that could be called the Indian layout of the chahar bagh; the garden is enclosed within walls, is square or nearly so, and has a central reference point, usually the tomb.

Water is present by mosques for the same reason as by temples; the worshipper is required to be clean before worship.

Other formal garden layouts exist. A common one is the linear garden (Shalamar bagh, Kashmir and some of the gardens in the Alhambra, Spain). These may blend into the squared layout, as in the chahar bagh of Esfahan. The garden may be part of the surrounding landscape or town. The garden could be divided into numerous squares as in the Aram bagh (Rambagh), Agra.

In Europe, one line of garden tradition is derived directly from the Islamic interpretations of the Garden of Eden. Later on there were attempts to find ideas in Roman and Greek thoughts, and later still in Chinese and Japanese traditions.

A synthesis
It can therefore be seen that there are distinct parallels and similarities in several key areas between the native Indian concepts and the western concepts. The main points of the similarities are;

  • A square or rectangular enclosure, often a walled compound

  • The presence of a dominant focal feature, a temple tower, tomb, pond or palace

  • A quartering or other division of the near landscape, often along the cardinal directions

  • The use of water as both an ornamental and as an essential ablutionary feature


  • The above shows that the original Muslim concepts and the native Indian concepts had enough similarities that they could be synthesised relatively easily to produce a Indian pattern which could be recognised as belonging in either tradition. The Garden of Eden theme was united with the mandala based themes of the Indian landscape. Examples of the resulting gardens include that of the principal Mughal tombs. The result was interpreted as a variant of the Garden of Eden theme because the dominant culture when these gardens were created was a western culture.

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