Colonial gardens in the clouds
Planting the Himalayas: encounters with the indigenous and the imperial, by Soham Kacker
Years ago, as a teenager, I remember going to visit family in Malaysia and being taken up into the highlands. These areas were attractions, something to show off and to take your tourist relatives to. It was cooler up there in the hills and they had a reputation for being something of a resort area, where beautiful gardens could be found and you could drink “English” tea and eat strawberries. The historical reason for this was because these hill station areas were “discovered” by the British. They were appealing areas because the climate was more agreeable and crops that profited the empire could be grown. I didn’t really consciously connect this to colonialism back then and the more problematic sides of how and why these areas were so cultivated (in the growing things sense) and highly regarded. I didn’t really question why these places were elevated, not only in altitude but in status because of their Englishness and all that this meant. The article in this newsletter by Soham Kacker about the hill gardens of India makes me consider once again what plants are highly regarded, where and why. Where the power and balance lies and the consequences of this for us, our ecosystems, our cultures. It brings my awareness also to a shared colonial and colonised experience echoing out across the globe.
I appreciate Soham’s thoughtfulness in writing this piece too. When he says in conclusion that he doesn’t propose a complete return to exclusively Indian flora, it reminds me of the Tao Orion book I read a few months ago (Beyond the War on Invasive Species, which I highly recommend) about restoration ecology - when Orion says that turning the clock back on ecosystem evolution is impossible and also distracts us from understanding the ecosystems of today and the serious challenges we face. It reminds me that we should look at these stories as an invitation to view the situations we face with a systems approach and not a reductive one - an invitation to understand the underlying factors that got us to where we are today. I don’t see these conversations as being about turning the clock back to a mythical time, it is not possible nor realistic to rewind all that has happened. But it is about understanding where we are now and how we got here and the parts we play.
Planting the Himalayas: encounters with the indigenous and the imperial, by Soham Kacker
Early this year, I took a class with a professor whose work focused on biodiversity in the Himalayas. Over the next few weeks, the stars aligned and after meetings were concluded, checklists made and crossed-off, and equipment was gathered and packed, I found myself on a train northward bound towards a little valley in Uttarakhand – Mukteshwar. As I watched the vast scenery of the Indian plains roll by, I could not help but feel a sense of exploration well up within me, and a feeling of connectedness with the explorers of yore whose accounts I had devoured with such voracious wonder as a teenager. As I went through the list in my mind – Joseph Dalton Hooker’s expeditions in the Sikkim Himalaya; Jim Corbett’s riveting hunts in the mountains of Kumaon; Frank Smythe’s explorations of the Valley of Flowers; and Frank Ward’s plant-hunting exploits in these mountains - I felt excited at the thought of what awaited me in those forests of oak and pine. Being a dweller of the plains myself, and unfamiliar with the flora of the Himalayas, I was eager to document and study the plant diversity in an ecosystem which to this day is wanting of keener academic attention.
The mountains did not disappoint. Below towering oak trees – often hundreds of years old – and giant rhododendrons as tall as two-storey buildings, I ‘discovered’ a world of incredible beauty. By fern-fringed stream banks, slender Deutzia branches arched under their heavy crop of perfumed white flowers. Spireas and Cotoneasters rambled alongside road verges, their wiry branches mingling with the dogwood trees above, all in full bloom. Sulphureous yellow Hypericum dotted the hillsides, and wild jasmines, clematis and honeysuckles filled the undergrowth with delicious perfume. In a unique climate which at once seems both tropical and temperate, wild birch, horse chestnut, and cherry trees grew in the same forests as Ficuses and mangoes. In cooler, shaded valleys forests of fir, Euonymus and holly cast a dense, dark shade. Seeing such botanical profusion, my gardener’s mind began to weave all these plants into an imaginary garden – and I quickly found myself wondering why none of these plants were commonly cultivated. By and large in Indian hill-horticulture, these plants are considered jungli – literally, ‘of the jungle’ – or wild; entirely unfit for planted gardens. Why? I wondered.
Some reading yielded interesting pieces of information. Many of these species were common, even prized ornamental plants in European, and particularly British gardens. Cornus capitata, the Himalayan dogwood was commonly cultivated in European gardens, as were Cotinus coggygria, Spireas, and Deutzias; Leycesteria formosa or Himalayan honeysuckle had been re-christened as ‘pheasant berry’ by Victorian gardeners; Chyrsojasminum humile, a beautiful Himalayan forest jasmine had become ‘Italian Jasmine’; while Daphne bholua and Clematis montana had even earned the RHS Award of Garden Merit, each with dozens of cultivars. Incidentally, these plants were introduced to the UK and Europe between the early 19th and early 20th centuries – broadly coincident with the accession of the Himalayan kingdoms to British rule. This came as a surprise to me – since British gardening in India employed so few of these species. Instead, when the British planted their gardens in Nainital, Mussorie, Dehradun and Shimla (the ‘hill stations’ as they were, and still are, called) they imposed the typical English countryside cottage garden onto the mountainous slopes of the Himalayas. Records from the diaries and gardening manuals of Vicerenes, Governors-general, and aristocratic Ladies list out reams of English plants imported from Britain for the Indian hill-garden – hollyhocks, pansies, dog flowers, salvias, buddleias, lilies (not the Himalayan species, of course), forget-me-nots, goldenrod (imported especially from Canada), petunias, and coreopsis.
Naturally, in the amenable mountain climate, Britons in India found the rare opportunity not afforded by the plains to recreate a small slice of home. But the creation of hill-station gardens was not merely British nostalgia playing out on an imperial scale – the creation of gardens had a distinct function of cutting through the surrounding Indian-ness to create an image of culture, refinement and ‘civilisation’. The creation of a British garden very consciously involved the un-wilding of the landscape, which included the systematic removal of native plants – even those appreciated from a distance for their obvious beauty. The rhododendrons were ‘too extravagant’, overpowering the delicate English pansies; the jasmines ‘too fragrant’ for the tastes of esteemed memsahibs. Sara Duncan, a Canadian-English author and journalist wrote of her garden in Shimla – “We hate the jungle. Newcomers may rhapsodise about the ‘glorious freedom of the wilderness’, but veterans see it as an imitation of Bacchus running amok on the hillside, seducing the English flowers from the ‘paths of propriety’ to the temptations of ‘unregulated living’”. The few native plants which made the cut were oaks, cedars, and above all, roses.
While the desire to create a sense of belonging through gardens in an alien land may be justified as human nature to some degree, the British were not the first foreign rulers to plant gardens in the Indian mountains. Before the Raj, the élite of the Mughal Empire also longed for a cooler summer resort, and they found their Jannat in Kashmir. But the Mughal gardens in Kashmir embody a different spirit of garden design – the emergence of a hybrid Indo-Persian aesthetic. Species from Afghanistan and the Central Asian steppe such as tulips, almonds, fritillaries and cypresses were common imports, but flourished amongst native species of plane trees, mulberries, peaches, rhododendrons, lilacs and poplars. Exotics were plentiful, but indigenous plants were just as appreciated, so much so that the palace of a Mughal princess in far-off Delhi depicts painted frescoes of Himalayan rhododendrons on the walls.
British gardens too, had their fair share of non-English imports. From Japan and China: wisterias, hydrangeas, and azaleas; while from the Americas: goldenrod, lantana, cannas and dahlias. So the conception that colonial gardeners showed an exclusive preference for English species is also not entirely true. It was the indigenous species that were considered unsuitable for the ‘civilised’ British garden. Often, adventurous British gardeners (also imported from Britain in numbers) were upbraided by their memsahib employers for ‘going native’ should they include too many Indian plants. The intertwining of personal and imperial ideology with the design and planting of gardens in the hills is exemplified in the fact that many Himalayan exports to Britain – rhododendrons, clematis, blue poppies – were hailed (and welcomed with open arms into every garden) as exotic curiosities back home, and changed the look of English gardens for good (lest anyone forget Capability Brown’s famous ‘Rhododendron Dell’ at Kew, planted almost exclusively with species sent back by Hooker from the Himalayas). Once de-contextualised and removed from the exuberant and sensuous surroundings of the Indian wilderness, the very plants that were rejected as jungli in Shimla and Nainital became dignified in Yorkshire or Cambridgeshire.
British garden moralities/fantasies which played out across the Indian hillsides came at great cost to the surrounding environment. To start, elements of British gardens were simply not congruent with the ecology and hydrology of the Himalayas. Within half a century, lawns, tennis courts and golf courses became very à la mode in the larger hill stations – which guzzled extraordinary amounts of water in the dry season, when the mountains are typically very water-scarce. English garden design too, which included herbaceous borders and extensive flower beds needed plentiful irrigation to maintain. During the 1840s and 50s when Shimla was rising to prominence as the imperial summer capital, overzealous colonial gardeners aided by armies of servants stripped the hillsides of the familiar ‘British’ flora – columbines, tulips, irises, ferns and lilies were dug up to establish gardens in the English style. However, more often than not wildflowers were collected en masse and brought in for dining tables, mantelpieces and living rooms. Sources writing in the early 1900s already reported a dearth of wildflowers on the hillsides around Shimla – and even today, truly wild specimens of irises and lilies (as opposed to feral ones) are rare to come by in the lower hills where they were once abundant.
The introduction of exotic plants posed another significant ecological threat – in the form of species which escaped from manicured British gardens (seduced by Bacchus, perhaps) to become invasive in the Indian wilderness. Particularly successful were Lantana camara, Ipomoea indica or purple morning glory, and Leucanthemum vulgare or oxeye daisies. These species have become rampant in many forests, as I found out during my field surveys, smothering native vegetation, competing for light and nutrients, and unyieldingly occupying disturbed areas. Today, they have placed hydrologically and ecologically delicate systems like bamboo and oak forests in an increasingly precarious position.
It is true that some English men and women did not share their contemporaries’ aversion to Indian species or Indian gardening practices. Many even borrowed from erstwhile Mughal horticultural aesthetics, or looked upon the forests beyond their lawns and picket fences with fascination rather than repulsion. However, the prevailing ideology by far was the opposite – and it is this which lives on in the contemporary garden culture of the Indian hills. On the drive back from one of my further field sites, I noticed rows of small local nurseries by the side of the road – each proudly displaying azaleas, hydrangeas, fuchsias, and hanging baskets overflowing with petunias and verbenas. Ironically, many were set up in the shade of blazing rhododendrons, or under rock outcrops resplendent with firecracker plants (Woodfordias) and native Bergenias. The colonial attitudes and aesthetics left behind by the British were alive and well in the post-independence urban elite who still summered in the ‘hill-stations’. I noticed these remnants in myself as well; all the explorers whose travels inspired me were British, and in some way my perception of the Himalayas was shaped by a colonial gaze. What is perhaps more disheartening to see is the continued rejection of native plants in hill gardens – except by a few nurseries and gardeners who have started appreciating their beauty and creating a market for them. I would not be so schematic as to propose a complete return to exclusively Indian flora – merely an acknowledgement of our colonially-formed aesthetic preconceptions, their ecological repercussions, and an open-mindedness which might one day allow the exuberance and diversity of the Indian jungles to adorn our gardens.
Herbert, Eugenia W. “Chapter 3 Over the Hills and Far Away: The Hill Stations of India.” Flora's Empire: British Gardens in India, Penguin Group, New Delhi, Delhi, 2013, pp. 97–136.
Pradhan, Queeny. “Empire in the Hills.” Studies in History, vol. 23, no. 1, 2007, pp. 33–91., https://doi.org/10.1177/025764300602300102.
Roberts, Judith. “English Gardens in India.” Garden History, vol. 26, no. 2, 1998, p. 115., https://doi.org/10.2307/1587199.
Villiers-Stuart, Constance Mary. Gardens of the Great Mughals. A&C Black, 1913.
Soham Kacker is a post-graduate research student at Ashoka University, New Delhi, focusing on plant ecology and conservation. He has apprenticed at two botanical gardens in India, and is interested in the intersection of plant science, literature, culture and history.
Soham has been paid for this article.
Photo credits: Soham Kacker
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