Landscape architecture, garden design, planting design and management - Rowland Byass

The Lost Gardens of Khajuraho


Khajuraho is a place usually associated with this.

...And this

This remote village  at the northern edge of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, is famous – world famous – for its dozens of stone temples, built between the 10th and 12th centuries AD. These are remarkable for their design - compositions of repeating shikars (spires) which proliferate up and outwards to make gigantic mountainlike forms of sculpted stone.

What makes this place really famous though, is the sculptures which adorn the outside of these buildings. And of the tens of thousands of figures of humans, animals and gods on the Khauraho temples, it's the ones that show scenes of extremely graphic and imaginative scenes of sexual congress that are the most well known.

Visitors' fascination with the sculptures is understandable. They are jaw dropping in their liveliness  personality and sheer quantity. In high season, thousands of tourists arrive here every day by bus. Groups of European, Japanese and (increasingly) Chinese tourists walk around the complex of temples, dutifully photograph the sculptures pointed by their guides, then pile back into their buses and leave, either for the resort hotels in their walled grounds on the edge of Khajuraho, or for the airport 12  kilometres away onto the next stop in their tour of India.

India is a vast place with much to see. Most tourists on guided tours have only two or three weeks. But this way of seeing a place like Khajuraho has limitations. It tends to make historic monuments, cordoned off in landscaped grounds, seem the only thing worth seeing about a place. Instead of seeing them as integral to a wider landscape of natural and cultural meanings it turns them into objects, divorced from their setting, and thus their wider meaning as a part of a place.

A sense of dislocation pervades modern Khajuraho. It's evident in the way that visitors are bussed in to look at the temples, stay one or two nights, and leave. This is not just a problem of aesthetic theory. The result of this excessive focus on the objects of the temples has been to the detriment of the place. Scrappy, unplanned tourist development has mushroomed around the temples. The main street is lined with curio shops, restaurants promising the best pizza in India cooked 'under Swiss supervision' and some of the sharpest, sleaziest street hustlers I have encountered anywhere in India. Away from the main street, litter blows across open ground. The wider landscape beyond the temples has become just the hinterland where the hotels, shops and restaurants servicing visitors are sited. As long as the monuments themselves are protected, the thinking seems to go, the degradation of the landscape around it by unplanned development can be met with indifference. There is, apparently, a World Heritage Site management plan, drawn up to protect the character of Khajuraho and its surroundings. But you'd never know it.

It's interesting then, to come across an example of a heritage-based project here which is everything that the tourist industry here generally isn't: long-term, concerned with historic buildings as integral parts of a wider landscape, and concerned with spreading the economic benefits of tourism and heritage to a wider range of people across this rural area.

The Lost Gardens of Khajuraho are not as  famous as the Lost Gardens Of Heligan in England, from which they borrow their name. But they are every bit as interesting - evoking a whole vanished way of life.

Each consists of a rectangular space, enclosed by five foot high walls and with a single entrance gateway. Inside, raised stone channels, fed by a deep step well or baoli, supply water to the garden. Controlled by simple sluice gates, the channels directed the water to where it was needed in the garden. Gardens of this kind are irrigated by controlled flooding – planting beds are divided into small cell-like compartments with low earth ridges, enabling each to be flooded in turn. At the centre of the garden is a pleasure pavilion, where one can retreat inside, or up to the roof, in the heat of summer. This is the model of the Islamic paradise and the prototype of gardens across the Middle East and the Islamic world.

Except these gardens were not in fact made by Muslims. They were made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the Maharajahs of Chatturpur, local Hindu aristocrats who despite their religion, who were a part of the hybrid, but largely Muslim courtly culture of the rulers of much of northern India up to the rise of British power in India in the nineteenth century. Much of this culture derived from the Mughal imperial court with its Persian and Turkic Central Asian origins. Like their nomadic ancestors, the Mughals used the gardens they made as resting places on their travels across their domains, staying in permanent or temporary tented pavilions within the garden, and using the garden's water supply and produce to supply their needs. The Khajuraho gardens differ from gardens in the Islamic mainly in their layout: these gardens are not rigidly symmetrical like them. Instead the location of wells and water channels follows the lie of the land. And while Mughal gardens might contain a tomb at their centre, these house a Hindu temple, albeit in a hybrid Mughal-influenced style.

There are some thirteen gardens in the vicinity, in varying states of preservation. One of the best preserved is Rani ka Bagh, the Queen's Garden. This was a summer resort for the ladies of the court, which  followed the Muslim practice of purdah in which women were cloistered away from public life. Long after the effective end of the Mughal empire as a political force, the culture of the Mughals continued in the music, poetry, painting and social rituals of regional royal courts across India. Khajuraho was a part of the kingdom of Oudh, before coming under the rule of the British East India Company in 1856.. This elegant and  doomed world is chronicled in Satyajit Ray's 1977 film The Chess Players. Two members of the Muslim gentry play endless games of chess while the Company moves to engineer a takeover of the kingdom and its revenues, bringing about the end of the reign of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh and his refined courtly life of music, poetry, kite flying and courtesans. As the Company troops advance on Lucknow to depose the king, the chess players continue their games in an abandoned garden on the edge of the city.

The year after (1857), resentment at the end of the last independent Muslim kingdom in northern India exploded into the Indian Mutiny (or First War of Independence as it is officially known in India). The repression which followed the uprising was the effective death blow for the late Mughal cultural world. With the political decline of the ruling class who created them, the Khajuraho gardens fell into decline at around this time.

Entered through a gateway lined with small turreted kiosks, Rani ka Bagh is around four acres in extent. Roughly in the centre are the only two permanent buildings: a long Kothi or storehouse, with a flat roof and small tower from where one can survey the garden, and just next to it, a square domed temple.

The Kothi would have been used as a storehouse for produce from the garden, and as a place for eating and sleeping under cover. Flowers and fruit from the garden were presented as offerings to the deity housed in the temple, which was the family's private chapel. Although no longer owned by the original family, the temple is still in use. Not far away are two wells on octagonal plinths, connected by raised channels.

These still supply the garden with water although for now, water is pumped into plastic pipes rather than the raised channels which still await restoration. The wells are marvels of engineering, with descending flights of steps that enable access when the groundwater level is low and precisely made decorative detail like the brick bands laid in herringbone patterns at intervals, and the small arched recessed niches in the wall, which may have housed oil lamps or statues of deities.

The concept of the garden – a secluded pleasure ground for a noble family and its retinue that combines productivity with pleasure – and its architectural vocabulary of domed pavilions, water channels laid out at right angles and round, and octagonal water sources, are Islamic. But this vocabulary has been adapted to a specifically Indian context. The temple bears a clear resemblence to the Mughal tradition of garden pavilions and tombs that created the Taj Mahal, but it houses a Hindu god. And the practice of presenting the resident deity of the temple with offerings from the garden around it is an old Hindu one.

When I visited Rani ka Bagh, barley and mustard, the signature crops of late winter and early spring in north India, stood in the clear January sunshine. Other areas were planted with vegetables – potatoes, radishes, onions and garlic – planted in long strips. While Raju Khan, the owner of a local guest house who oversees the restoration and management of the garden, conferred with the workers weeding the beds, I walked around the perimeter, looking across swathes of yellow flowers to the the temple at the centre. The art of composting, providing free fertility from onsite resources rather than importing it in the form of expensive synthetic fertiliser, has been revived here.

This garden, and another nearby, are undergoing restoration by INTACH, working in partnership with the garden owners. Before restoration began, the garden had been put down to a wheat monoculture using agrochemicals to boost yields. Now under the guidance of soil conservation and permaculture specialists, the garden is being returned to the mixed model of production that was used before, using organic methods to restore the life of the soil. Restoring the mixed production basis of the gardens creates greater employment opportunities for local people than before and gives a broader base of marketable produce to sell. Fruit trees have been planted around the boundary – mango, Amla, Jalebi and other local species suited to the climate. These will give greater shade and provide more products to raise income for the garden. In the longer term, the damaged and missing lime render on the Kothi and temple will be restored. The restored gardens could have multiple roles and benefits: as a model for sustainable agriculture and soil conservation for local farmers; a source of employment in growing and processing produce from the garden for the local and tourist market, and as a living heritage tourist attraction with a very real sense of place. Walking through the garden with the late afternoon sun glancing off the mustard flowers and picking out green pea shoots to eat, then taking tea on the roof of the Kothi, was a great experience.

Raju Khan on the roof of the Kothi in Rani ka Bagh.

It is early days for the Lost Gardens of Khajuraho. The restoration of these fascinating, romantic places is an opportunity for really sustainable development. For outsiders they offer a glimpse into a vanished cultural world. More significantly, they are living heritage, with a real sense of place and connection to the landscape around them, so unlike the in-and-out, dislocated experience that visiting the more famous temples provides.

The Lost Gardens of Khajuraho




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