When Prince Siddhartha turned recluse and sat under a Bodhi tree to gain insight into the meaning and way of life, little could he have foreseen that, as the Buddha, he would have such a profound influence on the art of landscaping.

Those of us who have had the good fortune to experience the joy of laying out a formal garden can only bless the sage for inadvertently cutting the path of reflection and sensitivity that is the cornerstone of such a venture, even though the irony may be that what results in many cases is more in line with the tenets of European landscapes than the Eastern.

This then is the inner story of designing a garden: in this, case the south garden and other smaller gardens in the 28-odd hectare grounds of the Doon School in Dehradun. As will be seen from this writing, this seemingly simple task turned out to be, in the larger context, the narrative of the play of several cultural influences—Vedic, Dao, Buddhist, Islamic, and European—that crowd the Indian mind because of our chequered history. These apply beyond a gated, secure periphery to the spreading urban chaos beyond the estate. Consequently, the task of developing the floral and horticultural layouts that one expected to be tranquil and soothing in fact turned out to be puzzling, cogitative, and sometimes discomfiting.

Very shortly into the game, one asks as school boys do of any proposition: what is the object of the exercise? The answer is not all that simple if one weighs the options available. These range from cultural considerations to harmony, from a yearning to do something different to matching the best available within a budget that a school can afford.

It is fascinating that a garden should induce curiosity about one’s identity and origins but then, art often leads to that platform. At a personal level, in part, this has its roots in the location of Dehradun, which lies midway between the Ganga and the Jamuna as these sacred rivers debouch from the Himalayas to the plains at Haridwar and Kasli (where Samrat Ashok placed a rock edit circa 253 BCE) respectively.

Such, may I say, is one’s conditioning, that one first looks for scaled-down solutions based on riverine landscapes of the mists, the bubbling flow of cascades down mountain slopes, on the jungles of the Vedic era or of the age following that of the Upanishads, from whose time all the formal compilation of design in the great shastras, including the Shilpa shastra, commenced.

This is the stuff of Aryavarta. And so of one’s supposed genetic ancestry from pre-historic times came down from the newly-arrived nomad in the flowering, fragrant spring sal forest, of his discovery of the mango tree, of his veneration of the Bodhi and other ficus species that provided shade in the summer months to man and his herd: later to be developed as groves that sheltered rishis and warriors alike, that led them to expound on the virtue of trees and employ the scents of vines and shrubs that are recommended in the Kama Sutra for the shringhar of damsels. Of these clusters there is no trace, except in texts.

There is no illustration one can refer to, not even of the so-called Golden age of Hinduism: the Gupta period from 200 to 550 AD. Thus one abandons the quest, satisfied that there were gardens, and that these are now beyond reach, except if one were to attempt a reconstruction from literature.

One may conjecture from some Kangra or Rajput miniatures but they are obviously the stuff of masti in a settled civilisation and not of the experimental expositions of a nomadic population that had just stratified as kings and commoners.

It is not that there was no one who based a proposal on what one might term as an imagined indigenous concept. A rendition for the south garden was created in palms and other native plants and treatments but on careful consideration, it was felt that it would not fit in with the prevailing arrangement of either trees or buildings. Was a garden, then, about one’s imagined earliest heritage or would we have to wade through history to arrive at the design?

To begin at the beginning, imagine then a class of acolytes under the tutorship of a guru under the canopy of a tree, in the context of a present-day school for 500 adolescent boys who are at times full of nervous energy and digital, multi-tasking silicon angst, and otherwise full of the joy of growing up in an estate conducive to aesthetic happiness.

But is it a possible inspiration for the 21st century? Could we drawn any connection from this with the Palladian backdrop of the Renaissance style brick-faced main building, designed by the Imperial Public Works Department in 1911? This gives off vibes that set aside the guru-shishya parampara model.

This edifice belongs quite clearly to that part of the colonial era in India in which Britain was out to impress the superiority of all things and thoughts European—from poached eggs on toast to impressive public buildings.

In fact, it does not take long to realise that though it is a poor man’s copy in brick pillars and arches, its obvious inspiration is the Basilica Palladiana in Vincenza, with its marble Doric and Corinthian columns and porticos modelled after the classical architecture of ancient Rome.

This backdrop focuses on the 16th century revival in Italy. It leads to the realisation that one has to cross over from being a descendant of the victorious nomadic warrior, law-giver and aesthete from beyond the Hindu Kush in Central Asia, to being the vassal of the European.

This desertion of one’s ancestry is not without a tinge of reckoning, but at the same time, it does not come hard since one was born a subject of King George VI, Kaiser-e-Hind, and went to English-medium schools and colleges.

One is thus more familiar with the concepts and thoughts of our contiguous continent than with one’s own sabhyata, dished out in translation by English scholars according to their own precepts and needs. Although there is a definite sense of departure as one wishes for a kind of azadi based on a native tradition, the fact is that the Raj looms as a cultural Goliath and its contribution to garden design, in the hills and plains, is ever-present as one evaluates the capabilities of the site. Perhaps others who have shouldered this kind of responsibility of developing landscapes have had similar thoughts.

Several factors led us with difficulty to the final design as, even within the vast European tradition, there are several schools and cultures. The choice therefore is not a simple one.

For example, the salient attributes of the approximately 4,000 square metre plot within the 28-hectare park that was earlier utilised as grey bajri and later cemented tennis courts, could have given joy to a 17th century Louis XIV French landscape architect as it had the following elements, which became typical of the formal Jardin à la Française:

  • A geometric plan using the most recent discoveries of perspective and optics.
  • A higher level on three sides—north, east, and south—allowing the visitor to see all at once the entire garden.

As French landscape architect Olivier de Serres wrote in 1600, “It is desirable that the gardens should be seen from above, either from the walls, or from terraces raised above the parterres.”

It did not however yield that all vegetation is constrained and directed, to demonstrate the mastery of man over nature. Trees are planted in straight lines, and carefully trimmed, and their tops are trimmed at a set height.

As required by the French tradition, the residence serves as the central point of the garden, and its central ornament. No trees are planted close to the house; rather, the house is set apart by low parterres and trimmed bushes.

As per the French tradition, the residence serves as the central point of the garden, and its central ornament. No tree are planted close to the house; rather, the house is set apart by low parterres and trimmed bushes.

The school’s grounds were originally the home of the Forest Research Institute’s (FRI) sylviculturists. They created an arboretum of over 150 species in its 20-odd hectare estate, to which were added the fruit species of Skinner’s adjacent home and orchards when those were acquired in 1935.

This arboretum is a national treasure and for the south garden, the part that consists of the linear verticality of the 30-metre high nurkil trees to the south, the round frame of chatlas to the west, and some junipers to the east form a frame in which it is not man who masters nature but nature that towers over man, very decisively.

The two goldenrain trees (Koelreutarias paniculata) to the north are carefully selected and provide an arresting display of flowers as the sun travels south of the equator after the autumnal equinox: the blossoms start out a yellowish green in August-September and turn a beautiful coral in October.

Carried away by this sylvan legacy, some masters in charge of horticulture amateurishly added a number of other species that violated the designed offsets. The well-meant intervention not only obscured the face of the building but also endangered it as it kept it in shadow, so that the damp created by the torrential monsoon did not dry for months. They were cleared. This also opened out the plot.

Thus while the setting and architectural backdrop pointed the way to a formal le jardin français almost as a done deal, the vegetation suggested differently: the confrontation between superior man and submissive nature had been averted, with a truce resulting in the co-existence of man with nature on the east and west side, while the towering, giant nurkils firmly established nature’s dominance to the south.

This led to the tantalising possibility of veering away from the straight and narrow injunctions of controlled vegetation set in formal beds imposed by French gardeners and touching Buddha’s fingertips, rather as Adam touches God’s in the Sistine Chapel.

The question that arises in abstract works is the choice of principles that should apply to the undertaking. If European gardens were meant to please the eye, in the east the theme of harmony between man and nature permeated the inner soul of monks and monarchs alike—as has been manifest for nearly two millennia since gardens created by the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) in China. A visit to the summer palace outside Beijing, that came up in the 18th century, shows that whether Confucian, Dao, or Zen, the continuance of the unifying culture that expounded the comparison of man’s virtues and attributes as reflected in nature remained unbroken.

There should have been traces of this in India considering that the root of the verb vihar means to play and enjoy and the place that afforded this requirement is called vihara.

But unlike China, this part of the cultural continuity was terminated with the coming of Islamic rule (and Islam’s continuity was cut by the British) so that it was clear that the meditative garden, if ever there was one even in Bihar, must return even to Nalanda, where a new university is being built, from the East. Was there a lead here for school as well?

But how suited were the vihara’s precepts to a school for boys within the ages of 12 to 18 years in the formative years of their lives? During this passage through adolescence, the demand adjustment to physiological change and mental growth of a huge dimension would be immesnse. Some may argue that after all, acolytes were also taken in at an early age. True enough, but the profile of the end product of public school education for boarders was very different from the learned bhikshu.

The first was required to be the application of action-oriented success in the temporal world, whether he worked in India or went overseas. The second would be more in the image of the Dalai Lama. Could the twain meet at some point or for some moments? This was the larger question for educationists.

In the Doon, both the board of governors and the headmasters had for some time felt that the day’s schedule was far too packed and needed a rearrangement in which each boy had perhaps an hour for reflection—this not being a subject under supervision but a gap where he could be at leisure to reflect on or do whatever he wanted to. Would landscape help? It was a prime input in the eastern cultures.

As noted in the opening paragraph, Buddhist practices, especially of meditation and gaining merit by good deeds, first manifested themselves in landscapes of a vihara, which, with the use of stone in place of wood, became permanent structures with gardens enclosed within walls.

While the indigenous design of these is lost, there are many living and lofty variations of the greatness of this thought process in China and Japan.

As in most arts, progress came through the hybrid of Dao and Buddhist thought. Aspects of Daoism may be found particularly in the Chinese approach to garden design, where carefully contrived views and experiences are based on the model provided by nature itself. (The reader may note in the section below how carefully this was absorbed in the west as a reaction to French principles.)

The way this developed first in China and then in Japan was that “the garden is an artistic re-creation of nature; a landscape painting in three dimensions”. (Again we may note how this was accepted without reservation in Europe.)

Through a combination of such natural elements as rock, water, trees, and flowers, and such artificial elements as architecture, painting and poetry, the designer sought to attain an effect which adhered to the Daoist principles of balance and harmony. It was accepted that the creation of gardens was a way of achieving happiness that comes from the pursuit of another goal, not from the pursuit of happiness itself. Making a fine garden can contribute to enlightenment and contentment. It requires skill, artistic judgement, understanding of nature, and constant practice.

To be enlightened is to attain the Buddha and one wonders whether this fits in with a public school’s aims. Could these be supported by a garden devoted to this pursuit? And would it have to be the centrepiece of its grounds? And which saint would come to create the masterpiece?

Did a school for youth require a tranquil equipoise or something that would animate and stimulate their entire being, bringing about, layer by layer, a spiritual catharsis that would sublimate into an aesthetically enhanced condition like that of a Zen-archer who can hit the bull’s eye without looking at the target?

And would those who digested Herbert Read’s perception, published about three-quarters of a century ago, that art should “satisfy our sense of beauty and the sense of beauty is satisfied when we able to appreciate a unity or harmony of formal relations among our sense perception…” be equal mortals?

What is the aim of education in this digital, clockwork age in which this entire preoccupied country lives under the shadow of the demon of mindless destruction of its natural attributes? Could it be the spread of the appreciation that certain arrangements in the proportion of the shape and surface and mass of things result in a pleasurable sensation, while the lack of such arrangements leads to indifference or even positive discomfort and revulsion.

It is possible that some people are quite unaware of the physical aspect of things. Just as some people are colourblind, so others may be blind to shape and surface and mass. But just as people who are colourblind are comparatively rare, there is every reason to believe that people wholly unaware of the visible properties of objects are relatively rare.

So that the spread of gardens over the grounds should not provide a niche but a pervasive sense of beauty and reduce to the rarest of the rare those who will stand in the way of the required battle against ugliness and the mindless destruction of nature’s arrangements.

It should not be said of the cultivated Indian, as Evelyn Waugh observes in A Handful of Dust of the errant Brenda Last, that “she decorated her room with a singular oriental lack of a sense of proportion”. It may aptly be said that most present-day municipal art and installations stir the chords of disharmony and consequently those of the sense of revulsion. Who would clear this morass of ugliness?

Would a garden in a school sensitise those exposed to its beauty be mother to that enhanced sense of the principles of harmony, Ryoan-ji (a Zen temple in Japan) is often held as the prime example that leads the Japanese to impregnate all that come there with aesthetic treatment?

To see how far the Zen culture succeeded we need to look at Japan not of the 14th century but of today. 

One is astonished to find in the concrete jungle of Tokyo and other cities, small displays of bonsai or trimmed pines and other plants as one walks down the streets. These mitigate the oppression of concrete and refresh one’s spirits. This is also so in England, where house-proud women boast of fine gardens. This same pride spreads to the bungalows in India, as we shall see in the text below.

History takes strange twists and turns. One has to weigh it to realise that it was the Battle of Plassey, fought in 1757, that opened the gates for the return of principles of eastern landscaping to India. In 1758, a year after that decisive fight, Lancelot “Capability” Brown created the English garden of the Blenheim Palace grounds.

Brown was an understudy of William Kent who is regarded as one of the founders of the English garden design, and whose practitioners, instead of relying on geometric plantings favoured by the French designers, “cultivated a certain irregular wildness. They exploited the natural contours of the land, formed trees into apparently natural patterns, and developed seemingly fortuitous but actually carefully contrived views of carefully contrived buildings”, in which landscape and architect exaggerated and improved on natural qualities . This could be a passage out of a Chinese or Japanese text.

Highly influenced by the new wave “at home” and, in the flush of military victories, the new rulers of Bengal and parts of southern India, having rejected or looking condescendingly on the Mughal Garden that was as highly formal as the French, sought to establish their new art in their new colony.

Thus came to India, ironically through a new conqueror from the West, the percepts of the East. In an article on English gardens in India, Mildred Archer (Country Life, November 1967) notes that “by the end of the 18th century, le jardin anglais became the accepted international name for the landscape with sophisticated naturalness. Even gardens of more modest houses were planned on the same principles although on a miniature scale.”

Landscape paintings (note what the Chinese had to say about this) had a huge impact and these were sought to be reproduced on the ground. By the end of the 19th century, the detail of the landscape changed somewhat with smaller gardens with lawns, terraces and parterres forming a sub-system within a larger park. This set a precedent for us.

The enthusiasm was carried to Calcutta. That much reviled (in India, for finally defeating Tipu Sultan) and misunderstood (by London for profligacy in war) Marquess Wellesley, Governor-General from 1797 to 1805, who was a “cultured aristocrat well-acquainted with theories of landscape gardening planned his country retreat at Barrackpore as a garden house. Following the William Kent school that not only exploited the natural contours of the land … but also to create ‘that fortuitous, but actually carefully contrived, views of carefully sited buildings’ he ‘even subscribed to building a Danish church … on the opposite bank of the river (Hoogly) so that a well-designed church spire might complete the picturesque view.’ ”

A few years later a visitor noted: “The grounds around the retreat are laid out with infinite taste in the imitation of our parks in England, and produce a splendid effect on the eye.”

Archer also informs us that a majority of the British in the civil and military services came from homes where an interest in gardens was a part of civilised life. And perhaps it was chiefly through gardens that nostalgia for Britain expressed itself. “While great gardens were few, limited to the official residences of the highest offices, it was … in the garden of the ordinary bungalow that British enthusiasm was chiefly shown.”

This passion held on and a generation of Indians, including my mother, had the most colourful baghs, standing over British-trained malis (who pronounced the Latin names of species in Poorbia Hindi that left no leaf unturned to achieve an astonishing burst from lilies to larkspurs and portulaca to petunias, to say nothing of English roses).

The Doon and many other similar schools are creations of the British, so that the above arrangement of a park, smaller gardens within the park suits, it to an extremely good fit. It set the cast.

A majority of the British in the civil and military services came from homes where an interest in gardens was a part of civilised life. And perhaps it was chiefly through gardens that nostalgia for Britain expressed itself.

While the south garden was on a comparatively big scale, the complete landscape plans of the grounds included much smaller patches and stretches along the roads for which different sources of inspiration were sought.

For one, we were diverted to another tropical region, that of Central and Amazonian South America, which is as rich, or perhaps richer, in flora than this subcontinent. And talking about the influence of paintings, perhaps the most haunting memory that I carry from visits to the Musée d’Orsay is Henri (Le Douanier) Rousseau’s La Charmeuse des Serpents (1907).

Though he never left France, his dreamlike images of large philodendrons (money plants) and broad-leaved trees were based on what he saw in the glasshouses of the Jardin des Plantes (the main botanical garden of France) and stuffed animals in museums. Some wrongly say he served with the French army in Mexico. The truth seems to be that he heard many a tale of the tropics from returning soldiers and these, combined with an original imagination, gave the world some amazing paintings of the gypsy, the desert, and the dusky damsel in a tropical thicket alike.

Such abstractions are a challenge to the landscape professional. So friendly is Dehradun’s sub-ecosystem to plants that species, all the way from the high Himalayas to steamy Kerala, not only establish themselves but flourish there.

Thus, one was tempted to draw inspiration from his works of mystery and imagination and reverse the process of making dreams a reality. The area under the chalta trees on the west side of the south garden was an obvious target for such luxuriant growth. It was and remains a lofty ambition but one worth the audacity of trial and hope. The extension of this dream is the real-world work of Roberto Burle Marx, the path-breaking Brazilian landscape architect.

In 1949, he acquired the 3,65,000 sq. m. estate Barra de Guaratiba (just outside of Rio de Janeiro). Burle Marx made expeditions into the Brazilian rainforest with botanists, landscape architects, architects, and other researchers to gather plant specimens. Now it houses over 3,500 species of plants.

This brings us to the question of the role of gardens in the revival of old or growth of new cultures. To what extent can they arouse curiosity about the surroundings and the environment, much of which is threatened? The Doon is attempting in its own modest way to add to its arboretum by creating a very special row plantation with some rare or threatened species from the forests of Dehradun, so that it adds to the arboretum that it inherited from the FRI.

Will this example spread? Is there anyone with the care, devotion, and pride in our diverse botanical diversity to collect, multiply, and improve the flora so that landscapes can be based on native flora?

My hope lies in the new university at Nalanda. Its programme and architectural theme is closely tied to water and agriculture. At the moment it not clear whether it will extend to horticulture. Surely a Buddhist garden will be a part of the landscape and one can hope it will use native species, much as Wellesley’s did in his garden house in Barrackpore.

Getting back to Burle Marx, a very small experimental patch of coleus with vividly contrasting colours was planted. It held out hope. It pointed in the direction of much more research to achieve the effects of abstract paintings that the master had managed. Unfortunately, such efforts are hard to sustain in schools as much depends on the horticulturist. A transfer or disturbance leads to either the neglect or to the abandonment of experiments before they can mature into a lasting landscape.

Herein lies a lesson for those who will venture in the school’s footsteps. Much more successful were the banks of flowers planted along the length of a 400 metre long road in the style of the bungalows of British days.

Finally, the presence of water. That is an essential part of a garden of any culture and here we had much to choose from. However, a small rock in Monterey, California, in the middle of a 30-odd sq. m. landscape held me in thrall. It provided much and the repose one felt due to its simplicity is what showed its genius.

It was small, delicate, quiet and above all, uplifting. We were lucky to have the artist Paramjit give us a feature with similar qualities.

What then was the conclusion?

As will be seen from the south garden, after many permutations and combinations, we opted for a sophisticated simplicity that took in account a low capital budget, ease of maintenance, and an openness that enhanced the main building as well as Sandeep Kholsa’s newly-built Art School (that was shortlisted for two international awards) and the older buildings. We worked in water and a feature was created by the renowned landscape artist, Paramjit Singh. When looked at from a height as it is every day, it must inspire those who behold because beauty lies not in their eye but in the display of nature’s bounty. In the spring one is reminded of C. Day-Lewis’s lines:

Now the full-throated daffodils,
Our trumpeters in gold,
Call resurrection from the ground
And bid the year bold

Add poetry to the painting and we have the picture. May many other institutions resurrect their grounds, many of which look like they have been done up by Brenda Last.