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Celebrating the Rajput Garden: conservation of historic landscapes in Rajasthan.

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Conservation is still a rather nascent field in India, and though architectural conservation has received attention in the past few years, less is known or written about initiatives in the field of landscape conservation. Conservation of the landscape is a critical component in conserving the setting and backdrop for a monument, and though some exploration in the field of Mughal Gardens has been made with projects such as the Humayun's Tomb Garden restoration in New Delhi and more recently the Bagh-e-Babar project in Kabul (both initiated by the Aga Khan Foundation), historic landscape conservation initiatives beyond this have been rather limited.

The restoration of a Rajput landscape thus comes across as a refreshing initiative in what has been, until now, uncharted territory. Dr Priyaleen Singh's work on two such medieval Rajput gardens set in the heart of the desert landscape of Jaisalmer and Jodhpur breaks new ground.

Moolsagar, Jaisalmer

An 18th-century Rajput garden retreat planned as an oasis in the hostile desert of Jaisalmer, Moolsagar represents the quintessential Rajput landscape that is intrinsically a synthesis of Mughal and Hindu garden traditions. It was originally planned in 1780 CE by Maharawal Moolraj II, the 34th ruler of the Bhati dynasty of Jaisalmer, but has a nearly unbroken history of layering as alterations and additions were made by later rulers, right up to the 20th century. The garden planning is based on a series of four introverted courtyards laid out in sequence, with carved stone pavilions, parterres, and landscape features dotting the landscape. While the original grid was based on the Mughal concept of a four-quartered paradise represented through the charbagh, 19th-century interventions such as cast-iron pergolas added a colonial layering to this hybrid Rajput landscape.

As a consultant to Marudhar Hotels in an ambitious project for a heritage hotel under the patronage of Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Jodhpur, Priyaleen's brief for the project was that of conserving this Rajput landscape as a historic setting for a tented camp hotel. The idea of a tented hotel is an innovative one in heritage tourism. It represents one of the least intrusive of all adaptive reuse interventions in a historic setting and with its near total "reversibility" would be appropriate from the conservation point of view. Almost a dozen luxury tents were planned in the historic garden, evoking the era of royal tented camps in gardens.

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The concept of tents set in orchards of jamun and citrus trees surrounding a formal Rajput garden was explored for the first time, with sound academic research and a professional conservation approach backing the project.

The conservation strategy was based on five broad research directions: history, garden archaeology, design and planning theory, the cultural perspective, and the ecological parameters. Archival research revealed the layers of history embedded in the garden as it transformed from a charbagh Rajput garden of the 17th century to its present state of neglect. Miniature paintings of the period revealed many themes set in garden landscapes, giving clues to the original species and planting patterns.

In respecting the principles of garden archaeology, the Florence Charter on Historic Gardens was followed in spirit and all the spaces with their overlays of history were evaluated for their significance. This in turn helped in taking decisions on the degree of restoration possible within each space. Careful explorations revealed the original levels of planting beds. The original jhalara or stepped well which had been silted to the extent of being completely buried under the sand was desilted, cleaned, and brought back to its usage as the principal source of water to the garden, as in the original scheme of over two hundred years ago. Vital clues were afforded by an analysis of views and sight lines to understand how the various parts of the garden had been conceptualized in various periods. The cultural context, in both its tangible and intangible manifestations, within which the garden had existed in the 18th century was understood in order to continue with the same narrative as part of the restoration exercise.

The restored landscape is striking in its visual setting as a camp resort. The chandni and hibiscus shrubs set against the backdrop of banana trees take on the form of a mehtab bagh or moonlit garden, perfect for a night viewing experience with its aromatic blossoms of kamini and mehndi. The second courtyard as the day garden provides colour through extensive use of flowers identified from Rajput paintings and laid out in the charbagh style. The third courtyard, which had undergone major interventions in the 19th century, respects its colonial layering and retains the memory of the time with the vivid colours of bougainvillea rambling over the cast-iron pergola. The fourth courtyard has become the outdoor dining space against the stone baradari pavilion as part of the adaptive reuse proposal.

The project has given a new lease of life to the historic garden, aptly illustrating how through sensitive interventions, proper management, and responsible design it is possible to both respect the past and address present visitor needs without compromising on the principles of conservation.

Chokhelao, Jodhpur

At the foot of the towering bastions of Mehrangarh, Jodhpur, Chokhelao was originally laid out in 1739 by Maharaja Abhai Singh with later interventions in 1844 when it was further rearranged by Maharaja Takht Singh. Chokhelao was laid out in the Rajput charbagh tradition adopted from the Mughals, but over a century of neglect had almost obliterated its historic elements. In the absence of any authentic record, the project sought to "recreate" an 18th-century garden through an analysis, understanding, and interpretation of contemporaneous Marwar paintings.

Through research and interpretation of the paintings of the period, certain themes and principles of design were identified and translated into a scheme of a garden complete with the scents, sounds, and textures of a garden of 18th-century Marwar. The plants depicted in the paintings showed a range of qualities that were sacred, medicinaL, culinary, cosmetic, and aromatic, revealing an approach aimed at maintaining a holistic and balanced human existence in harmony with nature.

In the dry climate of Jodhpur, Chokhelao celebrated water as an element by locating the well at the centre. Given its arid terrain, it lacked features such as generous channels of running water or large water-bodies. As a result, vegetation was the prime element contributing to the experience of the garden. Based on Rajput miniatures featuring garden landscapes, the layout was subdivided into generally eight or nine beds, with a mix of ground cover, annuals, shrubs, fruit trees, and creepers. Inspired by the paintings that depicted a mehtab bagh, part of the garden was laid out with banana trees edging the kamini and chandni infill. All the plants selected for plantation were indigenous and the "English lawn" was proposed to be replaced by clover.

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The project, in endeavouring to recreate an 18th-century garden, evokes the memory of a culture and tradition. The landscape revival is woven into the fabric of history, local traditions, myths, and festivals that celebrate the intangible heritage of Marwari culture, reminiscent of royal durbars held under colourful awnings. Garden design in the process has helped establish a participatory relationship with nature, one that involves all the five human senses of touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Newsletter
Author:Lambah, Abha Narain
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jun 1, 2007
Words:1211
Previous Article:Photo essay: Indian portraits.
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