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Sacred Gardens and Landscapes: Ritual and Agency and Contemporary Garden Aesthetics, Creations and Interpretations.

Sacred gardens and Landscapes: Ritual and Agency and Contemporary Garden Aesthetics, Creations and Interpretations, edited by Michael Conan, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 2007. 314 and 266 pages respectively. Each US$ 35.


Michel Conan has edited two extraordinary books on the theme of gardens and their role in society. The first--Sacred Gardens and Landscapes: Ritual and Agency--has a selection of essays by renowned scholars dealing with various anthropological and religious practices that take place in gardens and landscapes, contributing to the production or, indeed, the reproduction of the cultural, political milieu. It must be said that the subject is rather recondite, but the various essays throw light on these rituals, developing the link between the sacred and profane and describing how the rituals have themselves undergone transformation over the years. In fact Conan in his introduction highlights one of the most striking of such rituals, in the Mellah--the Jewish quarter in Marakesh, Morocco. This annual ritual or celebration took place after the afternoon prayer at the synagogue on the first day of Passover.

The ritual involved a picnic in the olive gardens of Menara. The families would stop at a spring, and a Jewish wife would strike the water seven times while whispering a prayer. The men would take off their shoes and let their feet hang down in the running water, a symbol of plenty. They would wet their faces and hands and bottles of spring water would be taken to Menara where the families would conduct ritual ablutions. They would squat near the basin of spring water, take some water in their hands and repeat "Terbeh, Terbeh". The purpose of this was to draw a curtain on the past and look to the future. I have described this ritual in detail as it gives a flavour of the book's theme in describing a ceremony rich and resonant in symbolism and historical association. The exit from the Mellah to Menara mirrors the migration of the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land. It also signifies, particularly in Morocco which offered refuge to the Spanish Jews from the inquisition, the brotherhood of Muslims and Jews.

If this example is arcane and not hugely relevant today, there is the more contemporary reference to the Niagara Falls and how over the years they became a place of homage for newlyweds in search of a mystical experience.

The book deals with various examples of this ritual and agency. The term agency is significant as it describes how gardens and landscapes contribute to human and social action. Pierre Bonnechere dwells on the theme of "the sacred grove (Alos) in the Mantic Rituals of Greece". The Alos is connected with the divinatory power. Alos is one of the most resonant examples of the interrelationship of divine and human. In the ancient world the oracle was the means of communication and dialogue between man and the Gods, and in a larger sense between worlds that are otherwise almost hermetically sealed. The Alos is the median between the two worlds, of the present and the after life, the juxtaposition of life and death, virginity and marriage, sterility and fertility. The Alos is further identified with the notion of the sacred grove, a theme which is developed in relation to other cultures and sensibilities in the course of the book.

One of the more interesting contributions is "Religious and lay rituals in Japanese gardens during the Heian period" by Michel Vieillard-Baron. Japan is known for the beauty of its gardens and the exquisite symmetry of their design. However, the traditional Japanese garden, like many other forms of Japanese culture, was extensively borrowed from China; and the author meditates upon the fact that the Chinese term for order and ritual is the same. Thus the Chinese rites did not just have religious significance, but social significance, too. They sought to regulate and discipline human behaviour, to avoid violence, and encourage a tradition of gentility. The author expands on these notions of ritual or observance and how these eventually morphed into administrative procedures, court rites, and religious celebrations, particularly the prayers for rain.

Closer to home, the image of the sacred grove carries huge significance in Braj, the hallowed landscape of the Krishna myth. Behula Shah has written an incisive and scholarly contribution titled "Braj: The Creation of Krishna's Landscapes of Power and Pleasure and its Sixteenth Century Construction through the Pilgrimage of the Groves". The theology of Krishna is unique as the movement mandates a personalized communion or Bhakti with Him. Shah highlights the fact that the use of the landscape of Braj--the area around Mathura--as the site for Krishna pilgrimage dates back to the 16th century. This was in part due to the actions of Sikander Lodi who curtailed pilgrimage to the temple town of Mathura, the traditional centre for pilgrimage. The focus shifted to the geographic region of Mathura, the Yamuna river and the hill of Govardhan, and the forest of Vrindavana, a construct where Krishna experiences pleasure and delight, where he dances and conducts amorous relations with the gopis of Braj, including his beloved Radha.

This area of Braj is designated as "sacred". The pilgrimage consists of walking from grove to grove, this practice being considered most auspicious (shubh pratham) and still followed today.

From Krishna we turn to Ram, where the scholar Sarah Bonnemaison writes on the Ramlila, the adaptation of the Ramayana for public performance, in Ramnagar. Ramnagar was the seat of the Maharaja of Varanasi, and one of the most famous Ramlilas is that held at Ramnagar. Bonnemaison cites Linda Hess as to the significance of the Ramlila and it is worth reproducing this quotation in full:
   Hinduism teaches that the universe
   is lila or play, which in Sanskrit as
   in English means both "drama" and
   "game". The idea of Ilia is closely
   akin to that of maya, which we may
   say here refers to the transient and
   illusionary world of forms. I believe
   that the Ramlila is constructed in
   such a way as to produce an actual
   experience of the world as lila or
   maya. The participant not only sees
   the drama but finds himself acting
   in it. A vast world is created before
   and around him.

The entire town is transformed during this play, it is participatory theatre of the highest order, the stage is not just the town, but the villages, forests, and the fields. The earth is the floor and the sky is the roof. In the sense of allegory, the Ramlila commemorates the Aryan conquest of India and the Sanskritization of the subcontinent. As Bonnemaison concludes, the Ramlila "is intensely spatial".

The notion of rites or ceremonies having the quality of establishing connection with or even proprietary hold over land is discussed in a fascinating contribution by Angel Julian Garcia-Zambrano titled "Ancient Rituals of Landscape Exploration and Appropriation among Indigenous Communities in Early Colonial Mexico". The author describes "the cove" as a common feature of the Mexican landscape and one that attracted settlers from amongst the indigenous people. Anthropological evidence indicates the Native Americans tended to found their settlements in such coves. These coves became their world and much of their art and the conception of the universe is picturized in terms of the cove. But for the purpose of establishing title, the indigenous inhabitants had to show their primordial land. These would include descriptions of the rituals which were periodically performed by community leaders to commemorate the process.

The second book Contemporary Garden Aesthetics ... deals with contemporary gardens. The theme Conan explores is the insufficient attention critics pay the contemporary garden. I am not entirely clear as to his premise. Gardens and their design admittedly take inspiration from their surroundings--climate, land form, social factors, and even religion. Prior to the popularity of travel and tourism, garden styles remained local, parochial, and unique. With the increase in mobility the art forms inevitably intermingled--the Japanese garden had roots in China, the creation of the west coast American garden owed its design inspiration hugely to the Bauhaus movement in inter-war Germany. Still, Conan feels that there is insufficient appreciation from critics of garden design and a reluctance to treat it as an accredited art form. In this he draws a parallel with commercial artists such as those who devise comic strips and make advertising films. These too represent art forms, but are not quite appreciated as such. To make his point he uses the term "rooms of the museum", as constituting the apogee of such appreciation. This is altogether too depressing. The assumption is that unless some art form is captured, classified, footnoted, and cast into the inner darkness of a museum, it is somehow not truly appreciated as an art form. Conan seems to overlook the genius quality and work of a number of contemporary garden designers such as Thomas Church, Lawrence Halprin, and Garrett Eckbo (none of them are referred to in this book), and more fundamentally the relationship between house and garden.

The articles here are altogether less distinguished than those in the previous book. Priyaleen Singh discusses historical Indian gardens and those conceived post-Independence. Singh is hugely dismissive of the latter, stating that "contemporary Indian architecture and landscape design in the twenty-first century continues to stay as a tangent of global architectural activity in which the sources and forms of designs are still largely unconnected to the dominant local cultural themes and traditions". There is a discussion of the Sanskriti Kendra plan designed by the Delhi University professor Mohammed Shaheer, a cultural complex designed in a garden landscape to provide a platform for craftspersons to live and work in a creative environment. This example is presented as a sort of indigenous space resonant with the local vocabulary, with trees (banyans), step tanks, and platforms encouraging a multiplicity of the use of spaces allowing for a variety of cultural activities. The article makes a strong case for developing an indigenous response to the increasing globalization of design, but the examples given are rather thin on the ground.

Michel Conan's own contribution deals with the famous hanging garden developed by the renowned garden designer Bernard Lassus in Paris. This garden came about because of the clash between the multinational Colas Corporation which wanted to expand its headquarters. The local inhabitants objected as it would block their views over the trees of Boulogne-Billancourt.

The dispute compelled the city to intervene and mediate by imposing the transformation of the modernist building into an artificial hill covered with suspended gardens. Conan describes the garden as providing the aesthetic experience of the unity of life, one that transcends members of society--however different their sense of nature and culture.

If Bernard Lassus had attempted to address the conception of gardens in the 21st century with a series of paradoxes of clashes between tradition and modern landscape forms and sculpture, an even more interesting attempt has been made by the great Japanese garden designer Mirei Shigemori. He created gardens from the 1930s until 1975. His work was unique in so far as he eschewed the Eastern tradition as well as European garden design, creating a Japanese modernistic idiom. His masterpiece was the gardens of the Maegaki residences which he designed in 1955. It is interesting to note that in designing these gardens one of the by-products was his change of religion. He felt that contemporary Japan required a bonding with nature that was in accord with the old faith of Japan, Shintoism, which he found more relevant than Buddhism. Instead of the stylized garden borrowed from the Chinese tradition he sought to replicate an aesthetic experience wholly rooted in the natural cultural basis of the place. In short, he saw the Japanese garden as an abstract and condensed version of nature.

These examples represent striving for a new idiom and grammar in the design and perception of gardens. What I find deficient is that most of the contributors do not develop or meditate upon the inevitable link between modern architecture and garden design--how the former dictates the latter and traditionally always has. Nonetheless, Contemporary Garden Aesthetics ... represents a bold attempt at examining international trends in contemporary artistic garden design.
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Author:Gaya, Javed
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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