The novelist Penelope Lively devotes an entire chapter of her autobiography to her grandmother's gardens over several generations. With their lawns, informal walks, lily ponds, snowdrops, bluebells, and roses, they are virtual palimpsests of English garden history as it is most familiar to us: "Essence of Englishness, you would think, the English garden." But in fact, as Lively points out, there is hardly anything in these gardens except the yew trees and primroses that is native to the British Isles. The garden is rather a "cacophony," filled with plants from all over the world. And when her family moved to Egypt, her mother created a garden there that was "unashamedly English in design," even if many of the shrubs and trees were perforce adapted to a warmer climate.
A walk through Kew Gardens reinforces this experience of gardens as a "global reference system." On a May morning Rhododendron Dell is ablaze with the blossoms of these glorious shrubs. But while the dell was laid out by Capability Brown, giant of eighteenth-century English natural landscape design, it had to wait until the next century for the rhododendrons that Joseph Dalton Hooker brought back from the Sikkim Himalayas. A few years ago I had taken a similar stroll through Haidar Ali's Lal Bagh in Bangalore. Just inside the main gate, I was surprised to come upon a colony of plaster gnomes, statues, and other assorted paraphernalia in a garden initially inspired by Mughal prototypes and later redesigned to accommodate English flowers and flower beds and walkways. At the far end I came to the glasshouse, a miniature Crystal Palace, with the annual Republic Day flower show in full swing. Around the periphery of the Lal Bagh, nurseries clustered, meeting the needs not only of locals but also of patrons from all over India.
It has often been said that the English are a nation of gardeners, with a passion for plants and flowers surpassing that of all other people. "Our England is a garden," wrote Rudyard Kipling. They are also a nation of empire builders, with Kipling in the forefront. Wherever they went, they took with them as part of their cultural baggage their love of gardens and their certainties about what a garden should look like. Nowhere was this more evident than in India. It was one thing to show off tropical exotics in English conservatories or even coax them to grow outside for a season, quite another matter to live in the midst of these exotics in all their terrifying luxuriance. The farther from home one ventured, the more one longed for familiar cowslips and hollyhocks and Michaelmas daisies, for well-trimmed lawns and neat flowerbeds.
Much has been written about architecture and imperialism, little about gardens and imperialism, perhaps because gardens are far more ephemeral and harder to document, perhaps because they seem less serious. And yet almost two decades ago, the garden historian Charles Quest-Ritson pointed out that the history of the gardens of the Raj remained to be written. The present work is intended as a first step in telling the story of the gardens Britons created, or attempted to create, for themselves in India. The gardens are as varied as the characters in the story, from viceroys and their wives to unremembered officials (and their wives) in the remote reaches of the mofussil to professional botanists, soldiers, and retirees. The reader will find the text liberally seasoned with quotations from the wealth of memoirs and letters they have left behind in order to let their own voices be heard. To be sure, other imperial powers imposed their gardens on subject lands as well, but it was the British who came to paint most of the world red and whose gardens had the most profound effect. In the end they left a lasting horticultural mark on India, just as India did on them.