Yarn the silk-cotton tree spins

Heritage

Yarn the silk-cotton tree spins

The Daria Daulat in Srirangapatna, which stood in the centre of a garden. Photo by Meera Iyer

“I found his country a garden from one end to the other.” So said none other than Lord Cornwallis, while describing the kingdom of Tipu Sultan. Even while they lost no opportunity to run down their opponent as a tyrant and despot, most of the British conceded that erstwhile Mysore had one of the most pleasantly verdant landscapes in India then. They also greatly admired the many gardens Tipu Sultan had laid out throughout his kingdom.

Both Tipu and his father Hyder Ali were fond of trees and created many gardens. One of the earliest was the garden we now know as Lalbagh in Bangalore. It was established in 1760 by Hyder, about a kilometre and a half east of the fort, on an existing mango orchard. 

Tipu Sultan enlarged this garden, nurtured it and added to it: contemporary accounts speak of Hyder’s and Tipu’s separate portions of the 40-acre gardens. Hyder’s gardens were irrigated using water from the tank (or Lalbagh lake) while Tipu had dug additional wells to supply water to his gardens. The gardens were divided into square plots, each holding a single species.
Fruit trees including pomegranates, apples, bananas, peaches, grapes and of course, mangoes were abundant, as were annatto trees, pines and oaks. Some sections of the garden were devoted to herbs and shrubs including roses and strawberries; other had cereals like rice, ragi and sorghum; and spices, including pepper and cinnamon. Many of these species were exotics that Hyder had brought from Multan, Lahore and Delhi. Tipu Sultan went further afield and procured trees from around the world, including Turkey, Mauritius and South Africa. Missives to his ambassadors at Mauritius, for example, exhorted them to get seeds and seedlings of nutmeg and clove since these were not available in Mysore State.

Char-bagh style
The gardens were laid out in the Islamic char-bagh style. Walkways separated the plots, lined with stately cypress trees, an essential feature of Islamic gardens, symbolising eternity, but paradoxically, also death.

In the post-Tipu era, the Bangalore gardens changed hands several times and were expanded through the years until they were almost six times as large as when Tipu tended to them.

The char-bagh layout was altered and little remains of the original gardens except for some trees said to have been planted during Tipu’s times, among them two large mango trees and some great, towering silk cotton trees. There is now no trace of the cypresses that Tipu and Hyder planted. In fact, it was these trees that led the British to initially refer to the gardens as the Cypress Garden. Later, the garden passed into the hands of a soldier of the East India Company, whereupon they were referred to as Major Waugh’s garden. Later still, they were called the Government Gardens. It is only in the 1850s that the Bangalore garden began to be referred to as Lalbagh, perhaps in memory of another of Tipu’s famous gardens, the Lalbagh at Srirangapatna.

Gardens at Srirangapatna
Tipu’s capital was graced with at least two large gardens. The beautiful gardens around the Daria Daulat palace are variously described in contemporary British accounts as “fine” and “very neat and well cultivated.” Straight water channels ending in large marble pools crisscrossed the garden in Tipu’s times.

Orange, pomegranate, lime, citron trees and of course, mango trees, grew in profusion. And the cypress trees were so plentiful, Col. Mackenzie, later India’s first Surveyor General, wrote that the palace was “intercepted from the view by clumps of cypress.” So captivated was one Briton, he wrote that the gardens put him in mind of “the gardens we read of in the Arabian Nights”!  Further east of the Daria Daulat bagh was Srirangapatna’s piece de resistance, the magnificent and extensive Lalbagh garden. Within this great garden stood a mosque, a grand palace, and the mausoleum of Hyder Ali, called Gumbaz. Three rows of cypress trees led to the tomb and the gardens all around were “full of fruit trees, flowers and vegetables of every description.” Like the Bangalore gardens, the Lalbagh at Srirangapatna also probably served as a nursery for the kingdom. Here were cultivated the usual fruit trees such as apples and pears, and also guavas, plantains, betel nuts and coconuts. You could also find here sandalwood, sugarcane, indigo, cotton, mulberry and even cereals and pulses. Visitors to the gardens and tomb in those days write of the air being heavy with the perfume of jasmine, and other sweetly scented flowers.

When they axed the cypresses
This favourite of the Sultan’s gardens was horrifically despoiled by war. Major Dirom, a British officer, describes the “unavoidable” devastation they wrought on the garden during the Third Mysore War in 1792. The lofty cypress trees were axed to provide firewood for the British troops. Fruit trees were stripped of branches. Some cypresses were cut down to use as battering rams and to erect temporary batteries. The splendid Lalbagh was reduced to “a melancholy spectacle.”

After the war, Tipu reinvested time and resources into his beloved garden so that by 1799 they had recovered somewhat from the earlier desecration.

Today, the palace has long gone but the Gumbaz and mosque still survive, maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The ASI also maintains the gardens around the Gumbaz which still have the soothing quality of vast green spaces, yet are mere shadows of the verdant vision of paradise they once were.

Another famous garden created by Tipu was at Malavalli, near Mysore, a place famous for its fruit trees since at least the 1600s. Tipu received the town as a jagir from his father, and promptly set up a fruit garden on the banks of the tank there. When physicist and surveyor Francis Buchanan travelled through Malavalli after Tipu’s death, he found 2400 trees here, half of them mango trees, heavy with fruit.
Other fruit trees also thrived there including some “very fine” oranges. This orchard, which has now vanished, had a dedicated staff of a superintendent, ten labourers and curiously enough, also a writer.

He encouraged tree-planting
Apart from setting up gardens, Tipu also enacted laws that encouraged tree-planting. In 1792, for example, he issued a proclamation that commuted fines for minor offences on condition that the offender “shall plant two mango trees and two trees of large jamun in front of his village and water and tend them” till they reached a particular height. There was also a standing order to officials in his administration to plant at least 200 mango and other trees in each village. Trees and gardens seem to have been integral parts of Tipu Sultan’s vision of development.
More than 200 years later, it is a pity that they are missing from our version of progress. 

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