Landscape architecture, garden design, planting design and management - Rowland Byass

Images of the Lost Gardens of Khajuraho


Khajuraho is a village in eastern Madhya Pradesh, a large state covering much of central India. This region, formerly known as Bundelkhand, is remote from the great urban centres of India.

But between 900-1200 AD, it was the cultural and religious capital of the Chandela dynasty. The Chandelas built a number of huge sandstone temples. The temples, in the form of stylised mountains of stone, are covered with thousands of stone sculptures of gods, humans and animals, including highly explicit scenes of sexual congress thought to be related to tantric cult practices which took place at Khajuraho.

The Arab traveller Ibn Battuta visited the site in 1335 AD and described a mile long pond surrounded by temples.

Because of its remoteness, Khajuraho remained untouched by the Muslim invasions of northern India from 1000 AD onwards, when many of India’s greatest temples were sacked or destroyed. But by the 16th century the place had faded into obscurity and nothing was known of the temples to the outside world until their ‘rediscovery’ by Captain TS Burt, a British army engineer, in 1838. Burt visited Khajuraho as the guest of the Maharaja of Chhattarpur. Guided by local people to Khajuraho, he found several dozen temples surrounded by jungle, abandoned (as he thought) for centuries.

Since then, Khajuraho has become a major tourist site and, since 1984, a World Heritage Site (1984). Its temples and their sculptures are some of the finest art and architecture to be found in India.

The Gardens

Khajuraho was a cultural and religious centre, but never an inhabited capital. Despite the romantic myth of Burt ‘rediscovering’ the temples, covered in creepers and surrounded by jungle, they were never really ‘lost’ to the people of the region, and probably remained in use even after the decline of the Chandela dynasty who built them.

The continuing use of the temple complex at Khajuraho can be deduced from the foundation of Rajnagar (= abode of the king), a few kilometers from Khajuraho, around 1725, by the Chattarpur kingdom. Rajnagar formed the district administrative centre of the Khajuraho region, where the Maharajas made a collection of walled gardens. They used these gardens as encampments where they and their retinue stayed during their visits to the region of Khajuraho, in their role as patrons of the temples there.

Today 13 gardens exist in varying states of preservation, but there were originally up to 20. It is thought that each garden was laid out on the occasion of the birth of an heir-apparent prince of the royal family. During his life, the garden would be the personal property of the prince (and subsequent king) and his immediate family, although one of the gardens, Rani Bagh (= ‘Queen’s garden’), was apparently the property of a queen

Unlike the western garden tradition, in which a garden is always associated with a house, and in which the growing of food is separate from the pleasure ground, these gardens exist as walled landscapes on their own. They were used to grow crops of vegetables and fruit, as well as the flowers used in the rituals of the temples at Khajuraho.

At the same time they were also retreats and pleasure ground for the members of the royal house of Chhattarpur. Each garden has a kothi or storehouse, with a roof terrace on which to sit, survey the garden and catch cooling breezes. Each also has one or more wells, without which a garden could not exist in this semi-arid region. Some of these are elaborate stepwells, with sometimes a subterranean cool room next to the well in which to escape the heat of summer. From the well, a network of raised lime mortar channels distribute the irrigation water to the beds of the garden.

The most prominent building in each garden is a temple on a plinth, usually square and surmounted by a dome or shikara (spire). Even today, offerings of flowers and fruit from the garden are presented to the deity in the temple every morning.

The built features of each garden – kothi, well, temple, channels and walls – are highly decorated with modeling and sculptures in lime render. The evident delight in which their creators took in making these otherwise utilitarian structures, suggests a vision of the wholeness of life in which there is no separation between the beautiful and the useful, the sacred and the profane. This extends to the end of life: every garden also contains one or more samadhis, raised platforms on which the owner of the garden and his immediate family would be cremated after their death. The final purpose of each of the gardens for its owner as a funeral site, places the sites in a direct connection to the Islamic tradition of Mughal tomb gardens, like the famous Taj Mahal, set in a riverside garden at Agra.

Why 'Lost' Gardens?
No written record of the Gardens exists before 1998, when a report on Khajuraho produced by the Indian heritage NGO INTACH identified six walled gardens in and around Rajnagar. A few years later, Geert Robberechts visited Khajuraho as a tourist and explored some of the gardens. By this time the Maharajas of Chhattarpur had ceased to use the gardens for their original purpose. After Independence in 1948, some were given to villagers. Others remained in the ownership of the royal family but were cultivated as fields with the buildings left to decay.

The Lost Gardens Project

In 2004 the Lost Gardens of Khajuraho was inaugurated. The aims of the project are
•    To promote organic agriculture and soil conservation in the region.
•    To restore the Gardens to their former glory.
•    To put the Gardens on the map as examples of sustainable tourism.
•    To generate local employment.

To date two gardens have been partially restored: Pateriya ka Bagh & Rani Bagh. Buildings and structures have been restored using traditional techniques. With the advice of Indian and European organic agriculturalists, a process of conserving and restoring the soil of the gardens, denuded by agrochemicals, has begun.

Restoration of the gardens is a long term enterprise, working in partnership with their current owners, demonstrating to them the environmental and economic benefits of restoring them as mixed small-scale productive units, rather than the chemical-based monocultures of wheat use to which most have been converted over the years.

An important role of the gardens is to act as models and training centres for organic agriculture and soil conservation. This is a largely poor agricultural region with a thin layer of topsoil only 2 feet deep over solid rock in places.

Since 2012, Pateriya ka Bagh has hosted a community seed bank. Local varieties of vegetables and pulses are gathered and distributed amongst local farmers for planting. At present a network of about fifty farmers is involved in this project. Over the coming two or three years this network will be extended to 100 farmers.

The other role of the gardens, still being developed, is as a source of income for local communities through sustainable tourism. Although thousands of mainly foreign tourists visit Khajuraho each year, most do not leave Khajuraho and so the economic benefits of tourism are not widely spread. As locations for tours, picnics and other cultural events the gardens can act both as a source of income for local people - but also as places where tourists and locals can encounter one another on a more equitable footing than is usual in tourist sites in India.

The Lost Gardens of Khajuraho project is locally supervised by INTACH and Navdanya.




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