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

What does sustainable development look like? (II)


(Above) Orchha Fort from the roof of the Chhaturbhuj temple.

Implicit in the idea of sustainable development are the concepts of needs and limitations. That is, the material needs of humans to live – most urgently, those of the poorest – and the limitations of the environment’s ability to meet those needs – now and in the future.

But what about culturally sustainable development? By this, I mean people's relationship with place. Place is relational, historical and concerned with identity. It is made manifest in cultural heritage - the constructions, nature and entire landscapes shaped by human use over time. Places shape, and are shaped by identity, personal experiences and cultural traditions.

I’ve been to Orchha a few times in the last couple of years. On one side of the river Betwa is a huge old fort, the former capital of the Bundela kings. In the village are some big old temples and a bazaar catering to both tourists and pilgrims. I have whiled away pleasurable hours playing chess outside an curio shop with its owner, Jitendra. Over games of chess which he would invariably win, we’d have protracted but always enjoyable haggling over tribal metalwork, old door handles and the like.

When I revisited last week, partly to have a look through his shop again, the main street had changed.

The state government has demolished a swathe of frontages in the village bazaar sitting outside Orchha fort that were the location of dozens of small shops serving both  tourists and locals. The authorities are ostensibly acting against ‘encroachment’ – residents and businesses building out, little by little, into the public highway. The main street in Orchha, also a through road to neighbouring villages, has become increasingly clogged with tourist and other traffic. But I wonder why the demolition of encroaching frontages has also included parts of buildings clearly a hundred or more years old.

Three days’ work with a JCB has left the centre of the village looking like a war zone. It has also deprived dozens of local people of their livelihood, with no recompense. There are apparently plans to rebuild the shops elsewhere, but three months after the demolition, a site has not yet been chosen.

The state government and Archaeological Survey of India are now mulling over the enforcement of a statute forbidding all development within 100m of scheduled monuments. This would amount to razing the part of the village that clusters around the bridge leading to the fort, itself part of the cultural landscape of Orchha. This would be wrong on so many grounds, it’s hard to know where to begin. Encroachment, reuse of building materials, vandalism – all have taken their toll over the centuries on India’s built heritage. But none have presented such a threat to Orchha’s cultural heritage as much as the heavy hand of the state, acting in the name of urban planning and heritage.

(Above) Exterior of Maharajah's monument, near the Western Group of temples in Khajuraho

This late eighteenth century monument in the village of Khajuraho is not as historically significant as the famous temples which draw visitors from all over the world. In Indian terms, it’s 'only' two hundred or so years old. Although catalogued in the Indian Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage’s 1998 report on Khajuraho, it’s not in any guidebook or on any tour guide’s itinary. In a courtyard around the central monument, it houses a school. On the roof is the Maharajah café. Along the outside, it houses a bank and shops.

Somehow, this monument achieves that quintessentially Indian quality of both authentic continuity with the past, and an ever ingenious adaption to the present. The definition of creative conservation.

During my stay in Khajuraho, Raju who manages the Lost Gardens project, organized a small picnic for me and some other tourists in his guest house, with his family and some of the workers in Rani ka Bagh. This walled garden has been under restoration for three years. The former monoculture of wheat is yielding to a mixed agroforest landscape of fruit trees, vegetables and pulses. The old storehouse and raised channels have been restored with lime mortar.

We shared pakoras, sabzi and rotis cooked over a wood fire and served with raw jaggery. Surveying the garden from the roof of the old kothi, dozing after lunch under the trees, we relived its most delightful purpose – a place to sit on the grass, string a hammock between two trees, cook, eat and chat.

Rani ka Bagh was reanimated as a pleasure garden again - a place both to grow and to enjoy the good things in life.

(Above) Picking chickpea shoots for eating raw in a salad.

It is only through human use that a place comes alive. No amount of audio-guides, tour guides and interpretation boards can breathe life into historic buildings and landscapes like this.

The Lost Gardens of Khajuraho




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