I was drawn to the English translation of Baburnama because it was among the first autobiographies in Islamic literature. But what kept me riveted were Babur’s poetic and practical references to flora. Babur wrote in Turki, and only two copies of it remained when his grandson Akbar inherited one of them. Akbar had it translated into Persian and embellished the pages with beautiful miniatures: many of them depicted flora, while some featured Babur himself, supervising the laying out of gardens in the charbagh style.
What became apparent on reading the autobiography was that in a life filled with violent military conquests, palace intrigues and multiple marriages, the emperor wrote about gardens in Fergana and Kabul with a terrible homesickness. His passages on tulips, melons, pomegranates and grapes are not only vivid but also contemporary. Even whilst he was proceeding on his bloody advancement through the dust and heat of Hindustan, he held onto memories of the gardens he had created as a green haven, a peaceful retreat. Babur expressed a wish to be buried in Kabul’s Bagh-e-Babur, and although he died in Agra, his widow transported his remains to Kabul more than a decade later, a journey imbued with spiritual significance and nostalgia. Not for nothing is the word paradise a synonym for enclosed gardens in Persian.
The human connect with nature has long been viewed as one that is filled with therapeutic benefits. Much like Babur, people over the centuries have enjoyed the calming effects of gardening – its scientifically-proven ability to reduce harmful cortisol (heightened in stress response), beat depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder. In the United States, some prisons have adopted gardening as a correctional activity, mainly because it provides cheap vegetables, and found that inmates who actively engage in it for an appreciable period rarely return to crime upon their release. In 2007, a study discovered a bacteria in garden soil that enhanced serotonin, a happy hormone. It is not surprising then that The Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, published in the United States, is avidly followed by several occupational therapists and psychologists, who use their findings.
Studies show that children from troubled homes have been greatly helped by horticulture therapy. A garden provides a stable environment, where teamwork is rewarded with fresh food on the plate. Children struggling with anger, rejection and a low sense of self-worth are likelier to be healed by what a garden offers – the colours, the life cycle of a flower, fragrance, sunlight and birdsong. They learn to live in the moment and plan for the future. While working in the garden, worries are suspended as one is engrossed in tactile tasks such as turning the soil, staking and weeding. That patience is a virtue is realised by a bounty of vegetables, come harvest, or in bouquets of blossoms derived from a few seeds.
Richard Louv, a gardener and influential author of Last Child in the Woods, said, “In our bones we need the natural curves of hills, the whisper of pines, the possibility of wilderness.” In 2005, he used the expression “nature deficit disorder” to describe how urban children are riveted to screens and as a result, cannot identify a flower or a tree. The possibility of wilderness in our bones is such a powerful metaphor that urban parents should take inspiration from it and involve their kids in at least patio or balcony gardening. Even six potted plants will open doors to the wonder of creation. I recommend easy-to-grow butterfly-friendly plants, such as lantana, passionflower and clematis for dual benefits. The magic of pollination, of petals powered by the buzzing of bees will be a wondrous experience for a small child. Mumbai resident Medha Shringarpure, who has created an impressive rooftop garden, has built a special butterfly and kids’ corner for the children of her building in Mazgaon.
Gardening has nourished my soul. I recently visited the famous Lunaganga Garden near Bentota, designed in the Italianate tradition by the famous Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. The green lawns, with its sculptures, frangipani trees shaped and weighted into inspiring silhouettes, little follies and the silvery river were a welcome respite after Delhi’s heat and pollution.
Gardening entered my life soon after mother passed away relatively early. Missing her terribly, I tried to fill the void by ensuring that the plants I had inherited from her were not neglected. What began as care for a kind of memento mori grew into a full-blown passion. The early hour before breakfast became a sacred one, a kind of meditation, almost a dawn prayer. It is that hour when the sleeping world is barely stirring. Since I have, over the years, created a habitat for small birds, an avian orchestra drowns out the sounds of traffic as school buses begin plying. It is a time when I get down and dirty, running the friable soil through my fingers, feeling both the steadfastness of the giving earth as well the transience of a leaf.
My garden has a parallel calendar and meaning. The fierce heat of May is tempered by the fragrance of my gardenia bush spilling over in scent and a profusion of white flowers. Come June, and my small water lily pond transports me to Monet’s works. In August, my budding kadamba tree reminds me to make malpuas for Janmashatami, for it is a tree under which the Hindu god Krishna teased Radha. I start poring over seed catalogues in September for I aim to have a completely different spring garden every year. I have been doing colour-coded ones for the past few years, sometimes pink and purple with dianthus and cineraria and then as vivid as the American flag with salvia, lobelia and white lilium. It is a time when I exist only in the present, all worries falling away. I am accompanied by my dog, who is invariably dive-bombed by the cheeky bulbuls who nest in my pummelo tree.
Despite facing the loss of a loved one, perhaps because of it, gardening reaffirmed my faith in creation, helping me in many ways to accept the inevitable cycle of life and death.