Great Gardens

A Trip through the Fantastical Gardens of Northern India with Renny Reynolds

Great Gardens

A Trip through the Fantastical Gardens of Northern India with Renny Reynolds

The noted landscape architect, event planner and author leads us on an exploration of the region’s horticultural wonders.

Roses bloom in the Mughal Gardens at Rashtrapati Bhawan, the Presidential Palace. The 15-acre expanse, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, is only open to the public for a month each year. Photo by Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images

For Renny Reynolds, India’s primary allure lies in its nature — and, of course, in its architecture. The government’s botanical survey notes that the country has over 47,000 diverse species of plants, and Indians celebrate nature in gardens and in decorative motifs found on walls, floors, ceilings, vases, textiles and carpets, leaving few surfaces untouched. The lotus, a symbol of purity, is the country’s national flower.

According to Renny, a noted landscape architect, event designer and author, one of the best places to experience the luxury and genius of Indian garden design is the royal Mughal Gardens of Rajasthan. Earlier this year, he led a group of a dozen-plus friends, garden lovers and design aficionados on a 14-day journey through northern India — including stops in New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur and Jodhpur — to see these landscapes. I was among the travelers. With Renny leading the way alongside Karni Singh (a tour guide based in Jaipur who has a master’s degree in the history of India), we were able to see not only Mughal palaces, gardens and tombs, some dating back to the 17th century, but also Hindu and Jain temples and gardens and a mosque.

Each place was chosen for its history and the beauty of its architectural features, which ranged from voluptuous domes to intricately carved jali screens to gleaming marble inlaid with colored stones, some of them semiprecious. We also visited markets filled with shawls woven of cashmere, silk and silver thread and came to appreciate the goings-on of northern Indian life — like camels and elephants pulling carts of goods on village roads and a cow stranded in the middle of a four-lane highway.

In the gardens, especially, we witnessed the local talent for celebrating nature, seeing floral carpets of fresh marigold petals on a stone walkway, fountains in the shapes of lotus flowers and elephants. We came to understand how Indians can create extravagant, abundant arrangements that make even ordinary flowers, like marigolds and petunias, extraordinary. In a fountain, plain pipes are hidden in casings that resemble lotus buds. The bottom of a water channel is decorated with carved fish, so that when the water runs, it appears as if the school were swimming upstream.

Renny made his debut visit to northern India in 2015, and he was so enthralled he came back to lead our group on a merry exploration of this “paradise on earth.” That’s the name the Persians — who had a cultural influence on India beginning in the 15th century through trade on the Silk Road — gave to their Charbagh, gardens divided into geometric plots, often quadrilateral. The Charbagh design was adapted and improvised upon by the Mughals on a grand scale. The axes that divided the garden into four quadrants were symbolic of the four Koranic rivers of paradise: water, milk, honey and wine. The gardens melded diverse elements: Turkic and Persian geometric patterns, like stars, hexagons and octagons; Indian motifs, like lotus blossoms and neem trees; and Central Asian favorites, like fruit trees and moving water in fountains, channels and chutes, in lieu of rushing rivers. In the arid landscape of Rajasthan, the gardens were fragrant, lush, colorful and cooling.

At the Red Fort at Agra, in Uttar Pradesh, curved pieces of sandstone divide the garden plots, creating an herbal carpet on the stone floor. Photo by Hermes Images/AGF/UIG via Getty Images

 

I first met Renny in the 1980s, when I was a New York–based freelance design writer. Later, when I became a staff member of the New York Times and wrote for the Home and Dining sections, I collaborated with him on his book The Art of the Party. Renny is a landscape architect who has also designed large-scale events for clients including presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton) and Studio 54. In 1978, he designed what many people then considered the party of the year, for the launch of Yves Saint Laurent’s new perfume Opium. Renny rented a tall boat, the Peking, at the South Street Seaport, in New York City, and decorated it with thousands of orchids, a thousand-pound bronze Buddha and banners of red, gold and purple. Among the guests were YSL himself, of course, plus Diana Vreeland, Bill Blass, Truman Capote, Halston and Cher.

For the past 15 years, Renny has been making gardens almost exclusively, in locations like New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Florida. His first garden was for Blass’s Manhattan penthouse terrace. Renny and noted garden writer Jack Staub live half the year at the historic Hortulus Farm, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he has shaped 100 acres into 24 gardens, each different but many based on traditional English gardens. The other half they spend in Manalapan, Florida, just down the coast from Palm Beach. About parties, Renny has said, “They should have a sense of largesse and drama and offer infinite possibilities of having fun.” He looks at gardens the same way.

During our Indian trip, Renny focused on details, some large, others small, that he found not only delightful but translatable to gardens back home. He and I kept a journal together and here share a few excerpts (accompanied by related items available on 1stdibs).


NEW DELHI

At the Presidential Palace, clockwise from top left: The palace itself; carved fish at the bottom of a water channel; a lotus-leaf-shaped fountain; a China orange tree. All collage photos by Renny Reynolds, unless otherwise noted

Sunday, February 18, 5 p.m.

We arrive from the airport at the Taj Diplomatic Enclave hotel, where a member of the staff greets us at the entrance, bows, nods, clasps both hands, murmurs, “Namaste,” and gently places a garland of fresh plump marigolds — bright yellow, deep orange and crimson — around our necks. Silken petals flutter on our skin, and to further waken our sleepy senses, there is the subtle, seductive scent of jasmine incense in the lobby and throughout the hotel.

Tuesday, February 20, 11 a.m.

Sir Edwin Lutyens, who created the city plan for New Delhi, also designed its Presidential Palace and its Mughal Gardens, which were completed in 1929 on a 330-acre estate. Hundreds of schoolchildren were visiting the day we were, dressed in immaculate school uniforms and standing in line, reasonably well behaved.

“The garden was what the English thought would appeal to the Indian powers-that-be,” Renny says. “The flower colors are extremely vibrant and, to be honest, garish in some places — bright orange next to bright red next to bright purple. The Brits were aware that the people of India loved orange and yellow, so they planted lots of marigolds and dahlias. But the success of the gardens is the monumentality.”

Renny designs gardens with focal points. In the palace’s Rectangular Garden, the focal points were the fountains with petal-shaped bases, inspired by the Victoria regia lily. Spanning the water channels and suggesting the shape of the lotus, they shoot 12 feet into the air, offering both drama and a refreshing sprinkle on a 90-degree day

“Look at the charming fish carved into the water chute,” Renny says. “The Indians use ornament with exuberance in often-forgotten places, like floors and the bottoms of water channels and swimming pools.”

What the Presidential Palace calls a China orange tree Renny calls the calamondin, a cross between a mandarin orange and a kumquat tree. “A lot of designers in Florida use this,” Renny says. “It’s always either in bloom or in fruit and is incredibly ornamental and fragrant. And the fruit is delicious.” At the Mughal Gardens, it’s extravagantly bountiful.


AGRA

Clockwise from top left: The Taj Mahal; entrance to the Taj Mahal; garden at the Red Fort; Renny Reynolds. Portrait by Ian Hooper

Wednesday, February 21, 3:50 p.m.

Khas Mahal (1630–38), a white marble palace known as the Private Palace, was built by Shah Jahan, who is famous for his creation of the nearby Taj Mahal, a memorial to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The palace garden, known as Anguri Bagh, is a Charbagh. While in other gardens, the division is done by water channels, here the four constituent parts are separated by walkways. The design, although low and flat, is made ornamental and curvilinear with curved pieces of sandstone dividing the plots. “This is much more interesting than herbs on stakes,” Renny says. It’s an herbal carpet on a marble floor. The possibilities of creating garden patterns around common herbs — like parsley, basil and cilantro — are endless.

Wednesday, February 21, 5:00 p.m.

The white marble Taj Mahal appears to float, luminous, above and beyond the Charbagh, which is in front of it. The closer one gets to the mausoleum, the more beautiful it becomes. It is embellished with pietra dura: colored stones inlaid in marble. Koranic verses are inscribed in black stone, the script relating easily with the fluid arabesques nearby. The rigid geometry of the Charbagh contrasts brilliantly with the curvy, voluptuous design of the monument.


JAIPUR

Clockwise from top left: Workers sprinkle marigolds on the Samode Palace hotel’s steps, which are bordered by pots of dahlias; Samode Garden, a few miles from the hotel, is also decorated for a wedding, with marigolds lining a walkway; in the garden, garlands of marigolds hang like a screen, cover a bicycle and dangle from a kiosk; a front view of Samode Palace.
The Rambagh Palace, which boasts this verdant courtyard, is now a luxury hotel. Photo courtesy of Taj PR

Thursday, February 22, 5 p.m.

We arrive at our hotel, the Rambagh Palace, built in 1835 as a home for the then maharani of Jaipur’s favorite handmaiden, Kesar Badaran. In 1925, it was expanded and renovated as a palace for the maharaja and his maharani, Gayatri Devi. As we climb the stairs to the entrance to the lobby, the staff places garlands of jasmine around our necks, and the scent envelops us.

Friday, February 23, 12 p.m.

Samode Palace, 26 miles north of Jaipur, was built as a fort in the 16th century. In the early 19th century, it was converted into a palace. Now, it is a hotel. At noon, it was being readied for a wedding, and workers were arranging red, yellow and orange marigolds in different geometric patterns on its steps. “Marigolds are often looked down on by sophisticated Americans,” Renny says, “but I love the way the Indian florists use them in an architecturally decorative way, creating borders along steps and walkways or having masses of garlands hanging from trees or as curtains on a pavilion. In India, the marigold is called the ‘herb of the sun’ and can symbolize passion and creativity.”

Pots of red dahlias line the steps leading to the palace. To the right of the dahlias, there are scatterings of orange marigolds bordered by garlands of yellow marigolds, more of which run down the stairs, and orange marigold petals fill the area of the steps between the railing and the dahlias. A rhombus pattern of yellow and orange marigold petals, outlined by garlands of yellow marigolds, frames the walkway leading to the steps. “The floral borders created by Indian florists, mainly from marigolds, represent the same type of design found on the walls and ceilings of Indian palaces,” Renny says. “These borders are cheerful decoration that leads guests from one area of the celebration to another and has the same purpose as the painted decoration of palaces — which is to remind the guests of the wealth of the hosts. The florists also create massive numbers of garlands that hang from garden tents. Marigolds are used both because of their bright colors, which relieve the dusty landscape, and because the marigold flower is capable of being cut and lasting out of water for a long time.”

Samode Bagh, or Samode Garden, located a few miles from Samode Palace, was designed in the 19th century as the royal family’s private garden. More marigolds — as whole pompoms; in garlands; as loose, fluttery petals — are wedding decorations at the garden, too. Long garlands screen tents and wrap around bicycles, while floral patterns made of loose petals carpet stone walkways.


UDAIPUR & JODHPUR

Clockwise, from top left: Jag Mandir, a 16th-century palace located on an island, is where Prince Khurram, as the builder of the Taj Mahal was known before he became Shah Jahan, once stayed as a political refugee; Saheliyon Ki Bari Garden, also called Garden of the Maidens, is a Hindu landscape in Udaipur; a detail from the delicate, lively painting on a ceiling at the City Palace in Udaipur shows how each lotus blossom, leaf and tendril is minutely rendered; a fountain at the Garden of the Maidens; bougainvillea tumbles over a wall at the Garden of the Maidens.

Sunday, February 25, 5:45 p.m.

Jag Mandir is a 16th-century palace perched on an island in Lake Pichola. Seen from a boat, which is the only way to access the palace, it appears like something of a mirage, its white domes and life-size statues of elephants rising from the water. Gul Mahal, the white marble pavilion that is its oldest and largest part, is supposedly where Prince Khurram — the name of the builder of the Taj Mahal before he became Shah Jahan — stayed from 1623 to 1624 as a political refugee. He had rebelled against his father, and the rebellion was thwarted. The complex now houses a hotel, restaurant, bar and museum.

A white fountain stands in front of the pavilion. “The lacy metal pots containing the plants appear to echo the delicate carving on the Gul Mahal,” Renny says. “I like the contrast of the black gazebo against the white Gul Mahal. The gazebo becomes a focal point, and with the curtains drawn, it becomes a discreet meeting place for two.”

A marble elephant stands in the Saheliyon Ki Bari garden, in Udaipur. Photo by Dinodia Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

Monday, February 26

The Garden of the Maidens, a Hindu landscape, was built from 1710 to 1734 by Maharana Sangram Singh for a princess who came to him, as a future queen, accompanied by 48 women attendants. It is formal and symmetrical, but it does not have the strict geometry of a Mughal garden. A Hindu garden has sculptures depicting animals and gods, while a Mughal garden has images of plants but not figures, whose depiction Islam forbids. The entrance is a black gate set within white walls. To mark the entryway, pots of petunias, a humble flower, are massed on a tiered plant stand, so that the blossoms, sometimes used in American gardens as a simple border, are front and center — abundant, extravagant and anything but banal. In India, less is not always more. More is often better, especially when it comes to floral design. Pots of flowers also line the steps leading to the garden.

Renny is a big fan of fountains, for their beauty and sound and their cooling and playful properties. He places them at the tops of garden paths, in swimming pools and hidden corners. He likes the way the water sprays out from beneath the top of the dome of one we encounter here. “This fantasy pavilion set in the middle of a pool with no visible means of access is in itself a delight, but it then, suddenly, turns into a fountain with water cascading from its roof,” Renny says. As he studies another fountain, with carved elephants spraying water from their trunks, he says, “One can easily understand how maidens of centuries past could while away hot summer days in gossip enjoying this paradise.”

 

Colorful bougainvillea bushes grace the gardens at the Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel. Photo by Imagebroker / Alamy Stock Photo

Thursday, March 1, 8 a.m.

We arrive at the Umaid Bhawan Palace, an enormous building that is said to have more than 350 rooms, with an entire wing in which the local royal family, occasionally glimpsed by guests, lives to this day. The palace is an extravagant, over-the-top hotel with a soaring domed lobby.

Suddenly, horns toot. Drums roll. We looked over our shoulders, expecting to see behind us the arrival of a royal or, perhaps, Prime Minister Modi or maybe even Canada’s Justin Trudeau, who is in India this week, too. No. The fuss is for us, ordinary, hapless American tourists. We cannot stop laughing.

In 1929, there was a famine, so Maharaja Umaid Singh created building projects to give work to the local population. One of the projects was this palace. It is a massive Indo-Colonial pink sandstone structure whose dome, which caps the lobby, measures more than 100 feet in width. Intimate, the hotel is not.

At breakfast on the hotel terrace, musicians play quietly, and a peacock, of which there are many on the grounds, wanders about in search of a winsome peahen.

It’s the season of bougainvillea. Here, the plants are shaped in what Renny calls “gumdrops” and massed together in reds, oranges, purples and magentas. Excess rules, along with drama and largesse. “This might not be the way we would do it in our own gardens,” Renny says, “but the great thrill for anyone visiting India, in particular for a visually oriented person, is reveling in the colors, from the roadside fruit and vegetable stands to the saris on Indian women to the decoration on the floors, walls and ceilings of the palaces — inside and out — and the use of color in the gardens and celebrations.

“This use of color is truly an antidote to the heat and dust,” he continues. “It’s joie de couleur.”

 

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