Despite its urban sprawl, Delhi continues to nurse countless gardens in between all the glass and concrete that has taken over the city’s skyline.

Now historian Swapna Liddle and novelist Madhulika Liddle have listed the different gardens of Delhi and made the precious green spaces bloom in a lush book that is enriched with photographs by Prabhas Roy.

The authors write that Delhi’s Nehru Park is a sight to behold during the monsoons. The season adorns the park with the vivid pink flowers of the Mexican silk cotton. There are yellow blooms everywhere and lovely reddish pink flowers. The number of gardens in Delhi are many but the authors have restricted their list to gardens that have an interesting story to tell.

When India became independent in 1947, many new urban areas were developed. In the south-west part of New Delhi, a diplomatic enclave was created to house the many embassies that the capital of the newly independent nation was now home to.

The diplomatic enclave was given wide avenues, green areas and was called Chanakyapuri. Adjoining the diplomatic enclave on its east was a rocky space which included stone quarries. A park was planned here and the foundation stone was laid by Prime Minister (PM) Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1965. It is Shastri who named it Nehru Park in memory of the first PM.

Actually, Delhi’s climate is not conducive to lush vegetation. The annual rainfall is low and concentrated in the monsoon months.

The natural vegetation of Delhi is described as semi desert. Historical visuals show an arid landscape that is dry, rocky with a little scrubby vegetation and vast treeless vistas. The sparse natural vegetation and the hot and dry climate prompted those who lived in the Delhi region to cultivate trees and other vegetation to provide relief from natural conditions.

The Harappans are perhaps the very first humans to take up agriculture in the area around two thousand years before the birth of Christ. They are likely to have planted trees for shade around their homes carefully tending and watering them as they did their crops.

The Mahabharata mentions the Pandavas who constructed a city that was surrounded by gardens giving names of several tress that were planted here. Gardens had served a very practical purpose. Green spaces were needed to provide shade to people against the sun that was for most parts of the year too strong.

The remains of the terraced garden found in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar dates back to the 14th century. The Mughal rulers had surrounded their palaces and tombs with gardens. The garden around Humayaun’s tomb and Safdarjung’s tomb were grand and give a good idea of the kind of vegetation that was planted. The Mughal gardens were home to many fruit trees such as mango, orange, lemon and fig. The ornamental plantations included the harsinghar and cypress along with an array of flowering plants like roses, red or pink oleander, hibiscus and jasmine.

In the second half of the 19th century the British reworked the Mughal gardens. They cut down vegetation and preferred to enjoy the sprawling expanse of lawn that had dominated the gardens instead of trees.

In the early 20th century, the British planned New Delhi with the Viceroy’s residence as the centerpiece of the capital city. A generous proportion of greenery was incorporated into the planning. Called the Rashtrapati Bhawan after independence, there is an interesting history attached to the naming of its garden.

The Indian leader Sarojini Naidu had suggested that the garden should be named the garden of unity but the suggestion was not accepted. It was simply called the Viceroy’s Garden and popularly known as the Mughal garden because of the design of its largest section. In early 2023 the garden was renamed Amrit Udyan.

The calamondin, a cross between a mandarin and a kumquat is one of the most beautiful ornamental trees of the Rashtrapati Bhavan Garden and is referred to also as the China orange.

The Buddha Jayanti Park was inaugurated in 1956 believed to be the 2500thanniversary of the Buddha’s death. The large and impressive tree surrounded by a sandstone railing and gateway in the style of a Buddha stupa at Sanchi is a branch of the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha had achieved enlightenment. It is now 60 years old.

In 1964 PM Shastri had planted the sapling gifted by the then PM of Sri Lanka Sirimavo Bandaranaike. In 1993 an eight feet tall statue of the Buddha was installed in the park. The memorial was a gift of the Tibetan people to the people of India in gratitude for the hospitality in offering refuge to those fleeing Tibet after the takeover of their land by China.

At 90 acres, the Lodhi Gardens is one of the best gardens in Delhi with nearly 130 tree species and a little over a hundred species of shrubs.

The Hayat Baksh, the life-giving garden laid out in the Red Fort was constructed in the 17th century. The other gardens in the Red Fort include the Mahtab Bagh or moonlight garden.

A historian of that time Chandar Bhan Brahmin is quoted by the authors to say that every house was like a sublime heaven and every building had a paradisiacal garden.

The wealthy in the city had believed that the ideal house should contain or be set in a large and beautiful flower garden. At the Roshanara Bagh the most unusual species is the bistendu and lots of desi khajoor trees.

The Shalimar Bagh was the loveliest garden in the 17th century. The most picturesque part of the garden was the large tank once full of lotuses and surrounded by mango trees.

The Shalimar Bagh is unique because of its arboreal character with thickly planted trees, the plantations so close that the trees formed a dense canopy. Most of these trees were fruit bearing ones. The core idea was that the fruit would be harvested and sold to provide funds to finance the maintenance and upkeep of the garden and whatever structures might be located inside it. The vast area of the Shalimar is still covered mostly with trees like in the past.

The ber trees are the signature trees of Shalimar Bagh; their abundance and distinctive age make this large group of trees really stand out among the garden trees of Delhi.

The Mehrauli archaeological park is known more for the historical buildings that dot this area but botanically speaking it is a most interesting space. It is a very significant archeological site and a precious green area. The oldest remains to be found here are a part of the enclosing wall of Delhi’s first fortified city of Lal Kot. This fortification was constructed by Anant Pal II, a ruler of the Rajput Tomar dynasty in the mid 11th century.

Once Mehrauli was a welcome get away from the city of Chandini Chowk.

The presence of hill streams and a large man-made water body called the Shamsi Talab had enabled orchards to be planted here creating a pleasant micro climate. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries many of the well-off from the city of Shahjahanabad had second homes and lay out gardens in Mehrauli. The entire park today bears the character of a landscaped garden. One of the earliest corners is the Jharna or waterfall in an enclosed formal garden originally laid out in the 18th century. The cascade of water that had gushed down from the nearby reservoir made it into a waterfall.

The Talkatora Garden gets its name of cup lake from a lake in the hills that is shaped like a cup with steep edges. This garden is also the site of the famous phool walon ki sair, a festival of communal harmony that began during the reign of Akbar II in the 19th century. The process would start from this garden and continue to the dargah of the sufi Qutubuddin Bhakhtiyar Kaki and the temple of Jog Maya where offerings of a flower coverlet and fans would be made. The annual festival continues to this day.

The garden is still there but there is no water in it. In 2016 cherry plantations from Japan were planted here. The plant is called sakura in Japan and is a symbol of peace. The other attraction at the park is the cactus house and there are some other specimens of trees not often seen in Delhi such as the kauri pine and the cliff date palm.

The Sunder Nursery was established in 1949 and is a showcase for several exotic species. It is also a space where trees and plants indigenous to India are found. The Sundar Nursery boasts of some 300 species of trees and in its early years it had home delivered fruits, vegetables and flowers.

The book is a guide to the many green spaces still left in Delhi but also a handbook of how to keep the city green.

Gardens of Delhi by Swapna Liddle and Madhulika Liddle. Photographs by Prabhas Roy.

Published by Niyogi Books 2024.