Gardens of the Raj
The landscape and green spaces that the British planted in India are not only aesthetic delights but also an insight into their self-image and that of the sub-continent they ruled, argue Charles and Caroline Carlton.
Oh to be playing on the Grass Courts – at home!', declared an advertisement for Lipton's Yellow Label Tea which ran in English newspapers in India between the world wars. It harped on two very English themes: a good cup of tea, which according to the popular song of the time was 'at half past eleven – my idea of heaven', as well as the importance of the English garden.
More than any other people the English have identified patriotism in terms of their 'green and pleasant land'. As Rudyard Kipling, the poet of the Raj, had observed, 'Our England is a Garden'. The advertisement reminded home-sick expatriates of 'Immemorial lawns – changeless, traditional, ever green in park or college or old vicarage gardens'. It openly linked tea, the national drink, to gardening, the national pastime, and to England, the national home. 'For Lipton's are tea growers themselves – they understand tea as an English Gardener understands lawns'.
The advertisement reveals the significance of the garden as a cultural icon of British India in several ways. It stresses the magnitude of home- sickness. If the buildings in the background look Indian – or perhaps Italianate – there is no doubt about the Britishness of the butler. There are no armies of Indian servants – importuning ayahs, deferential bearers – hovering in the background. The hordes of Indian gardeners (known as malis) are for once absent. The butler is as familiar as the other guests – a couple of bright young things, a memsahib, the cravatted colonel, a vicar, all of whom could have just stepped out of Rupert Brooke's Grantchester, or an Agatha Christie novel.