We visited Lodhi Gardens in Delhi last Wednesday — which brought several history lessons. The gardens are beautiful: green, very well maintained, filled with sight lines so picturesque and romantic that it is a kind of urban lover’s lane. In every private corner a couple ever so chastely necks, building a private memory album of special moments in this beautiful spot. The gardens weave around 15th century tombs that give it it’s name: members of the Lodhi dynasty that ruled Delhi at that time are preserved in the park. But what exactly do those ruins tell us?
The tombs are domes built out of blocks of what looks like sandstone — camel and beach sand colors alternating with mocha blocks whose earth tones are not quite the terra cotta of Italian tiles. The tan colors of the stones seem to fit perfectly in Delhi the material almost growing out of the land. And yet in one there are a few remaining examples of the lapis lazuli blue tiles that once covered the dome. Indeed it is still called the dome of glass even though it is the dome of sandstone. What we see is not the 15th century tomb but it’s bones, as washed by time as the carcass of a dinosaur. So what we come to admire is not the past but a relic. The wealth of modern India has allowed it to stop time, to preserve this shipwreck washed up from the past. But what we preserve is not what it was but what remained when we had the will to fight nature and decay.
I wish that sites like this handed out iPad glasses where you could put them on and see what it once was (as a book did with overlays some years ago). I wish we could toggle from then to now, to fully see the tomb as it was, and to preserve it as it is. For now the couples come not merely because the park is pretty and private but, I suspect, with some sense of pride. This park is clean, nice, beautiful and historic, it says something about India now that it honors that past, indeed has that past to honor, and can offer such a nice space in it’s capital city
Lesson two takes us back to my theme in coming here. The tombs are old, but the garden began in the 30’s under the Brits and was shaped by Joseph Stein, an American Jewish architect who found a home in India during the McCarthy era. And if you think of the Lodhi princes, these Muslim kings ruled precisely when Columbus was crossing the Atlantic, searching for a fast route here. His journey, in turn, brought hot peppers to India. So these marvelous gardens, a treasure of modern India, gardens that honor it’s heritage and it’s past, are also a sign and tribute to global connections. In a sense they are Hindu and Muslim and Jewish, British and Indian, ancient and modern. A lot to see in a fine afternoon walk.