by Tony Clancy
I was inspired by Arati Kumar Rao’s wonderful images in The Garden Underground exhibition to visit the Rao Jodhpur Desert Rock Garden myself on my recent trip to India.
The story of the desert park is that of a garden in reverse. About 90 years ago the then Maharasha of Jodhpur took advice on how to make the apparently sparse rocky landscape around the spectacular Mehrangarh fort, into a lush green oasis by planting the Baavlia tree from Mexico. The plan worked – the tree loved its new home and rapidly took over, but at the cost of displacing the native plants that had co-existed with the wild life there for many thousands of years.
Environmental activists have been working with the current Maharasha since 2006 to eradicate the Baavlia tree within the walled lands of the fort and to re-establish the desert plants that once grew there, replanting some of the species and restoring their place in this unique landscape.
Gardeners have for centuries moved plants around the world to beautify the land, seeing native species as weeds to be eradicated; here the keepers of the space actively remove the exotic imports and encourage natural shrubs. A reminder that we should not always be seduced by spectacle and beauty (in the garden and elsewhere), but that we need urgently to recognize the value of the local, and to allow ancient systems to support a chain of life.
The brilliant diversity of wildlife in the park is proof of this. When I visited my excellent and informed guide Harsh pointed out, among others animals and birds, Indian cuckoos, franklin partridges, red wattled lapwings and Indian vultures. Thorny plants provide shelter for nests and are used by humans for, eg, medicines and incense.
If you are able, do visit Jodhpur and the wonderful Mehrangarh fort with its architectural and artistic treasures, but also make time to visit the desert gardens that surround it.
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