Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sikandar's Tomb in the Lodi Gardens of New Delhi

The tomb of Sikandar Lodi, the second ruler of the Lodi dynasty who reigned from 1489 to 1517. His elaborate tomb is situated in the Lodi Gardens in New Delhi, in an elaborate enclosure surrounded by high walls and several pavilions.  
Quite befittingly, this "year of travels" ended on the same note with a tour to New Delhi, Agra, Ranthambhore and Jaipur in northern India. From Mowgli and Secret Garden to Midnight's Children, A Fine Balance, Half a Life  and A Suitable Boy, (an imaginary) India has played a role in my favorite readings, and had an irresistible draw on me that screamed to be satisfied at some point. This Christmas season was the perfect time to finally fulfill that yearning. 

Views of the battlements surrounding Sikandar Lodi's tomb. Walkways meander through the large park that includes several tombs and mosques from different historic eras. The chhatris (second picture above) and the interior of the tomb were originally decorated with intricate tiles with green and blue mineral pigments and incised plaster work, some of which still remain.

Back home since two days ago, I'm still amazed by how my expectations were such an exact fit with the actual experience. India was everything I had imagined: poor, dirty, miserable - with desperately needy families lining the busy streets, living in makeshift huts among their own trash. And at the same time, the country is filled with glorious historic buildings, magnificent landscapes, decorative arts and handicrafts painstakingly produced by highly skilled artisans, all which appeared even more heartbreakingly beautiful against the background of poverty and filth.


Wall mosques (second picture above) surround the octagonal tomb in the middle of the enclosure. Four pathways edged with (struggling) roses lead to east, west, south and north and large, old trees stand in the four corners.
Mother India is a strict mother, indeed. History, economical factors, traditions, social patterns - so many reasons I'm neither learned nor experienced enough to analyze why life still needs to be so unimaginably hard for so many in India today. The inequality of income and related lack of possibilities are both screamingly unfair towards those on the lowest steps of the social ladder. Where and to whom one is born rules how one's life unfold to an all too high degree. With over 1.2 billion inhabitants, all reforms must understandably be hard to carry through, but there are no excuses for not trying. Yes, I did enjoy the journey immensely, but as you see, not without apprehension. More coming soon.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Last but not least - Yì Pǔ Yuan, my Suzhou favorite

 Entrance to the Yì Pǔ Yuan, the Garden of cultivation. Climbing roses and hibiscus add softness to the strict, rather heavy architecture.  
Yì Pǔ, or the Garden of Cultivation, was the last of all eight gardens I visited in Suzhou. Unexpectedly, it also became my favorite of them all, despite a slight garden-induced coma and a pair of heavily aching feet. After an early morning visit to the Liu Yuan, I had walked to it over seven kilometers, first having unsuccessfully tried to get a taxi to drive me there, and then been ripped off by a naughty rickshaw driver, who instead of the promised ride to Yì Pǔ pedalled me to a distant "pearl factory" that added at least two kilometers to my walk. But being a Finn, I should have sisu - kind of primeval determination - so I didn't let these small setbacks keep me off from my last treat.

View from the other, inner side of the same gate as above.

One of the inner courts between the buildings, with a small penjing arrangement and a potted lady finger palm. Beautiful paving made of small stones, and all the roof tiles end in a small one decorated with a bat for good luck.
When I finally arrived to the quiet residential area in the middle of which Yì Pǔ is nested, I understood the taxi drivers who had shook their heads on my request. This relatively small garden is located at No.5 Wenya Nong and only accessible by feet, bikes or mopeds through a labyrinth of small alleyways. Several times, I had to stop to ask for directions from the the locals, while trying to navigate the narrow streets with my map. The neighborhood was old, and houses and streets were well-tended, which didn't seem the case in many other areas I had wandered through during my week in Suzhou.
The central pond, as seen from the Ru Yu Ting - Pavilion of New-Born Fish. A moon gate on the other side leads to an inner courtyard and to the rockery "mountain area".
The rockeries on the south bank - in many of the gardens I visited, young couples were getting their engagement or wedding photos taken wearing traditional Chinese costumes.
The Ru Yu Ting - Pavilion of New-Born Fish - is a perfect place for reading and observing the koi fish in the pond. A soft clatter of tea glasses bears from the gazebo on the opposite side of the pond.
Yì Pǔ was originally laid out in 1541 by Ming Royal Academician (according to my Chinese guide) Wen Zhenmeng in the reign of Tianqi under the Ming Dynasty. It is one of the best preserved gardens of this era with many elements still intact, so it is very precious both historically and artistically. Three revered scholars have owned it through the centuries, which adds tremendously to its cultural value for the Chinese visitors.

Another inner courtyard with a small visitor. Small children were accompanied mostly by their grandparents - very few seemed to own prams in the city, most babies and toddlers were carried around instead. 

  From the tearoom, which is housed in the Shui Xie waterside gazebo. Card games and discussions over endless cups of green tea went on for hours here...
Quite small in size - the total area is only 0.38 hectares - so this garden feels very intimate compared to the larger Suzhou gardens, like the Lingering Gardens in my previous post. The central pond is surrounded by corridors that connect the buildings and pavilions, and lead to a large stone rockery representing a mountainous wood area with bamboo forests and several old trees on the southern bank of the pond. Courtyards and skywells planted with bamboo or bananas feel like they are scattered between the corridors and halls, adding their own little, refined still lifes to the whole. Occasional flowers dance in the wind - a pink hibiskus here, a rose there - adding a playful note to the garden, that felt quite relaxing after all strictly green gardens I'd seen during the week (of course, if I had visited in the spring, this would have been different, but still...).

The famous double moon gate leading to the courtyard of Yu'ou Pond - Gull Bathing Pond.

 View from inside the courtyard with Yu'ou Pond - Gull Bathing Pond, the name comes from a game that was popular among "maidens" during the Ming period.
I spent almost four hours in this little garden, first resting my feet in a pavilion on the top of the rockery mountain, listening to soft rattle of bamboo around me. After that, I ordered a local special green tea in the tea house, which came with extra warm water a large pink thermos. Just sitting there, looking over the pond to the garden and listening to all discussions and card parties around me, was one of the most fullfilling moments of my whole trip to Suzhou. If you go, do not miss this garden.

My favorite picture from my favorite Suzhou garden - one of those moments that etch themselves into your memory...

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A misty morning in the Lingering Garden

"The protagonist scene" of the Lingering Garden; the central lotus pond towards the Hanbi Mountain Hall. A perfectly still morning, not even the slightest breeze stir the clear mirror of the water.
On my second last day in Suzhou, I was getting a bit exhausted by the intensity of my visit... Trying to cram all the famous jewels of garden art into one trip takes its toll, however enthusiastic garden lover one might be. Still, determinate and with slightly aching feet, I refused to give up and set off to Liú Yuán, the Lingering Garden, on the early morning hour when a soft mist was still hanging in the air. Being one of the four most famous gardens in China, the crowds soon arrived, but just for a moment, I could get a beautiful glimpse of what a peaceful, elaborate garden this was before it had to endure the trampling feet of countless visiting groups. (post continues below after pictures...)
Another view of the Hanbi Mountain Hall; a wisteria-covered stone walkway on the right leads to the other side of the pond.
Luyin Gallery, the Gallery of the Green Shade on the left. It was named by an ancient maple that used to cover it with dense shade. To the right, Ming Se Lou, Brilliant and Refreshing Tower.
Simple stone bridges leading over tiny ravines connect the different parts of the "wilderness".
View from the ''mountain wilderness", north from the buildings shown above. Elaborate rockeries with winding paths and greenery fill this area, reminding of the mountainous landscapes of China.

The Lingering Garden is located outside the huge Changmen Gate to the old city of Suzhou, and with its 2.3 hectares, one of the largest classical gardens in the city. It was originally built in the 21st year of the reign of Wanli of Ming Dynasty, with translates into year 1539 on the western calendar. The name, Liú Yuán, is later, given after Liu Su, a 18th century owner of the garden, but as often the case with Chinese names, the homophonous word also can read as meaning leisure.
An astonishing 700 meters of winding, covered walkways lead through the Lingering Garden.
 The Study of Enlightenment, with mounds of soft bamboo planted above rock arrangements.
The Lingering Garden is extremely rich in its design, which is divided into four main parts. The middle part of the garden features a verdant hill and a pond, enclosed in several elegant halls. The eastern part contains many smaller buildings and famous rocks from Lake Taihu. The northern part has a fruit forest and a bamboo forest, with pavilions sprinkled out into the landscape. The western part is built as a 'natural wilderness' on woody hill, reminding of the mountainous landscapes of China. It is often said that the Lingering Garden displays all wonders in Chinese garden construction techniques, and represents the gathered wisdom of the ancient architects and artisans. (post continues after pictures...)

 A magnificent, undulating wall separates the woods in the western part of the garden from the pond and rockeries in the middle area. Arrestingly beautiful.
This garden fell into severe disrepair a century ago in 1911, when an owner who had inherited it didn't have neither interest nor resources for its upkeep. It was only in mid-20th century that it was restored by resources allocated by the People's Republic of China. It opened to the public in 1954.
A moment of rest and contemplation - at 7:30 in the morning, a gentleman took out his flutes and started playing in one of the pavilions. A garden path sweeper immediately dropped his broom, and took a short break from his monotonous work to to enjoy the music. 

The same pavilion as above (with the sound of flute still filling the air) seen from the penjing garden below.

Penjings, both small and large, fill the northern part of the garden, forming their own miniature sceneries within the scenery.

 Another, larger "miniature mountainscape" by the walkway leading to the penjing garden...
Just like the Humble Administrator's Garden, the Lingering Garden is one of the four most famous gardens in China, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, and one of the Cultural Relics of National Importance under the Protection of the State as well as a Special Tourist Attraction (grade AAAAA) of China. The fame leaves its marks, and to be able to enjoy the garden in peace is a rare treat. Still, this is an extraordinary garden to see, and an excellent reminder of the highly sophisticated achievements of the ancient Chinese culture.
A couple of rocks, an old vine and a calligraphy forming the focal point of a corridor leading out from the garden. So simple, so visually effective.

By the entrance of the garden - luckily, I was already on the way out from the Lingering Garden when the huge groups arrived. As I wrote earlier, try to time you visit so that it doesn't clash with the major Chinese holidays... everything will be so much easier and calmer.