Peter Sergel & Geoff Doube
First-time visitors to Hamilton Gardens who arrive expecting a collection of plants in a traditional botanic garden will be in for a surprise. Rather than simply focussing on plant collections, at Hamilton Gardens the emphasis is on the gardens themselves. While botanic gardens concentrate on plant taxonomy and classification, Hamilton Gardens concentrates on the cultural meanings and contexts that gardens have historically had.
Throughout history, gardens have been a way of expressing the important philosophical ideas of their time, and in many respects the story of gardens corresponds with the story of human thought. There is more to be learnt from gardens than plant names. They can also increase our understanding of the beliefs and values of the people who made them.
Hamilton Gardens tells the story of gardens by recreating some of the most historically important garden styles from a wide variety of times and places. The aim of this short article, the first of several, is to explain a little bit about each style of garden and to place each of them in their historical context.
Te Parapara Garden
While some modified landscapes were valued solely as spiritual sites, it was more common to combine the spiritual aspects of a garden with more practical purposes, for example, that of food production. An outstanding example of this could be found in pre-European times along the banks of the Waikato River, which were important sites of Tainui Māori settlement. The fertile sandy soil ideal suited the cultivation of traditional crops, the most important of which was kumara (Ipomoea batatas).
Te Parapara (Figure 1) represents these earliest of Waikato gardeners and it takes its name from the pa that occupied part of the site of Hamilton Gardens. The two sections of Te Parapara are separated by a carved waharoa (gate). The carvings on the waharoa are based on designs from a house called Te Urutomokia that was built for Potatau Te Wherowhero, who became the first Māori King in 1858.
Before the new Māori arrivals in Aotearoa were able to develop largescale horticulture, they were nourished by the foods they found growing wild in the bush. The section between the Piazza and the waharoa is the realm belonging to Haumia Tike-tike, the deity of uncultivated plant food. This section, called Te Ara Whakatauki (the path of proverbs), features many of the wild plants that were sources of food for traditional Māori society, for example, the Aruhe (Pteridium esculentum), the Karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus) and the Kiekie (Freycinetia banksii) can all be eaten, although they tend to require extensive preparation to render them edible.
The section inside the waharoa is the realm of Haumia’s brother Rongomatane, deity of cultivated food crops. The Kumara was brought to Aotearoa (New Zealand) by the Māori along with other food crops but was the only one to thrive anywhere except in the far north. The cultivation and storage of Kumara was therefore a matter of the utmost importance to Māori society. Fresh Kumara were stored in covered pits called rua, whilst dried Kumara could be stored in storehouses called pataka, which were elevated on posts to protect against rats and other threats.
Indian Char Bagh Garden
Like Te Parapara, the Char Bagh Garden (Figure 2) is a form of garden that contains a wealth of spiritual representation in its design. While Te Parapara’s symbolism represents local deities and the day-to-day concern of horticulture, the Char Bagh symbolises a more general and abstract spirituality. In Persian, ‘Char’ means ‘four’ and ‘Bagh’ means ‘garden’. Char Bagh are thus walled, four-quartered gardens. They are sometimes called ‘universal’ gardens because of their very widespread occurrence.
Char Bagh have a history that stretches back at least four thousand years. Although they originated in ancient Persia, it was the Muslims who distributed them over a geographical range that extended from Spain in the West to India in the East. The wide extent of their geographical and historical dissemination is mirrored by the commonality of their appeal across cultures; traces of Jewish and Christian influence mingle with Islamic and Hindu motifs to create a truly universal garden. Char Bagh were adapted for the plains of Northern India by the first Mughal emperor, Barbur. While the Mughals themselves were Muslim, many of their subjects were Hindu and so the resulting Mughal Empire and its gardens were a blend of the two cultures.
The Hamilton Gardens example is based on an Indian Kursi-cum-Char-Bagh, or ‘Riverside Garden’. One of the distinctive features of this type of design is the location of the pavilion at the end of the garden overlooking the river (Figure 3). The flowers in the Hamilton Gardens Char Bagh ‘carpets’ are representative of those that would have been found in Mughal gardens. The water features are designed to bubble rather than splash because of the need to preserve water in arid climates, which lends the Char Bagh a calming, peaceful atmosphere.