The ‘Gardeners’ of The Raj

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Guess who Delhiites have to thank for the tree-lined boulevards of the capital city, many public gardens, and the floral ambience of Raj Ghat? Catch the story of three Englishmen, the last ‘gardeners of the Raj’.

Delhi's beautiful, tree-lined boulevards are a signature feature of India’s capital city. Meticulously planned in the early 20th century, when the new imperial capital of the British in India was being built, these wide avenues boast trees whose saplings had been handpicked by the ‘last gardener of the Raj’

This ‘gardener’, Alick Percy-Lancaster (1912-1961), was the last British national to hold the post of Superintendent of Horticultural Operations in the Government of India. Alick also designed important elements of Raj Ghat, the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, in the 1960s.

Alick was the third in a long tradition of high-profile gardeners, or horticulturists, with the government. His father Sydney had landscaped many public the gardens in New Delhi, including the one at Humayun’s Tomb and the Sunder Nagar Nursery.

Following the establishment of the British Rule in India in the mid-18th century, the British had set up numerous Horticultural societies and Botanical Gardens across India. The most prestigious among them was the Agri Horticultural Society of India, the oldest institution of its kind, founded in 1820 by Botanist Rev. Dr. William Carey for the promotion and development of Horticulture in India.

Botanist William Carey
William Carey, the noted Botanist | Wiki Commons

The green thumb in the Lancaster family was inherited from Alick’s grandfather, Percy Joseph Lancaster, who was manager of the Rohilkund & Kumaon Bank in Nainital. He had moved here from a similar position in Lucknow after a stint in Meerut. Known for cross-breeding the amaryllis lily, Percy’s passion for gardening was noticed by the administration.

In 1889, Percy was appointed by the provincial government of United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh) to head the Sikandar Bagh Gardens in Lucknow (today the National Botanic Research Institute). He went on to become Secretary of the prestigious Agri-Horticultural Society of India in Calcutta in 1892, where he became instrumental in introducing many new plant species.

Like Father, Like Son

Percy passed on his passion for plants to his son Sydney, Alick’s father. Sydney was born in Meerut in 1886 and was 7 years old when the family left Lucknow for Calcutta, after the promotion of his father.

Sydney Percy-Lancaster
Sydney Percy-Lancaster | Wiki Commons

On Percy’s death in 1904 and after horticultural training in England, Sydney was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Agri-Horticultural Society of India. A decade later, he was its Secretary as well as its Superintendent. Situated on a 23-acre site at Alipore, the Society was not government-funded, but relied on the annual subscriptions of its members.

Sydney was not only a kind and generous person, and a skilled horticulturalist, he was also fluent in Bengali, Hindi and Urdu, a photographer, poet, prolific writer and a man who genuinely loved the land of his birth. Manuscripts of his poems were found in the library of the Agri-Horticultural Society some years ago and published as To India With Love.

Canna Flowers at Sundernagar Nursery
Canna Flowers at Sundernagar Nursery | Wiki Commons

Sydney continued to hybridize the Alipore Canna Collection, started by his father Percy in 1892. They were the most popular garden plant in India at time. It was said that every canna growing in India had been derived from the Agri-Horticultural Society, where the collection was domiciled.

In 1910, Sydney became an Assistant Secretary and then the Secretary of the Society in 1914 until his retirement in October 1953. Unlike most of his countrymen, who packed up and returned to England in 1947, upon the independence of India, Sydney stayed on and made India his home.

In November 1953, he joined the National Botanic Research Institute in Lucknow as Senior Technical Assistant because of his early association with Sikandar Bagh. He wished to spend the rest of his life in Lucknow, where the gardening tradition in his family had begun. He served the National Botanic Research Institute until January 1959.

Sydney remained in Lucknow until his final retirement to Dehradun. It was here that he died in 1972. His body was cremated and his ashes were placed into two urns. One urn was sent with instructions that the ashes be scattered in the Lucknow Gardens. The second went to the Society in Calcutta, where a memorial tablet reads: ‘The world more beautiful he made/with loving zeal he plied his trade’.

Alick: Landscaping New Delhi

Alick followed the tradition set by his grandfather and then his father, and but he perhaps had an impact that is more visible to us today. In 1947, he was the last Englishman to hold the post of Superintendent of Horticultural Operations, Central Public Works Department, Government of India.

Sunder Nagar Nursery in Delhi
Sunder Nagar Nursery in Delhi | Wiki Commons

His contribution to the horticultural development of Delhi was unparalleled. He laid out the Sunder Nursery in Delhi, a 90-acre complex created for the propagation of plants to be used in New Delhi, the new imperial capital built by the colonial British in the early 20th century.

With Humayun’s Tomb in the backdrop, the nursery tested and bred plant species brought from all over India and overseas, to choose those that were suited to Delhi’s climate. Apart from seeds and saplings, the nursery also delivered flowers, fresh fruits and vegetables on order during that period.

The Gardens of Viceroy's House in New Delhi
The Gardens of Viceroy's House in New Delhi | Wiki Commons

After the new imperial capital of New Delhi was built by Edwin by Lutyens and Herbert Baker, with broad roads and avenues, the task of greening the wide avenues was taken up under the guidance of Alick Percy-Lancaster. He completed his mission by selecting and planting an estimated 15,000 trees and developing 250 km of hedges along the roads.

The Plan of the Tree Lined Boulevards of Lutyens Delhi
The Plan of the Tree Lined Boulevards of Lutyens Delhi | Wiki Commons

He also carried out extensive plantation drives in areas like the refugee colonies of Rajinder Nagar, Lajpat Nagar, Patel Nagar and others. Residents and visitors to New Delhi still enjoy these tree-lined avenues and boulevards laid down by an Englishman in newly independent India.

Greening Raj Ghat

Upon the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the Government of India entrusted Alick with the floral decorations needed for the funeral procession of the Mahatma. For his exemplary work, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent him a letter of appreciation. Alick even wrote a book based on his horticultural career in India, titled “A Sahib’s Manual for the Mali: Everyday Gardening in India”.

Mahatma Gandhi's Memorial at Raj Ghat
Mahatma Gandhi's Memorial at Raj Ghat | Barun Ghosh

After the cremation of the Mahatma at Raj Ghat, Alick was tasked with landscaping and planting trees and memorial plaques that now comprise Raj Ghat and associated memorials. We can now see this amazing landscape along with its own lake, little knolls and swaying trees of various species. Amid this beautiful complex are memorials of various leaders who led India following independence and often met an unexpected death.

Today, this vast garden complex is part of Indian diplomacy, where almost all heads of state or guests of the Government of India make it a point to pay their respects to the memorial of the Mahatma. Spare a thought also for the man who created this haven of peace.

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