The story of Tulip Gardens

Ashok Ogra
From Srinagar to Rastrapati Nivas in Shimla, from Sanasar, Ramban, in Jammu to the diplomatic enclave in Delhi- Tulips of all varieties greet visitors. However, it is the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, overlooking the iconic Dal Lake that offers a sight to behold – serene and calm. The garden is thrown open to the visitors when spring arrives. Spread over an area of 30 hectares, the Tulip Garden is one of the largest tulip gardens in Asia. It boasts more than 1.5 million tulips in various colours, like red, yellow, pink, white and purple, making it a visual delight for tourists from across the globe. The Sanasar garden is spread over 5 acres and has 3 lakh tulip bulbs of over 25 varieties.
In the words of local poet Mohammad Peer ‘the fragrance of tulips in the air, makes one forget all worries and care.’
Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, most likely introduced tulips into Kashmir. He names tulips in his Baburnama. He may actually have got it from Afghanistan to the plains of India, as he did with other plants like melons and grapes.
In Afghanistan, tulips are a symbol of love and purity, traits that Afghan culture holds dear. Even though the poppy is the national symbol of the country, the tulip was chosen as the national flower!
Tulips are one of the world’s most iconic flowers, but their wild existence is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. We may think of their origin as Dutch, but it is believed that tulip cultivation began in Persia in the 13th century and then tulip bulbs were planted around the globe in a rainbow of glorious colors. The first known illustration of a tulip has been found on a tile from the palace of Sultan, Al?ad-D?n Kayqub?d bin Kayk?v?s who reigned over Persia from 1220 to 1237AD.
The word tulip is actually derived from the Persian word for turban. And yet, in the language of flowers, tulips have meanings that resonate with what many people are feeling now – since yellow tulips mean hopeless love and the white ones represent the need for forgiveness.
The tulip’s importance in Iranian culture actually dates to ancient times. Nowruz, the Persian New Year, has been celebrated for over 3,000 years. Tulips are a common sight during Nowruz, which marks the coming of spring. Each year, Iranians sing, “This spring be your good luck, the tulip fields be your joy.”
In a legend about sixth-century Iran, the young prince Farhad heard rumours that Shirin, his great love, had been killed. He was so overcome with grief that he jumped off a cliff. But the story had a Romeo-and-Juliet twist. A jealous rival actually spread a false rumor to sabotage the relationship. According to lore, Farhad rides his horse off a cliff, and a red tulip grows where his blood touches the ground – the symbol of perfect love.
The Tulip became one of the most common symbols of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Its new flag features a red tulip in the center to commemorate the revolution’s martyrs. They line the dome above Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb. They adorn billboards of martyrs from the war with Iraq. They have been depicted on coins and postage stamps. And hotels, parks and restaurants are named after them.
Ironically, the tulip also became a symbol of Iran’s opposition after the June 2009 presidential election. At its peak, millions took to the streets of cities across Iran to challenge the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After a brutal government crackdown, the tulip became the metaphor for the Green Movement’s struggle to survive-and to fight for justice.
As we know, the Ottomans survived and prospered for more than 600 years, conquering Constantinople in 1453, and ruling over a vast swathe of land that stretched from the Middle East all the way to Spain and the borders of Austria.
As the Ottomans grew more powerful and stable, their cities became known for their fabulous gardens. They grew tulips in glorious profusion along with other wildflowers: violets, roses, narcissus saffron crocus and Persian lilac.
Records suggest that there were more than 1500 varieties of tulip in cultivation, including several bred by accomplished women growers, and credited with creating “Gem of the Shah” and “Seeker of Hearts.”
In Ottoman art, flowers were not limited to the house and garden, and were featured across all aspects of life. Tulips were one of the most commonly used flowers by Ottoman artists. Tulip motifs were used to decorate everything, ranging from marble, stones, architectural structures, clothes, fabrics, carpets and rugs to tombstones and even weapons like cannons and rifles. The flowers were mentioned in songs, poems and idioms.
Anna Pavord, author of the book ‘The Story of a Flower that Has Made Men Mad (1999)’, gives a very well-researched history of the tulip’s introduction into Europe. She explains that the first secure sighting of the tulip in Europe was somewhere in 1559. The tulip quickly became a favorite collecting item of many wealthy connoisseurs and became a staple in the gardens of Dutch connoisseurs by the 1580s.
Every sultan after Sultan Mehmed II had shown an interest in tulips. During the period of Sultan Ahmet III (1718-1730), tulips came into fashion. Historians call this period of peace and tranquility the “tulip period.” It is referred to as the tulip period because of the tulip cultivating craze that swept all segments of society, from official authorities to the lowest echelons. Rumor has it that people were willing to pay a fortune for certain tulip bulbs.
While we are too familiar with the stock market crash of 1929,1987 and more recently 2008, one can’t seem to get enough of one of the world’s oldest speculative assets during the medieval ages. The only difference is that people aren’t buying, though. Just admiring! I am referring to the famous event in Dutch history, one of the most famous market crashes of all time – the TULIPMANIA of 1637, in which the tulip was sold for exorbitant prices. It occurred in Holland during the early to mid-1600s, when speculation drove the value of tulip bulbs to extremes. At the market’s peak, the rarest tulip bulbs traded for as much as six times the average person’s annual salary. Today, this story of TULIPMANIA serves as a parable for the pitfalls that excessive greed and speculation in investing can lead to. Incidentally, Holland continues to be the largest producer of tulips.
Both the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, Srinagar and the one at Sanasar in Jammu have emerged as tourist spots. The breath-taking beauty of the Tulip Garden in Srinagar is simply unmatched – not only because of the spread and the variety of tulips on display, but the ideal picturesque location of the garden – with a cool breeze emanating from the hills.
The garden has many sections and each section is designed by gardeners to make it unique. Every section hosts different varieties of tulips like strong gold, margaritas, candela, kung fu, early harvest, ile de france, etc. Tulips are among the first flowers to bloom after protracted winters in Kashmir and parts of Jammu. The blossoms last only for three to five weeks, depending on the temperature.
The garden brings to mind a scene from Bollywood Silsila (1981) : “Dekha Ek Khwab To Yeh Silsilay Hue, Door Tak Nigahoun Main Thay Gul Khilay Hue”shot at the Keukenhof tulip gardens in the Netherlands. Now the UT’s Tulip Garden waits to receive Bollywood directors.
(The author works for Apeejay Education, Delhi)