What is Landscape? by Aparna Rao

Two questions linger.

One- why do architects, environmentalists and landscape architects share a tenuous relationship, especially about meanings of the term “landscape”? And secondly, why does the term “landscaping” find fervent recurrence (accompanied usually with a dismissive air) in professional and academic exchanges especially when it comes to ‘dealing’ with the land ?

In this regard, Ann Whiston Spirn’s essay ‘The Language of Landscape’ throws some insights about etymological roots and the fragmented perception of what is “landscape”. Reproduced below are some extracts, from the much debated essay. (note: Italics in original. Parentheses added.)

“...'Landscape’ associates people and place. Danish landskab, German landschaft, Dutch landschap and Old English landscipe combine to roots. ‘land’ means both a place and the people living there. Skabe and schaffen mean ‘to shape’; suffixes –skab and –schaft as in the English ‘-ship’ also mean association, partnership. Though no longer used in ordinary speech, the Dutch schappen conveys a magisterial sense of shaping, as in the biblical Creation. Still strong in Scandinavian and German languages, these original meanings have all but disappeared in English. 

Webster’s Dictionary defines landscape as static. “ a picture representing a section of natural, inland scenery, as of a prairie, woodland, mountains...an expanse of natural scenery seen by the eye in one view”; the Oxford English Dictionary traces the word to a Dutch painting term -landskip. But landscape is not a mere visible surface, static composition or passive backdrop to human theatre; therefore dictionaries must be revised and older meanings revived.

The words environment and place commonly used to replace landscape in twentieth century English are inadequate substitutes, for they refer to locale or surroundings and omit people. Mid-century, the declining use of landscape was in part a reaction to the Nazis’ adoption of “blood and soil”, a linking of native landscape and racial identity. Environment and Place seem more neutral, but they are abstract, disembodied, sacrificing meaning, concealing tensions and conflicts, ignoring the assumptions landscape reveals...”

“The language of landscape, humans have always known (sic), but now use piecemeal, with much forgotten. People still read paths and create them, identify boundaries and define territory, delight in a flowering tree comparing it to a lover, but most people read landscape shallowly or narrowly and tell it stupidly or inadequately. Oblivious to dialogue and storyline, they misread or miss meaning entirely, blind to connections among intimately related phenomena, oblivious to poetry, then fail to act or act wrongly. The consequences are comical, dumb, dire, tragic ...”

“...Ironically, the professionals who specialize in reading certain parts of the landscape more deeply than other parts and shaping them more powerfully, often fail to understand landscape as a continuous whole. Once, those who transformed landscape were generalists: naturalist, humanist, artist, engineer, even priest, all combined. Now pieces of landscape are shaped by those whose narrowness of knowledge, experience, values and concerns leads them to read and tell only fragments of the story. To an ecologist, landscape is a habitat, but not construction or metaphor. To a lawyer, landscape may be property to regulate, to a developer- a commodity to exploit, to an architect- a site to build on, to a planner- a zone for recreation or residence or commerce or transportation or “nature preservation”.

As in the story of the blind men who each touch a different part of the elephant-trunk or tusk or tail alone- then arrive at a false description of the whole animal, so (does) each discipline and each interest groups reads and tells landscape through its own tunnel vision of perception, value, tool and action. And as each shouts its own fragment the landscapes of cities, suburbs and regions are severed, become impoverished, dysfunctional. It is even fashionable now to design buildings, gardens and cities deliberately as dislocated and unconnected fragments to emphasize the erosion of common ground, a misanthropic view of cultural differences...”

“...to see landscape as mere scenery gives precedence to appearance at the expense of habitability and risks trivializing landscape as decoration- landscaping- concealing the significance of senses other than sight and of parts hidden from view, the deep context underlying the surface. To call some landscapes natural and others artificial or cultural misses the truth that landscapes are never wholly one or the other.”

Chariots of the Gods by Aparna Rao

The world famous Ratha Yatra (Chariot Festival) of Lord Jagannath at Puri is one of the most important festivals of Odisha. The festival celebrates the trinity of Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra and is held annually between June-July. The festival comprises of many stages such as ritual cleansing, isolation, decoration, procession, transit halt and return to the main sanctum. Each stage is steeped in meaning and mythology. 

The main attraction of the festival is the Ratha Jatra (Chariot Tour) where the three principal deities are carried in a ceremonial procession on the main road of the city. As per ritual, every year the chariots are constructed afresh and finally disposed off after the festival is over.Only the 'Sarathi' (charioteer), Ghoda (horses), Kalasa (Crowning element) and Parswa devatas (subsidiary deities) are not made new every year. 
The construction of the rathas is carried out as per prescribed rituals, by a team of woodcutters, carpenters, smiths, polishers, artisans, rope makers and tailors, overseen by officers. Their roles have been traditionally associated with the festival for generations just like that of the priests and the ing.

Legend says that the idols were carved out of a single log of driftwood found on the seashore by a local king. The wood species used for construction of the three chariots allude to a complete ecological chain and are representative of certain eco-types within the Odisha region. In a way, this references itself back to  Krishna (Jagannatha) who advocated the worship of Nature.  

The species used for the rathas comprise of dry-deciduous species - Phasi (Anogeissus accuminata), Dhaura (Anogeissus latifolia), Imli (Tamarindus indica), Moist deciduous species such as Asan (Terminalia tomentosa), Simili ( Bombax ceiba), Sal (Shorea robusta), Kansa (Hymenodictyon orixense), Moi (Lannea corommondalica), Paladhua (Erythrina indica), Mahalimba (Ailanthus excelsa), Gambhari (Gmelina arborea), and Moist evergreen species Kadamba (Neolamarckia cadamba), Kalachua (Diospyros sylvatica), Devadaru (Polyalthia longifolia). The wood of Neem (Azadirachta indica) is taken to be the driftwood species, while the thick ropes used to pull the chariots are made from coconut coir.

During the regime of Maratha rulers, traditionally the timbers for construction of grand chariots of Lord Jagannath at Puri were supplied by the King of Dasapalla, an ex-princely state of Odisha free of cost. After merger of Dasapalla in the State during 1948, the Govt. of Odisha continued to uphold the traditional commitment for the temple. The District Forest Offices at Nayagarh, Khordha and Boudh today supply the annual requirement of timbers for the Car Festival at Puri,free of cost.
Year after year the threat of gradual depletion of natural forests has hindered the supply of such quantities of timber and fire wood of specified species. Ad hoc exploitation in the past has further compounded the problem whereby the population of the aforesaid desired species in the forests has diminished alarmingly. 

Currently, a two pronged strategy has been conceptualised to address this problem. First, systematic management of some identified natural forest areas bearing naturally grown ratha-timber species are being taken up to meet the immediate requirement. Second, intensive plantations have been taken up under the scheme ‘Jagannatha Van Prakalpa’ (JVP) for all the ratha-timber species except Sal to meet the future requirements of car timber in a sustained manner.

However, some concerns still persist:
Natural dense forests are degrading due to heavy illicit felling and removal by timber mafias. As a result, adequate numbers of desired species with specified girth class are not available in the forest and the supply from the forest department is gradually diminishing.As stated in the Revised Working Plans prepared by the Forest Divisions, the trees raised under JVP will take a minimum of 35-40 years to provide small girth timber and about 70-80 years to attain exploitable girth class. Hence these are not available to meet immediate requirements.

Solutions being presented, not all of it completely acceptable, include:

1. Choice of car timber species may be changed according to availability. It has already been done in case of Rukuna Rath of Lord Lingaraj (tamarind tree is used as axle, mango log is used as bearing and Kumbhi (Careya arborea) timber is used as rest part of the solid wheel). In such a case, what happens to adherence of an age-old ritual, and more importantly, the fight to conserve such timber sock in the wild?

2. The components of grand chariots which need large girth timbers may be preserved for reuse. This goes against the religious narrative of renewal, and alludes to our inability to guarantee protection of our natural resources even for religious use.

3. Car timber yielding plants can be raised in private lands with a mindset to donate the same to Sri Jagannath Temple Administration. This is seen as shrugging of the onus of the State on to the shoulders of individuals. This strategy may last a generation or two at best, before the economics of real estate catch up with it.

4. Car timber plants should be protected by everybody in forest as well as in private holdings. This needs a State mechanism and powerful laws which will prevent illegal felling, or felling under some other pretexts.
Another point that can be made as a case is that all open spaces in Odisha should compulsorily look at renewing its native floristic stock, including the creation of urban woodlands and green belts which can be carefully monitoried for wood extraction. This would place a huge responsibility on Planners, Landscape Architects, Horticulturists and Forest Nurseries working on projects in Odisha. If adopted seriously, it will also stymie the introduction of exotics.

It is evident that a traditional practice and religious ritual is facing some tough dilemmas. The answers to these will be seen as a mirror of our time and our race, in the years to come. As an antithesis to Erich von Daniken's hypotheses, this time around, the Chariots of Our Gods need some extraordinary help from Man. 

Author: Sriganesh Rajendran
Images: Author's own

Parashurama's landscape by Aparna Rao

Oral traditions and mythology have embellished India’s natural landscape, making it a narrative rich experience. Oral traditions about nature are eventually regarded as folk lore or mythology. Although layered with hyperbole, these stories contain genuine and perceptive knowledge based on careful observation of physical evidence. The geological event of the recession of the Arabian sea and the formation of the West coast of India is one such.

In his of-cited classic paper, S. Widdowson has neatly illustrated the morphological evolution of the South-West Deccan (present day Kerala and parts of present day Karnataka-Goa coast) in the period of the Mid-Upper Tertiary i.e. 35 million-30 million years ago (mya).The recession of the Western ghats along with the formation of the first permanent ice sheets in the Antarctic saw the emergence of a patch of land between the Western ghats and the Arabian sea. Over a relatively short geological time spanning between 25 mya and 1.5 mya, the subsidence of the sea levels saw the short rivers create deep cuts into the newly emerged land. This in turn leached away silica in the form of sand and oxides aided further by the well drained topography and tropical climate with its wet and dry spells. The leached residue was rich in iron, clayey in nature, soft when wet and hard when dry- Laterite. The resulting landscape was a mosaic of basalt sea
cliffs with laterite caps and rivers meandering as they reach closer to the sea.

In another milieu, The Puranas mention that the western coast of India was a zone ever-threatened by tumultuous waves and tempests, causing the he took. land to be overcome by the sea. Parashurama- the sixth incarnation of Vishnu known for his ceaseless annihilation of Kshatriya kings- was asked to rehabilitate Brahmins to atone for the lives he took.

Not finding a place safe enough for them, Parashurama is said to have crossed the Sahyadri range (Western Ghats) and reached the edge of the sea, where he fought back the advancing waters and released the land. As the mass of land rose up, the sea god Varuna told him that because it was filled with salt, the land would be barren.

Parashurama then did a penance an invoked the King of Snakes- Nagaraja/Vasuki. Parashurama asked him to spread serpents throughout the land so their venom would neutralize the salt-filled earth (apart from aerating the soil- modern day ecology). The snake King agreed, and subsequently, a lush and fertile land came into existence. 

The correlation between Widdowson's superb sketch and Parashurama's story can be best sensed in the regions between Sindhudurg, coastal Goa, Coastal Karnataka and North Kerala. In their own ways, places in these regions are revered as sacred spots, and the regional landscape is collectively known as Parashurama Kshetra or Land of Parashurama.

Author: Sriganesh Rajendran

Images: Widdowson S: Tertiary Paleosurfaces of the South West Deccan, Western india: Implications for passive Margin uplift in Widdowson S (ed): Paleosurfaces: Recognition Reconstruction and Paleoenvironmental Interpretation. Geological Society Special Publication no 120. London.