Feb. 14, 2007

Cornell students investigate how ancient Indian gardens thrived in arid conditions

Some 400 years ago, magnificent gardens flourished at Ahhichatragarh, the Fort of Nagaur, in Rajasthan, India, in the middle of the Thar Desert. Today, the fort is a UNESCO Heritage site, its complex of richly painted palaces recently restored to be a major tourist attraction and economic generator for the region -- but the elaborate, thriving gardens are history.

Kathryn Gleason, a Cornell historical garden archaeologist, recently led a team of her graduate students on a 10-day excavation of the now-vanished gardens to probe into how the extensive Mughal- and Rajput-era gardens that graced the fort's palaces in the 16th and 17th centuries thrived in such arid conditions. Their goal was also to glean valuable clues for developing sustainable gardens in desert areas worldwide.

The group's findings are now being applied to the re-creation of the gardens and their water system as part of the overall restoration of the complex.

"It immediately became clear how the water provision and drainage supported the gardens, but, less expectedly, the excavations also gave the first evidence that the garden soils themselves were key to the water distribution and drainage within the larger water harvesting system," says Gleason, a Cornell associate professor of landscape architecture with an Oxford University doctorate in archaeology. "The enriched loams of the garden soils are underlain by deep layers of sand, which appear to have allowed for successful irrigation and redirection of the water, possibly to known drains leading out to ponds on the periphery."

Accompanying Gleason were landscape architecture master's degree students Jacob Brown and Stacy Day; Carolyn Keenan, a historic preservation student; and archaeology and anthropology doctoral students Daniel Costura, MLA '01, and Maureen Costura.

Their participation was funded by the Louis Berger Group, consulting engineers, under the direction of Senior Vice President James McClung, Eng. '78. The team visited the firm's facilities in Delhi and Agra, including its Environmental Center, which is working to create sustainable energy resources in Agra in an effort to mitigate sources of pollution that are eroding the Taj Mahal.

The Louis Berger Group offers summer internships to Cornell students for projects around the world in engineering, planning, landscape architecture, architecture, archaeology, cultural resource management and project management. McClung and other staff of the Louis Berger Group will visit Cornell April 9-12 to present the latest internship opportunities.