Urban gardener, Cleve West: Indian summer

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The Independent Online

Gardeners have to get high in Delhi to really appreciate it. I don't mean ordering a bhang lassi the minute you get to your hotel, but if you can get a room above the fourth floor you will be amazed by the lush green tree canopy billowing in all directions, to a point where you wonder whether a city exists beneath it at all. Delhi really does live up to its claim of being the 'Greenest Capital in the World'.

I was there recently, courtesy of Saga Holidays, fulfilling a long-held ambition to visit India and Nepal. Our main destination was further north in Simla, visiting private gardens in the foothills of the Himalayas, but coming to Delhi and not making an effort to visit the Taj Mahal would have been sacrilege. On the express train to Agra I wondered whether it was going to live up to expectations. Vying to keep its place among the New Seven Wonders of the World, ubiquitous images of the opulent mausoleum were increasing the feeling that this was going to be a huge anti-climax. The heat didn't help, either. My Anglo-Indian heritage may go some way to keeping a sense of humour when things get hot, but nothing prepares you for 46C in the shade. Aesthetic appreciation at this temperature is vapourised the minute the doors of the air-conditioned coach are opened - as is any concern for the environment, as your stash of bottled water disappears quicker than a pocket full of rupees for tipping.

Our guide took full advantage of shade stops as we made our way on foot to the entrance of the walled garden and bade us pause (much to the annoyance of the low-season stream of pilgrims) in the darkness to feel the full force of the mausoleum. 'Walk backwards and you will feel it drawing you back in,' she said. But I was stuck, struck with the sheer brilliance of the building, radiating twice as much sunshine as it was being bleached by. Under the shade of a large ficus our group sat, bewitched, as our guide recounted the extraordinary tale of love, endeavour and family feuding that surrounded this building which took 15 years to complete. Built by the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, to honour his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal, things went a little pear-shaped when Shah Jahan's son, on hearing plans to build a second mausoleum in black marble, imprisoned his father to save the country from financial ruin.

It was a long time before I noticed that (unlike in our picture) there wasn't any water in the canal which was undergoing some offseason maintenance. It was even longer before I noticed that the garden looked somewhat neglected, such was the power of the building itself. Based on the Islamic representation of paradise (from the Persian 'paridaeza' - a walled garden), the garden is separated into quarters by watercourses originating from the central pool. Each of these are then divided into 16 beds making a total of 64. Cypress trees (symbolising death) and fruit trees (life) would have accentuated the symmetry of the building with bulbs and roses adding seasonal colour. But, as the Mughal Empire declined, so too did the gardens. The fruit trees were grubbed out and laid to lawn during British rule and the remaining cypress trees are now struggling to match the scale and magnificence of the mausoleum.

Only a garden design pedant would notice it though, and if it's going to be a choice between renovating the gardens or maintaining the mausoleum, the building will win every time. However, the announcement earlier this month that the Taj would remain as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World will surely increase the number of visitors, currently standing between two and three million each year. I initially thought that the increased revenue would be used to improve the landscaping, but now I'm not so sure. Before we left I took a much-needed shade stop near the entrance. The sight of pilgrims' faces as they emerge from the gloom and stand bedazzled by the sheer beauty of the white marble dome and minarets was as captivating as the Taj itself. The unbridled joy this building brings to those who make the effort to see it can, quite simply, put any garden in the shade.