Flower Power: Keukenhof

Keukenhof is something that Indians would be quite familiar with. Perhaps not by name. But if I showed you a picture, I guarantee that you would immediately know what I am talking about.

I am talking about the world famous tulip gardens of Amsterdam. And if you still don’t know what these are, you either don’t watch Indian films or (as a friend once said of me) ‘you live under a rock!’

Keukenhof, also known as the ‘Garden of Europe’ is one of the world’s largest flower gardens. It is located in a place called Lisse on the outskirts of Amsterdam in 32 sprawling acres with 800 varieties of tulips and nearly seven million blooms. Every year, the gardens see nearly 800,000 visitors and since it opened, 50 million people have visited it. 

The word ‘keukenhof’ means kitchen garden in Dutch. In the 15th century, the gardens used to be part of hunting grounds. It provided herbs for the nearby castle of Jacqueline, Countess of Hainut from where it derives its name. After her death, the ownership of the estate passed into the hands of rich merchants. In the 19th century, the owners commissioned landscape artists Jan David Zocher and his son Louis Paul Zocher, to design the grounds around the castle. In its current form, the gardens were established in 1949 by the then mayor of Lisse.

The purpose of the gardens was to exhibit flowers of growers from all over the Netherlands and thus boost the Netherland’s export economy of flowers. So in that respect, Keukenhof is actually a living and growing advertisement. What a novel and attractive way to showcase and market your products!

Tulips found their way to the Netherlands from the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey) in the 16th century. The foundation of the Dutch tulip industry is attributed to Carolus Clusius, a Flemish doctor and botanist. Right from the start, tulips were a huge hit and Clusius's garden was frequently raided and flowers regularly stolen! During the Dutch Golden Age there was a period called 'Tulip Mania' when the prices of tulips climbed so high that they were used as money till the market finally crashed. 

Today the Netherlands is the largest exporter of flowers in the world. The Dutch produce 4.32 billion tulip bulbs each year, some 53% of which (2.3 billion) are grown into cut flowers. Of these, 1.3 billion (or 57%) are sold in the Netherlands as cut flowers and the remainder is exported: 630 million bulbs in Europe and 370 million outside of Europe. So the beautiful Keukenhof gardens and the acres and acres of multi coloured tulip carpeted fields surrounding it are not just about aesthetics. It is serious business!! (note: the tulip gardens should not be confused with the tulip fields.)  

Back home in India, Keukenhof and the tulip fields seem to have captured the imagination of Indian film makers (ok, maybe not as much as the Swiss Alps, but still). Both the gardens and the fields have appeared in several Indian films. The one that is most popular among the Hindi film viewing audience is, of course, the evergreen song ‘dekha ek khwab’ from the Amitabh-Jaya-Rekha starrer Silsila. This song is picturised only in the tulip fields and not in Keukenhof. The montage of colours perfectly expresses the euphoria of love. 

Keukenhof appears in another song from the same film – 'ye kahan aa gaye hum'. This beautiful song, is rendered magical by poetry in Amitabh's deep baritone. The lyrics blend in beautifully with Keukenhof's winding paths lined with flower beds along the gently flowing waters of a lake. 

Keukenhof and the tulip fields, both, are also seen in Raj Kapoor’s Prem Rog for the song ‘bhanwre ne khilaya phool’. 

The film, as you may know, is about widow remarriage. So, the visual of a plain, white clad Padmini Kolhapure, framed by the brightly coloured tulips, is actually quite metaphorical. 

Down south, the tulip fields appear in the song 'Kumari' from the Tamil film Anniyan. Personally I did not take a shine to the song and in fact found it jarring. First of all, I cannot understand why it is shot in the tulip fields. When one has such a strong backdrop for a song, I feel it might have been better to generally tone down the song. The music does not blend well with the ambiance of the beautiful tulips. The make up and costumes seem loud and out of place. There are these four guys dressed like caricatures running around the lead pair with assorted musical instruments which is frankly annoying. And you can see cars driving past in the distance!! 

The tulip gardens and fields once again make an appearance in a song from the Tamil film Nanban. This is your typical jhatak matak film song and is actually quite dreadful. If I were a tulip in Keukenhof, I would be seriously offended at the ridiculous dancing and bewildering costume changes. I mean....I'm the star of this show. What do you mean by taking attention away from me in this garish and distasteful way?! 

 (Disclaimer: I have not seen either film. I do not have the context in which the songs are set and I do not understand Tamil well enough to get a sense of the lyrics. So please forgive me if I sound harsh. I would also add that Hindi film songs and picturisations in today's YoYo Honey Singh world would probably be equally horrible if not worse.)

Now a bit about my visit to Keukenhof. What a spectacular visual treat! One can't help but feel completely special when one sets eyes on these blooms. But just seeing it with your eyes is not enough.  You need to experience it with all your senses and feel the beauty of the flowers permeate your entire being. I can't explain it. You feel like you've arrived in paradise and you just want to sink into all this beauty and be transported to some place else. The smile never leaves your face!

From Deepa's collection

From Deepa's collection

My advice to those going to Keukenhof:  You must visit the place with your beloved. Hold hands, cuddle, kiss, express your love. This is the perfect setting for it. Take loads of photographs. It would be criminal not to! There are little corners that provide lovely backdrops to take pictures. Little bits of whimsy here and there. Like gigantic clogs or klompen as they are called in Dutch, right in the middle of a pathway, that will make you laugh out loud. Step into them and click away. Walk up the wooden staircase in the windmill and step onto the balcony  You will get a lovely view of the canal and tulip fields that border that part of the garden. Take a boat ride on the canal and you can float past the lovely and colourful tulip fields. 
No crying about no shoes here! (Deepa's collection)

Visit the various pavilions to see a wide selection of plants and flower shows. The Beatrix Pavilion is reserved especially for orchids. The Keukenhof website claims it to be the most beautiful orchid show in all of Europe. The Willem-Alexander exhibition showcases lilies while the Orange Nassau Pavilion shows off how flower bulbs can be used in interior design.  

Orchids at Beatrix Pavilion (Deepa's collection)
The gardens are open every year only during spring, between April and May. In 2017, they are scheduled to be open from 23 March to 21 May. 

Cute displays just made for photography (Deepa's collection)

So if you are visiting Amsterdam, be sure to visit this lovely piece of nature and enjoy a day out among the flowers. 

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1 Response to Flower Power: Keukenhof

  1. This is the first of your Europe posts that I have read. Love the pictures. The tulips as you say gained popularity in Indian cinema courtesy Yash Chopra and his Silsila. The info on tuplips was interesting...!!! Hope to go there sometime