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by: A.I. Makki

  From ancient times, flowers, plants and trees have been greatly admired and cultivated in India. There are numerous references to gardens in the Sanskrit and Buddhist literature. However, the first documented records of gardening and its techniques are found in the Muslim history of India, which were first introduced from Central Asia and Persia, taking root under various Muslim rulers who ruled the land. They improved the existing styles of gardens and developed their own, which culminated in the beautiful gardens built by the Mughal rulers of India.

  The Afghan and the Pathans who had come to India along with the Muslim armies excelled in the art of building massive forts and mosques. Some of the grandest and the most beautiful buildings in India belong to this period. However, there is hardly any trace left of the gardens that once surrounded these buildings. The early period of Muslim rule in India was full of troubled times. Kings rose and fell with astonishing rapidity. Wars and politics in this troubled region left no time for leisure activities like developing and planting gardens.

  Feroz Shah Tughlaq who ruled Delhi from 1351 to 1388 had a comparatively peaceful reign compared to the rulers before him. According to the records that have survived, more than one hundred gardens were built around Delhi under the royal patronage, but unfortunately today none of them is left. All their fountains, tanks and terraces are gone and their records have been lost in the history. But a few old canals of this period survive in some parts of North India.

  Nearly two centuries later, in the year 1526, Muhammad Babur arrived in the scene. After consolidating his rule in North India, he made Agra his capital and commenced the construction of buildings and gardens in India. The first garden constructed by him-later renamed as Ram Bagh by the Marathas in the eighteenth century-was on the banks of the River Jamuna. It is one of the earliest Mughal gardens still surviving in modern India. Writing in his memoirs ‘Babar Nama’, he describes his search for a perfect spot to build his garden.

  “Shortly after coming to Agra, I passed the Jamuna and examined a fit spot for a garden in Agra. First of all, I began to sink a large well, then proceeded to build a large tank ’an enclosure’ and the grand hall of audience in front of the stone palace. I next finished the private apartments completed the baths and produced gardens, which possessed considerable regularity. In every corner, I planted suitable gardens - sowed roses in beds corresponding to one another. The men of Hind gave the name Kabul to the side, on which the palaces were built.”

  Earlier to this, Babur had planted and improved many of the gardens in Kabul. Some of the gardens that are described in length in his memoirs are Bagh-e-Wafa (The Garden of Fidelity), which overlooked the river that flowed between the fort and the palace. Babur had plantains brought from Lahore, and planted them in this garden along with sugarcane, flowers, oranges and pomegranate trees. There were plenty of reservoirs for water and the garden grew and thrived under his personal care.

  Another important garden mentioned by Babur in his memoirs is Bagh-e-Kilan in Kabul. The fruits from this garden were distributed free to wayfarers and beggars who passed by its gates. It was believed that a garden meant for this purpose should be acquired by fair means or else its possession would bring misfortune on its owner. Babur writes that he acquired it by paying the full price of the garden to its owner. Babur had also built near Kabul, in the district of Istalif, another beautiful garden, which was the place where he was finally buried.

  The rule of Humayun, Babur’s son and successor, was short and troubled. He was also the father of Akbar the Great. His capital was in Purana Qila Fort in Delhi, which is now in ruins. And, the tomb raised by Humayun in the memory of his first wife was the first great architectural monument of Mughal India. It is also the place where Humayun was buried. The mausoleum has a garden that is built in the form of a square in an area covering 13 acres and is one of the earliest Mughal gardens, which still preserves intact its original plan. Today, the garden looks bare and disappointing, swept bare of the trees, fruits and flowers that characterized the Mughal gardens of that age.

  Five and half miles to the north of Agra, is Sikandrah, the tomb of Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) built on the site of Sikandar Lodi’s garden. The mausoleum stands on a wide platform in a vast plain surrounded by gardens in a huge square enclosure with high walls. The gardens here, were constructed on the lines of the earlier gardens built by Akbar, with each side surrounded by tanks supplying water to the narrow canals placed in the center of the raised stone pathways. Akbar had commenced the mausoleum in his lifetime but his son Jahangir completed it after his death. The present garden with its grass, scattered trees, and raised stone walks preserve in its bare outline, somewhat of the garden’s original plan.

  Akbar was the first emperor to enter Kashmir. He built a fort in Srinagar on the Green Hill and planned a large garden on the shores of the Lake Dal to the north of Srinagar, which he called Naseem Bagh. Akbar’s garden stands in a fine open position overlooking the lake. Since then, the walls, canals and fountains of the garden have almost disappeared. The green turf that covers the ruined masonry terraces of Naseem Bagh rising from water still give the gardens an enchanting look as when it was first built. Avenues of Chinar trees-prized for their size, beauty and dense shade-were added to it long after the garden was laid out. The Ain-e-Akbari gives an account of the large number of flowers, trees and plants in the gardens of Akbar and names the horticulturists who had come to Delhi from Iran and Turan and settled in Delhi under the patronage of Akbar.

  The Emperor Jahangir and his wife Nur Jahan lavished almost all their attention on Kashmir and Lahore, the northern cities of the Mughal Empire. Nur Jahan his wife had made Kashmir-the Terrestrial Paradise of India-the summer quarters of their court. It is recorded that the entire Mughal court undertook the journey from Delhi to Kashmir, no less than thirteen times to hold their summer court, crossing the dangerous snowy passes of the Pir Panjal mountain range on elephants. Bernier in his travels, during the time of Aurangzeb, also describes at length about the private gardens of nobles constructed along the banks of Jamuna River. He writes that the city palace had a garden with a fountain in it with various trees, shrubs and flowers for the ladies of the Harem (Zenana).

  As a young man, Jahangir had constructed several Mughal gardens in the City of Udaipur in Rajasthan. Empress Nur Jahan had a mausoleum built on the banks of the Jamuna River, near Ram Bagh, in the memory of her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg. The tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah as it is called today, is one of the most beautiful of all garden-tombs in Delhi with its perfect inlaid marble work and Persian tile mosaics. Asaf Khan the brother of Nur Jahan built another beautiful garden - the Nishat Bagh-  on the mountainside overlooking the Dal Lake of Kashmir. It was one of the prettiest of all Mughal gardens - built with fountains, water tanks and flowers.

  When Shah Jahan visited Kashmir in 1638, he took an immediate liking to Nishat Bagh. Its high terraces, wonderful view of the lake and mountain delighted him. He made his admiration of the garden known to Asaf Khan, his father-in-law, on three occasions hoping that it would be handed over to him immediately. But Asaf Khan could not bring himself to surrender his cherished garden to the Emperor. Shah Jahan was angry with Asaf Khan for refusing to take the hint. He ordered the water supply to the garden to be cut off and soon the Nishat Bagh was shorn of all its beauty.

  Asaf Khan who was staying in his summer palace could do nothing. His entire household was plunged in grief at the state of his garden. One day, he sat by the watercourse, sad and depressed, and at length fell asleep. He was awakened to the sound of rushing water. The fountains in his garden were playing again and its waterways were white with foam from the water rushing into his garden. At first, Asaf Khan refused to believe his eyes. He soon found out that a loyal servant had risked his life and defied the royal orders by removing the obstruction that had been placed across the stream. Asaf Khan rebuked him for his zeal and hastily ordered the stream closed again. But, the news had already reached the ears of the emperor resting in the adjoining gardens of Shalimar. He ordered the terrified servant brought before him and instead of punishing him ordered a robe of honor bestowed on him for his loyalty. At the same time, he ordered water to be restored again to Nishat Bagh.

  The famous Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar is named after a village in its neighborhood.  The Emperor Jahangir had laid out a plan for constructing it in the year 1619. The garden had running canals and its pathways were overshadowed with large Chinar trees. It was also the Mughal Imperial Summer Residence. The garden was divided into three parts with the outer garden terminating at Diwan-e-Aam with a small black marble throne standing over a waterfall. This part of the garden would be thrown open to the public so that they may see the emperor enthroned in the Hall of the Public Audience. The central garden was meant for the exclusive use of the emperor and the third garden with its black marble pavilion was built for the private use of the ladies of Shah Jahan.

  All the finest Mughal gardens were built in beautiful natural landscapes or centering in the region of a hillside, like the Achibal Bagh on the way to Islamabad. Bernier on his visit to Achibal writes of a fountain in the garden that dispersed water into a hundred canals built near the house. He also writes: “the springs gush out of the earth with violence, as if it is issued from the bottom of some well. The garden is very handsome, laid out in regular walks, and full of flowers and fruit treesfishponds are in great number, and there is a lofty cascade, which in its fall takes the form and color of a large sheetforty paces in length, producing the finest effect imaginable; especially at night, when innumerable lamps are lighted under the sheet of water.”

  Nur Jahan’s favorite Kashmir garden was Verinag Bagh, built nineteen miles away from Kashmir on the road to Islamabad. Verinag is supposed to be the source of Jhelum River. Jahangir and Nur Jahan had built their palace by the side of the pool. Later, during the course of a journey, Jahangir had died in a mountain pass, which was very near to Verinag. His dying wish was to be brought back to Verinag and be buried by the spring. But his last wish had to be set aside as there was a danger that the mountain passes being closed due to heavy snowfall. The Court of Jahangir continued on with their journey bearing the last remains of the emperor to Lahore.

  Wah Bagh owes its name to Emperor Akbar who was so struck by its beauty that it drew from him an exclamation “Wah! Bagh!” (Oh! What a garden!). The garden was located near the Grand Trunk Road on the way to Kashmir. It covered a land area that was a quarter of a mile in length and half of that in breadth. Today, the gateways, its turrets, and the boundary wall are in a sad state of ruin. Water tanks were kept to the east of the garden and to the west there was a residence built for the emperor. The garden was built here on account of its underground springs that gush out from the northwest foot of the hill of Baba Wali. Hieun Tsang, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim records in his travels of his journey from Taxila to visit the springs of the Wah Gardens.

  Shah Jahan had the Shalimar Gardens built in Lahore on the model of his father’s Kashmir Garden. Ali Mardan Khan, his royal architect commenced building the gardens in 1634. This garden had huge water tanks and hundreds of fountains in it. Earlier to this, the architect had constructed a canal, which supplied Shah Jahan’s Delhi with water so that each house in the city could have its fountains and tanks. For the Shalimar Gardens at Lahore, he constructed pavilions on the three sides of the gardens. The gardens were once filled with plants of different kinds, flowers, orange, lemon and cypress trees.

  The Taj Mahal is familiar to all as the garden-tomb of Empress Mumtaz Mahal-the lady of the Taj. Few people realize the close connection of the whole group of buildings near this famous mausoleum, and that of the garden that was originally planned formed an integral part of one great design. Bernier writing in 1600 CE giving an early account of the Taj gardens in his book says: “To the left and right of the dome and on the lower surface you observe several gardens with trees and many flowers. Between the end of the principal walk and this dome is an open-large space, which I call a water partition, because the stones on which you walk represent the borders of a box in our partitions.” Today, the gardens of the Taj bear a faint resemblance to the partitions of the garden and flowerbeds described by Bernier in his book, and the original mix of cypress trees and flowerbeds, the chief characteristics of the Muslim garden-craft are nowhere to be seen.

  The few Mughal gardens that have survived the ravages of time are the burial places of Muslim princes and nobles and respect for the last resting place the dead appears to be the only motive for the protection of a garden. Lacking this safeguard, gardens like the Shalimar Bagh in Delhi, noted for its beauty in the past and built at a cost of two lakh rupees by one of Shah Jahan’s wife, Bibi Akbarabadi, lies in ruins. Another garden built at the bottom of the Lidar valley at Bijbehara, formerly named as Dara Shikoh's Garden, after Shah Jahan’s eldest son, is also in ruins. It was a double garden built on either side of the Lidar River, and was joined together by a stone bridge. And, inside Delhi are Roshan Ara and Jahan Ara’s garden-tombs. They were both daughters of Mumtaz Mahal and were great patronesses of arts and letters.

  After the fall of the Mughal Empire, raids and wars, and years of unstable governments along with adverse European influences have all but destroyed the art of Indian garden-craft and gardening. The legacy of constructing huge beautiful gardens - left by the Royal Gardeners of Mughal India - still awaits a revival in India.


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