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Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

Enchanted gardens : June 04, 2000


Babur's gift

Laeeq Futehally

Columnist based in Bangalore.

The Mughal Garden has always had an aura of romance and, consequently, it has been considered the ideal background for emotive art and poetry. Urdu poetry indeed, has relied heavily on the idiom of the Great Gardener, the bulbul, the rose, the tulip and the scented breeze, while even English poets have not been ashamed to sing of "Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar . . . "

Aditya Patankar/Fotomedia
Detail of Pashmina coat, Kashmir, 19th Century.

The romance, however, lay on the surface. Underneath it was the serious side to the garden, the religious and spiritual side; and in order to understand this we must know something about the garden's history and origin as well as the thoughts and feelings which lay behind its planning.

The Mughal Gardens owed its origin, and, therefore, its name, to the Persian Garden of Paradise - the Bagh-i-bihisht. This bagh was supposed to represent the conditions which Muslims hope to find if and when they enter paradise - "a garden of cooling waters", "a garden underneath which rivers flow."

The topography of Persia dictated the layout of such a garden. The site was usually a mountainside, the water source was a stream fed by the melting snows; the hillside was cut into regular square terraces, one below the other; and the water was channelled so as to flow in an orderly manner down the centre of the site and spread laterally along each terrace. All the features of the garden were straight, geometrical and symmetrical. The lines which quartered the terraces were defined by paths and water channels, and lined with flower beds which came to explosive life in the short but spectacular spring.

Such were the basic "rules" of the design of the char-bagh or four-fold garden. Its spirit was expressed in the generosity and order with which water flowed through it. It is easy to believe that, to a water-starved desert people, it seemed a very convincing picture of what Paradise must be like. Being closely connected - at least in thought - to religious feelings, there was much symbolism in both design and planting.

Along the channels flowed the Waters of Life, which met and parted at every terrace. The square, always a stable and predictable figure, was supposed to symbolise the earth, while the circle, without beginning and without end, was symbolic of perfection and eternity. If you arrange two squares (earth) inside a circle (eternity) and join the corners you will get an octagon. The figure eight has mystical implications and so the octagon was much used in garden design - octagonal pools, baradaris and pavillions. Last of all, plants also spoke their own symbolic language. The cypress (Cupres funebris) always suitable for formal, stylised gardens was, because of its unchanging appearance, a symbol for Death and after-life, while fruit trees, whose looks and performance went through rhythmic seasonal changes, symbolised Life itself.

When Babur came to Hindustan, he brought with him these assumptions of how a garden should be. He celebrated his victory at Panipat not by raising a tower, but by implanting a garden - of which, unfortunately, there is no sign left. Perhaps it was meant to be his home? Because of his nomadic habits and background, a series of tents set in a garden would have been his idea of a home. For the Moghuls, the garden was always more than just a garden - it was a place to live in - every terrace doing duty for a room. Their preference for outdoor living, and their intense love of nature, encouraged the Moghuls to use their gardens in the way others used buildings. So that, in addition to its romantic and spiritual dimensions, their gardens had the unlikely virtue of great practicality. It was a useful living space, its domestic character underlined by the fact that the topmost terrace was reserved as a zenana, where the women could see without being seen. No other great dynasty has ever used their gardens to such good purpose. Even after cloth was replaced by sandstone and marble, their architecture remained pavillion-like and open. Gardens were a necessary part of every palace, with water courses, pools and flower beds weaving in and out of the complex.

Tombs and mausoleums could not be constructed without a surrounding garden. This turned out to be fortunate for us, because it is the reverence associated with tombs that has preserved at least the "hardware" of these tomb gardens which now enable us to recreate them. Another factor in their favour was that, since they were planted with fruit trees which brought in an income, they were usually well looked after.

Babur seems to have had an obsessional fondness for all fruit, which he must have considered the ambrosia of Paradise Gardens; and surely it is no sin to be a glutton for ambrosia, even when washed down with the nectar of wine? He confided in his diary that he was disappointed with the fabled land of Hindusthan - no melons, the grapes not sweet enough, and the guavas of a poor quality. He speedily set about rectifying this by sending for plants from his "native place". But his main purpose was to adapt and modify the standard garden layout to suit the flat and waterless plains around Agra.

He settled on a site on the banks of the Jumna, which he divided into exact and orderly squares, marked out by water channels. The rushing mountain streams were replaced by wells with Persian wheels. This is that familiar contraption where a giant wheel is set up over a well, festooned with small clay pots. As it is turned (by bullocks) the pots would get filled with water, which spilled into a channel. I could not discover whether this system had already been in use in India, or whether, as its name suggests, it originated in Persia.

Babur liked to give his gardens hopeful names, and this, his first Indian garden, was called Aram Bagh, the Garden of Rest. Although all signs of it have disappeared, there is a myth floating about in the locality about one Ram Bagh which has also disappeared. Could this have been the same one? Anyway, the fact is, nothing seems to be known of any of the gardens built by Babur, except the one which Elizabeth Moynihan uncovered after much erudite detective work. "Here, in the barren like desert" she says, "on a monolithic platform of living rock is carved a series of pools depicting the ancient Lotus symbol in various forms - bud, flower, and over-ripe blossom." This seems like a departure from the standard char bagh but it also seems to show that Babur was quick to be influenced by Hindu symbols.

Based as it was on Babur's version of the Indian char bagh, the garden around the Tomb of Humayun became a prototype which, in the hands of future emperors, crystallised into one of the great garden styles of the world. Bereft of water and denuded of greenery, the bones of the garden of Humayun's Tomb can still be studied, perhaps all the better because there is no distraction by plants. The monument itself was in the exact centre of the flat, square plot. From the centre of each side a broad path reached the tomb with a water channel running down the middle. Each square plot was further divided into squares by similar, but narrower paths raised above the surrounding planting areas. A slight artificial slope allowed the water to flow easily, collecting at each intersection into a large square pool. The changes in levels was an opportunity to build decorative chutes when the water descended to a lower terrace. The incised pattern on the slab which formed the chute made the water ripple quietly; while strong, wavy patterns produced a more bubbly movement. This was in contrast to the Italian style which took pleasure in making fountains perform astonishing acrobatics. It is interesting that none of the Mughals was influenced by European ideas, about which they could not have been uninformed.

While there was hardly any change in the essential plan of these gardens, each feature became more elaborate, more decorative, more carefully detailed, as time went on. The water channels, no longer merely functional, became broader and more imaginative, with small fountains; the chadars were wider, with elaborately chiselled surfaces which made the water dance as it slid down; the railings and baradaris were made of intricately pierced workmanship; and complicated geometrical patterns were invented for laying the paths. Each square plot was furnished with a single type of fruit tree. It would have also been unaesthetic to mix the fruit trees - and it would also made for difficult gardening.

Such tomb gardens proliferated during the next couple of centuries. Every rich man built himself a garden; during his lifetime it was his weekend home, and after his death it housed his tomb. It is said that such practices were encouraged by the tradition of non-inheritance - it suited a nobleman to spend his wealth in gardens rather than forfeit it to the King at his death.

Akbar's priorities were empire building and administration, but gardens were always an obligatory part of his forts. When he finally managed to drive a road through the mountains and enter the valley of Kashmir, its natural beauty shocked him into becoming a garden-builder. About this, Mrs. Moynihan says that "Nasim, earliest of the Mughal gardens in Kashmir, was a place for living in, and as the country took hold upon the imagination and affections of succeeding generations, Nasim was followed by a series of gardens which were primarily summer homes. It is in this that they differ so profoundly from the gardens of the Indian plains which were, in the main, settings for stupendous buildings."

Ajay Lall

In Kashmir, garden-building became a fashionable court activity. Mrs. Moynihan reckons that at one time there were 700 gardens around Dal Lake and Sylvia Crowe quotes a higher figure. More and better qualities of fruit trees - cherries, apricots, pears, apples, were imported and planted. What would we have done without Kashmiri apples? It is also said that the Chenar, which has become so much a part of Kashmiri culture, was brought in at this time. Gardens were once more sited on hillsides, and built in the tradition of the classical Paradise Garden.

In the hands of Jehangir, the gardens grew in beauty, every detail was designed to extract the last ounce of sensuous pleasure from the surroundings. The water which flowed down chutes was lit from behind by lamps placed in niches; in the daytime these niches held flowers. The king's throne was placed where he could enjoy every sight, sound and scent to the full - over the spot where the waters fell.

The two most famous gardens were Shalimar and Nishat - the one built by Jehangir, and the other by his brother-in-law. As well as being an aesthete, Jehangir was the first Indian naturalist, and it is a great loss that all traces of the original planting have disppeared. Nevertheless, the words of Sylvia Crowe are still true of today's Shalimar. "(It) combines a refinement of detail and proportion with an all-pervading peace and calm, which yet escapes melancholy." Nishat, with its seven terraces and a more open site, is the more showy of the two; it has more colour and life, but it lacks the tranquillity of Shalimar. In a way these gardens were a celebration of water - even the entrance was by water - for you approached it in a shikara across the lake. And yet, extravagant as they were, they did not suggest a distasteful opulence. The purpose was not to boost the ego of the owners but to give them a sense of calm and peace.

The ultimate char bagh is of course the garden of the Taj. The setting had to be worthy of the jewel, and all the aesthetic experience and the craftsmanship of two centuries was exerted to achieve this. The jewel was placed not in the centre, but at the far end, so that the tomb might be viewed across a rich carpet of flower beds, pools, chadars. The marble railings are kept low so as not to create a visual barrier; while their pierced, "see-through" patterns gives a light, airy feel to the whole space.

The pattern of the Mughal garden was imitated, with different degrees of success, by the later rajas, nawabs, and anyone else who could afford to do so. The main drawback was the amount of water it demanded - a commodity in very short supply in our country. But even as the gardens themselves withered, they left their stamp on the many lesser gardens which came later - the institutional gardens, the parks, even the city playgrounds. We still follow the lines and geometry which the Mughals bequeathed to us, although their taste and sophistication continues to elude us.


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