Posts Tagged ‘Mughal Gardens’

soiled_and_seeded_issue_09I am delighted this month to have co-authored an article in Soiled and Seededa splendid on-line garden magazine that aims to provide “a rich and eclectic source of ideas, learned practices, history and heritage… to dig deep to offer a refreshing and engaging take on garden culture.”

My co-author is Saima Iqbal, a conservation architect working for INTACH in Kashmir, and in the brief article we explain plans to establish authentic planting patterns at the Mughal gardens in Kashmir.

Please do go and take a look.

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One of the best and most beautiful expressions of Mughal culture is its gardens. Sadly, few examples survive, but among the finest are the terraced gardens in the Kashmir valley. On a visit earlier this month I saw how these exquisite sites are being restored to something approaching their seventeenth-century glory.

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Dr Jan Haenraets, an expert on the restoration of historic landscapes, is advising on the work in Kashmir and I am delighted that he has agreed to be interviewed here.

Jan, what makes the Mughal gardens of Kashmir so important?
First, they are just exceptionally beautiful. They also provide irreplaceable physical evidence that helps us understand Mughal – and Mughal garden – history. People think of the great garden tombs such as the Taj Mahal when they think of Mughal garden history, but in Kashmir the gardens were created just as gardens, not to accompany a tomb. The mountainous topography also produced a specific type of design – the terraced garden.

It feels as if Kashmir was the ultimate gardening playground of the Mughal Emperors; indeed it is said that, during the height of Mughal glory in the mid-17th century of Shah Jahan’s rule, the Kashmiri city of Srinagar boasted around 700 gardens.

They also represent a pinnacle in the long gardening tradition of Kashmir, although the horticultural influence from Kashmir on the Mughal tradition still needs much research.

When I think of the Kashmir gardens, places like Kyoto, Japan and Suzhou, China, come to my mind. Both places are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites, with dense numbers of gardens playing a key role in these UNESCO listings. The Mughal gardens heritage of Kashmir is, in my opinion, of no lesser significance. For me, they are one of the peaks of Islamic garden art.

How did you get involved in the project to restore them?
I had been aware of some ongoing conservation planning for the Mughal gardens in Kashmir since 2004, when the Jammu and Kashmir chapter of INTACH [the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage] started their first management planning surveys. In 2010 I had the chance to help for some months on additional research and management recommendations. The INTACH J&K team wanted some expert advice to help with more detail, especially in relation to the horticultural and soft landscape aspects, as their expertise was mainly architectural conservation.

What state were the gardens in when you first got involved?
The gardens were managed and open to public, with many people visiting, mainly locals and Indian tourists. 2010 was a turbulent summer in Kashmir, with almost three months of strikes, daytime curfews and protests in the valley, meaning that places were closed down most of the season. Although by 2010 INTACH J&K had already started some architectural conservation works, they stopped when unrest occurred.

At Achabal Bagh the central water channel and pools had been repaired, with work ongoing on the main baradari [pavilion] and the side channels. In Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh work had started on the water features and, although it was not complete, they were working. The main work in these two gardens was on some of the buildings, including the hammam in Shalimar Bagh and the baradari in the Zenana at Nishat Bagh.

What has now been achieved?
INTACH J&K continues step by step to restore architectural features. The Department of Floriculture maintains the gardens, and aims to keep the key six gardens presentable.

One success was that we managed to get the key gardens [Nishat Bagh, Shalimar Bagh, Achabal Bagh, Chashma Shahi, Pari Mahal and Verinag] as a serial nomination onto the Tentative List for UNESCO World Heritage. Now we are developing a project that hopefully can result in a holistic conservation approach. It feels like now the gardens have largely been stabilized, with architectural features being partly restored, but with the real challenges only starting.

What remains to be done?
The main focus now must shift towards the wider gardens and landscapes. The management so far has focused on the central channel areas only, and so the wider landscape features are frequently damaged and much at risk. Most visitors only see the central parts of the gardens for a short time, and enjoy that. But mostly they do not realize the layout and importance of the wider gardens and landscape. For instance the Shalimar canal between the garden and Dal Lake is of key significance, but is in a dire state. The surrounding cultural landscape and the lake are also at risk.

The Department of Floriculture needs to be more skilled at managing heritage gardens, rather than presenting them in a typical urban park style. Plus, maintenance needs to be better, to tackle the wear and tear in the gardens from visitor pressure, with for instance lawns compacted and central parts in a poor state, and the less-known gardens generally need more maintenance. Horticulture and planting schemes need to improve in the gardens: for instance there used to be many orchards on the terraced side wings of the gardens, but little remains of these plantings.

We basically need now to develop actions such as archaeology, conservation propagation, interpretation, conservation skills training, restoration planting schemes, legal protection, a Kashmir Mughal gardens database and buffer zone protection.

Which is your favourite of the six gardens? and why?
All the main gardens have something very special. I believe that for instance Shalimar Bagh should be seen as a ‘cultural landscape’ – different periods of history have created historical layers in the garden with distinct markings, and its wider setting and features are amazing.

If I must highlight one garden, then maybe I’d say Nishat Bagh because its terraces are so extensive. Most visitors only see the central axis, but the ‘side wings’ in Nishat are incredible. I don’t feel that anyone truly recognizes the sophistication of these terraces, and how ingenious the making of them must have been in Mughal times.

Remember that there used to be over 700 Mughal gardens in Kashmir; today we speak often about the six main ones that are open to the public. Just to illustrate, I’ll mention a seventh, and that is Jharoka Bagh at Manasbal Lake. It also is struggling conservation-wise, but still worth a visit. Its location on a hillside next to the lake makes beautiful use of the genius loci.

What has been the biggest challenge in the project?
Convincing the management authorities of the need to have a conservation management approach and stop the ongoing damaging developments. Awareness remains low and it is hard to see people put much time into the safeguarding of the project while damage continues to occur.

And what is the greatest joy?
Doing so much work on the historical survey, sometimes the greatest joy lies in finding that one new previously unknown photograph, to experience how we slowly start to understand the gardens. For instance, when I gave a talk in London about the gardens, someone had brought to the lecture unseen early 20th century photographs that his mother had made of the gardens. That often is what keeps the motivation alive.

In the gardens there is also always joy to experience. For instance just watching the local kids play cricket in the Zenana under the ancient Chinar trees is fantastic, or strolling through the gardens and being offered fresh berries or fruit from the garden by the locals.

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With many thanks to Dr Jan Haenraets for this interview. For more on the Mughal gardens in Kashmir, see Jan’s article here and the UNESCO World Heritage entry here.

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Ask a garden-lover what they know about Mughal gardens and the likelihood is that, pretty soon, they will say something about them being paradise gardens, a foretaste of the celestial Paradise that awaits the faithful. Garden historians will probably add details about the geometrical four-square design, divided by waterways representing the rivers flowing with milk, honey, wine and water described in the Qur’an, and enclosed within walls that protected them from the wilderness beyond.

All these features may well have appeared in Islamic gardens over the centuries, and elements of them are certainly to be found in some gardens created by the Mughal dynasty that ruled India from 1526 to 1858. But research I have just completed illustrates how the designs of Babur, the first Mughal emperor, bore little relation to this traditional view of the gardens that his dynasty produced.

Idealised image of Babur

Idealised portrait of Babur, c1605, from the British Museum.

I will be giving a paper on this topic at a conference in Brussels next week, organised by the European Architectural History Network. My talk will focus on the wider surroundings of Mughal gardens in the brief period between Babur’s conquest of northern India in 1526 and his death four years later. (The talk will also explore similar issues in contemporaneous gardens of Renaissance Europe, but that may be a topic for another blog post, another day!).

Babur, born in modern-day Uzbekistan in 1483, was a direct descendant of both Timur (Tamberlaine) and Genghis Khan. A poet, musician and creator of gardens, Babur was also a great warrior and conqueror, his life full of shifting military alliances and treachery, full-blown battles, skirmishes and sieges throughout much of central Asia. Fortunately for us, his life story is wonderfully captured in his autobiography, known as the Baburnama.

Although a great source of information, the Baburnama is also (through no fault of Babur’s) the cause of much confusion and misunderstanding about early Mughal gardens. Some sixty years after Babur’s death, his grandson (the third Mughal emperor Akbar) commissioned a series of paintings to illustrate the work. These exquisite miniatures, many of them portraying the gardens Babur describes, reflect more the designs of Akbar’s time in the 1590s, than they do the actual early sixteenth century gardens being described in the text. They show us walled, geometrical gardens with flowing waterways dividing the space into four equal squares. They represent how we see Mughal gardens today. Eminent contemporary writers such as Penelope Hobhouse have used the paintings to conclude that Babur’s designs had the “four-part layout, divided by water rills, with a central pool.. typical of early Paradise Gardens.”

Babur at Agra

Babur receiving envoys in his garden at Agra, image from the V&A.

But a close reading of the text tells us something quite different. The Baburnama reveals the first Mughal Emperor’s love of nature, his delight in plants and creatures, and the way he lived most of life in the open, resting in gardens, setting off from gardens, navigating past gardens. These places were central features in the landscape, points of reference for Babur and his fellow military travellers. Gardens were both refuges from attack and vantage points from which to attack. They were places of beauty and of power, where the Emperor would entertain and impress allies and envoys, plan campaigns and celebrate victories.

Babur’s gardens were often created at the site of an interesting natural feature – a spring perhaps, or a river, or a fine view – and then pools, plantings and seats or pavilions would be added. For several of his gardens, Babur’s descriptions focus on the “good air” or the “first-rate view” from the site. It is clear that these places were not separate and enclosed, but designed to enhance nature and to be part of it. Certainly, Babur tells us about the flowers and fruit he planted, the flowing waterways, his great love of regularity and symmetry, but there is no insistence on a four-square pattern or on four rivers. He writes of his great thankfulness to his god for what nature has provided, but not at all of the garden as a symbol of celestial Paradise. Instead these first Mughal gardens were the Emperor’s stamp on the land very much in the here and now, a sign of his love of nature, and also an expression of his control over the territories he conquered.

Today they also serve as a warning to us landscape historians not to get carried away by beautiful images, but to research a range of sources before pronouncing on the style or meaning of a particular site or type of garden.

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Today we visited the sumptuous Mughal Gardens that lie behind the President’s Palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan) in New Delhi. Normally private, the gardens are opened free of charge to the public for just a few weeks every February and March, when flowering in the gardens is at its peak. [Sadly, for security reasons, cameras are not allowed, so I am using images from other sources for this post.]

Aerial view of the main part of the Mughal Gardens, with the palace in the background. Image from India Perspectives Vol 24.

A successful mix of Indian and European influences, the fifteen acres of gardens were laid out by Edwin Lutyens, the British architect who designed the palace itself and much of the surrounding colonial city of New Delhi in the 1920s and 30s.

Plan of the Mughal Gardens, from Irving, Indian Summer.

As this plan shows, the gardens divide into three areas: first, the grand section immediately behind the palace with its lotus fountains and spectacular stepped geometry. At the other (western) end, there is a more private butterfly garden around a gentle circular pool and, joining these two together, is a long narrow walled garden, edged on both sides by tennis courts, and planted with roses and bougainvillea.

Lotus fountain and flower beds in the main garden, January 2010, from the Aga Khan Visual Archive.

The circular pool, in January 2010, from the Aga Khan Visual Archive.

Pergola and rose beds in the narrow walled garden, from the Aga Khan Visual Archive.

Lutyens was famously not a fan of Indian architecture (or indeed of Indians). He described the former as “cumbrous, ill-constructed… the building style of children” and dismissed the latter as “odd people with odd names.” With such views commonly held, Lutyens and the other Brits involved in the creation of New Delhi debated how far Indian influences should be reflected in the design of their colonial capital. For the palace gardens and other landscape features, the issue was coloured by two important books published during the time New Delhi was being built, and both probably deliberately seeking to influence the debate in favour of traditional Mughal elements: first, Constance Mary Villiers Stuart’s Gardens of the Great Mughals, published in 1913; and second, Indian Gardens [Indische Gärten], also by a woman, Marie Luise Gothein, which appeared in 1926. Certainly Lutyens’ original plans for an artlessly planted English-style garden behind the palace were to change dramatically.

The plan he finally produced for the site, inspired by gardens he had visited in Agra and Kashmir, reflected the pleasing geometry and balance of Mughal gardens, their beautiful stonework, and the plentiful use of water in rills and fountains to divide the gardens into quadrilateral patterns. These ideas were to some extent a natural progression for Lutyens from the arts and crafts style he had established in his English designs, such as the delightful garden at Hestercombe in Somerset. To these Mughal influences at the palace gardens Lutyens added two very British lawns designed for entertaining, and many large geometric flower beds usually described as English in style (although originally many Mughal gardens would have had similar masses of colourful flowers). To provide year-round structure among the flowers, the main garden is punctuated by clipped specimens of the fragrant native maulsari tree (Mimusops elengi) and by columnar cypress.

An aerial image of the palace shortly after it was completed, showing the new gardens in the foreground, as part of the grand axis along which New Delhi was being constructed. Image from the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge.

British garden historian Tom Turner (whose wry blog at Garden Visit I highly recommend) has been critical in the past of these gardens. In an article in 2005 in Historic Gardens Review, he wrote disparagingly of the inappropriately coloured tiles in the pools, the spotty old-fashioned planting and the poor standard of maintenance, citing leaking basins and obtrusive plant supports.

Many of these issues seem to me to have improved since 2005. Today I saw no sign of leaks and very few plant supports, and the flowers, while traditional in choice, were spectacular in colour and range (although the pool tiles did perhaps still have something of the swimming pool about them).

My one big criticism of these gardens would be that, apart from the sandstone pergola in the long walled garden, there is a decided lack of shade. The trees in the main garden are too fastigiate or too clipped to provide any meaningful shadows, and elsewhere there are only low flowerbeds and lawn. Even today, before the Indian summer has really begun, it was too hot to linger for long among the garden’s delightful fountains, flowers and intricate geometric patterning.

The shade-giving pergola in the walled garden. Image from Irving, Indian Summer.

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