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Posts Tagged ‘paradise gardens’

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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In Marrakech, gardens are havens of peace, a refuge from the noise, toil and heat of the city. Enclosed, geometric, with cool splashing water and fragrant blossoms, they have long been perceived as places where mortals can experience paradise on earth. They differ from Western designs that value movement through gardens; instead these are places perfectly at rest.

The palais de la Bahia, in the heart of the Marrakech medina, was a lavish private home created by the sultan for his grand vizier (prime minister) in the late 1800s. Blurring the distinction between inside and out, it consisted of a series of ornately decorated rooms arranged around private courtyards. It was here that the vizier installed his four wives, two score concubines, and many servants and guards. Today, entry through a wooden gate leads directly to a tranquil walled garden full of the scent of orange blossom.

The internal courtyards each have their own character. The first is small and delightful, its four symmetrical beds edged with patterned screens and planted with orange trees and palms. A central stone fountain sits serenely among the bright, intricate designs of the zellij (mosaic tiles) of the flooring. The space is surrounded by arcades of ornate wooden fretwork, while handsome cedarwood doors open to reveal horseshoe-shaped arches and playful mirrors.

A second courtyard is simpler. In the centre is a large water basin, standing on checkerboard zellij flooring, while plain plaster walls are broken up by Andalusian style painted cedarwood doors.

The main courtyard is altogether grander – a large open space, coloured cream and pale green, with zellij and marble floor tiles, and a low rectangular central water feature.

Here are no plants, save for a few in pots, but palm trees (located outside the courtyard) tower over the low buildings and their lattice-screened arcades.

Image from linternaute.com

The final (and oldest) courtyard has a shabby charm all its own. In need of some repair to the crumbling floors and stonework, it nevertheless feels intimate and lush, with its bananas, jasmine, orange trees, bougainvillea and palms, simple water basins, and pretty screens concealing arcades of painted cedarwood and sumptuous tiling.

Designed to appeal to all the senses, with perfumed flowers and fruit, tactile surfaces, the sound of splashing water, and intricate visual patterning, these courtyards belie the simplicity of their layout to provide cool, intimate sanctuaries full of fine craftsmanship and lush greenery – a glimpse of heaven on earth.

The next post will be on a centuries-old ruined Marrakech garden, and a famous modern one…

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