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garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad

Early Mughal myths

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.

8 comments on “Early Mughal myths

  1. College Gardener
    May 25, 2012

    Thanks for the great post! It is always surprises me how pernicious and entrenched some received wisdom – such as that of Babur’s supposedly quadripartite gardens – can be. Laura Parodi, an Italian art historian I took a class with last year, has been working on interrogating the true meaning of the term chahar bagh in Timurid and early Mughal sources, and some students’ and fellow scholars response to her research and findings ranges from indignant to practically offended.

    • landscapelover
      May 26, 2012

      Thanks for the comment. The work on “chahar bagh” as a term is fascinating – as you say, it has been accepted for so long as meaning a four-part garden that it is difficult to consider it may have quite other derivations. Babur uses the term to describe some gardens, but for him it seems to mean any large architectural design.

  2. Does that include the more Japanese concept of borrowed scenery? The ‘fine view’?

    • landscapelover
      May 26, 2012

      Diana, hi. It is fascinating to look at similar approaches to gardens across very different cultures. I think for Babur it was less about borrowing scenery to make a fine picture, and more about choosing a pleasing situation for his gardens – by a river with cooling breezes, or on a hillside with views over meadows – so that he could both enhance and immerse himself in nature.

  3. maggie
    May 26, 2012

    Great post. I have certainly carried along the hortus conclusus idea from European art history images and applied it to Islamic landscape design concepts. The compressed or flattened perspective in some Mughal paintings reinforced it for me.
    Your discussion of Babur’s appreciation of natural features and aspect certainly suggest an Earthly approach to gardens, the cultivation of which would be a way to celebrate what a celestial God bestowed upon him.
    Wish I could be in the audience when you deliver your paper.

    • landscapelover
      May 26, 2012

      Maggie, thanks. I have been surprised by the amount of common influence between medieval European and Timurid / early Mughal gardens.

      You’re right that Babur’s was very much an earthy and earthly view of gardens and nature. His autobiography, although both long and fragmentary, gives a wonderful sense of his response to the world and his intent to control much of it, both through military expansion and, in a very different way, through creating gardens.

  4. Donna@Gardens Eye View
    May 26, 2012

    I love exploring history and this is fascinating…how exciting that you are presenting this paper…congrats on that. Fab post!

    • landscapelover
      May 26, 2012

      Donna, thank you. It has been an interesting piece of research and I’m looking forward to sharing it at the conference next week.

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This entry was posted on May 25, 2012 by in Belgium, Gardens, History, India and tagged , , , , .

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