garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad
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.
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.
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.
Reblogged this on ΞXPLΞARTH and commented:
‘A Landscape Lover’s Blog’ invited me for an interview about the Mughal Gardens of Kashmir project. The article has some beautiful historic images and photo’s from ‘LandscapeLovers’ recent visit to the gardens, that illustrate ongoing work.
An extremely interesting post. Thank you.
Thank you for the interview and links. This might well be useful for my own academic research down the line.
I love that the Kashmir gardens were built to be gardens alone, unlike ,as the example you gave, of the Garden of the Taj Mahal. I will eagerly look forward to the restoration of the gardens Dr Jan is working on. The biggest disappointment of my travels in India was the condition of the gardens. Here will be a good reason to return.
It is so exciting to see such historic sites/gardens restored so we can enjoy these past wonders.
All so very beautiful – and such good news that they are being restored! Love the vintage postcards.
Quite stunning and found the interview very interesting.
Jill, You may not have seen tulips in Kashmir, but you certainly saw beautiful scenery and gardens. Thanks for sharing them.
Very interesting interview and images, it is always important to know the expert’s point of view about the work of assessing in restoring historic gardens. Thanks for sharing.
Do You know if they have restored the moonlit garden at the Taj Mahal?- Babur’s garden. I know Elizabeth Moynihan wrote a book about rediscovering it after the Yamuna river had covered it in silt. Beautiful photos and interesting article . Many thanks Don
Thanks for the comment. The Mehtab Bagh (moonlight garden) on the other side of the Yamuna river from the Taj Mahal is a fascinating site. Tour guides will tell you confidently that it was the planned (or actual) site of a “Black Taj” which Shah Jehan intended as his own burial site – having designed the white Taj for his beloved wife. But Moynihan’s work revealed evidence that in fact it was the site of a garden and not a tomb.
The large tank (stone reservoir) that she uncovered is still on display at the site, but most of it has been turned into a pretty standard public park – there has been no attempt to restore it to a 17th century garden, partly through lack of detailed evidence about what would have been there.
Despite its name, the park closes at 5pm every day, so it is not possible to see it in moonlight. But it is still probably the best place for views and photographs of the Taj on the other bank.
Thank you so much for the information. I made a moonlight garden or white garden a few years ago and I have been speaking to many garden clubs on the idea of white gardens. The most famous being Vita’s Sissinghurst garden which actually wasn’t made until 1949- 50 when she turned her rose garden into the white garden. I understand there was a vogue both in Britain & America for all white rooms and that fashion trend was carried outside into the garden in the 1920’s., which Eleanor Perenyi writes about in her wonderful book ‘Green Thoughts.’ I was thrilled to discover that the Indians had Moonllight gardens before the Mughals. Do you know if white gardens or Moonlight gardens existed before the Mughals. I have come across any mention of the Chinese having such gardens. I love finding the root of these garden ideas. The fun for me is seeing how many garden ideas still exist today. I can see your blog is going to be a great resource. Again Many thanks- Don
PS Elizabeth Moynihan was my neighbor here in upstate NY and sadly I never go to talk to her about this subject before she moved away!
Don, thanks for the further comment. The Mehtab Bagh was I believe called a moonlight garden because it was enjoyed after sunset by the Mughal court. It was carefully designed so that a ghostly reflection of the Taj Mahal would appear in the central tank or pool on bright nights. The evidence uncovered by Elizabeth Moynihan and her team included some pollen and plant samples, which suggested that the planting was probably heavily fragrant and brightly coloured (reds, greens, yellows) – fairly typical from descriptions of contemporaneous gardens and from Mughal miniature paintings of the period. A garden of mainly white flowers would be surprising I think in the harsh sun of northern India; such planting is better suited to the soft light of Vita Sackville-West’s Sussex!
One of the interesting things from Moynihan’s research was that most of the plants identified at the Mehtab Bagh were native to India, rather than brought in from the Mughals northern homelands. The gardens at Agra and elsewhere that we describe today as classically Mughal were in fact a mix of Hindu and Muslim, Mughal and Hindustani.
I do not know much about the history of white gardens, but the idea of designing a garden around a single flower colour instinctively feels to me a modern notion. Perhaps it is a piece of research and a blog post for another day!
Hi, I’m doing an assignment on Mughal Garden so I have a few questions regarding this topic.
I see most of the pools in the Mughal gardens are reflecting the buildings (for example Taj Mahal), do you know any reasons behind that? I mean why did they do that?
2nd is why the pools are installed with jets? For example in Nishat Bagh, there are pools that installed with jets and visitors, in this case children, can interact with it. By that I mean they can jump into the pool but isn’t it dangerous for the kids with the jets spraying the water out?
I found out that the depth between the pool and water channel are different, do you know why? Lastly I would like to ask is it true that the 12 terraces in Nishat Bagh is to represent the 12 zodiac signs?
Actually I also have questions about the plants they used in Mughal garden but for now, these all I need to know. Thank you!
As well as the links in this post, there are lots of good books and websites on Mughal gardens where you can read around the topic and find good answers to your questions, for instance:
Tom Turner, Asian Gardens: History, Beliefs and Design (Routledge, 2010);
D. Fairchild Ruggles, Islamic gardens and landscapes (UPenn Press 2008);
James L. Wescoat and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, eds, Mughal Gardens: Sources, Places, Representations, and Prospects (Dumbarton Oaks, 1996);
ArchNet, an online resource on Muslim cultures, especially its digital library at http://archnet.org/library/
Good luck with your assignment.
Thank you for sharing those books especially Mughal Garden: Source, Place and Representation and Prospects! You and your blog has been very much helpful 🙂
it’s looks fabulous.The nature beauty of kashmir is one of the best destination in world one of the my favorite destination in india for holidays.thanks for sharing your experiences to us.
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…………………………………….I did not know about the restoration of the Srinagar gardens: it is fantastic. I am planning to go. When is the best month to go considering both weather and flowering. Tanks for your attention. This blog is so rich.
Silvio, thanks for the comment. April to October is the best time to visit the gardens (Srinagar is very cold and snowy all winter). There is a famous tulip festival in April, so a lot of people visit the gardens then. I think May and June are also lovely – July and August get rather warmer (although still pretty temperate compared to the rest of northern India). Do go – it is a magical part of the world.
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