The legacy of Shah Ja­han through his gar­dens

The gar­dens and their build­ings of Shah Ja­han

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Above the green of the treetops the white minarets and domes of the Taj Ma­hal are vis­i­ble from my room. It is late af­ter­noon and the heat of the early sum­mer causes a shim­mer­ing ef­fect. This ex­quis­ite ar­chi­tec­tural jewel ap­pears to float above the green bar­rier that iso­lates this tomb com­plex from the chaos and dust of Agra.

The Taj Ma­hal is con­sid­ered to be one of the great won­ders of the mod­ern era. It is cer­tainly the best known of Shah Ja­han’s ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage but it is only one of a num­ber of mag­nif­i­cent land­scapes that owe their cre­ation to this Mughal em­peror. Through­out north­ern In­dia and in Pak­istan there are palaces and tombs, mosques and gar­dens that re­flect his pas­sion for beauty as ex­pressed in stone and paint, wa­ter and plants.

While many of the com­plexes and their gar­dens have been al­tered or have fallen into dis­re­pair, enough sur­vive on the ground, on pa­per and frozen in the stone of his build­ings to give us an in­sight into the beauty of these green par­adises and their build­ings.

To com­pre­hend the beauty of the de­sign of the com­plexes of Mughal In­dia it is nec­es­sary to un­der­stand the re­la­tion­ship of build­ing and gar­den. The in­te­gra­tion of gar­den and build­ing within a strong rec­ti­lin­ear plan comes from a de­sign her­itage dat­ing back to An­cient Per­sia and be­yond. How­ever, un­der the Mughal rulers, the evo­lu­tion of this de­sign ab­sorbs many of the el­e­ments of both Safavid Per­sia and Hindu In­dia to achieve an el­e­gance and beauty rarely, if ever, sur­passed.

Mughal her­itage

The first of the Mughal rulers, Babur (1508 – 1530), born in the green moun­tain­ous Ferghana re­gion of Cen­tral Asia, es­tab­lished a tra­di­tion of cre­at­ing mag­nif­i­cent land­scapes through­out his em­pire. From the ear­li­est de­signs to his (now re­stored) tomb gar­den in Kabul, Bar­bur’s gar­dens showed this in­flu­ence of mil­len­nia of evo­lu­tion of gar­den de­sign and in­her­i­tance right back to the gar­dens of An­cient Egypt, Me­sopotamia and Per­sia.

His heirs con­tin­ued this tra­di­tion cul­mi­nat­ing in the per­fect mar­riage of gar­den and build­ing in the Taj Ma­hal com­plex in Agra, In­dia. Shah Ja­han was the fifth Mughal Em­peror and lived from 1592 to 1666. His reign lasted for over thirty years un­til he was de­posed by his son in 1658. He was a de­vout Mus­lim though the prod­uct of a mar­riage be­tween his Mus­lim fa­ther and Hindu mother. His thirty years on the throne saw the cre­ation of some of the finest ex­am­ples of Mughal art and ar­chi­tec­ture. The pe­riod of his rule is con­sid­ered by many to be the apogee of Mughal Art. He con­tin­ued to be inspired by the love of gar­dens that he had in­her­ited from his fore­bears. He was re­spon­si­ble for the cre­ation of hun­dreds of gar­dens through­out his em­pire.

The im­pe­tus to the cre­ation of so many and such beau­ti­ful al­tered land­scapes was the con­stant need for the em­peror to move through­out his lands to con­trol such dis­parate and dis­tant peo­ple. This meant that the court was very mo­bile and would of­ten set up camps as they pro­gressed. In the lands of Cen­tral Asia and the Sub-con­ti­nent this mo­bil­ity led to the es­tab­lish­ment of ‘camp­ing grounds’, ver­dant, shaded, well wa­tered and with plant ma­te­rial that could pro­vide some fresh food needs. These were the royal serais.

Of­ten these gar­dens had none or few struc­tures built within their bound­aries. Through time the court be­come more set­tled and this led to the es­tab­lish­ment of more struc­tured cap­i­tals such as Ak­bar’s great red city of Fateh­pur Sikri and also the red walled fort at Agra. In this tra­di­tion Shah Ja­han es­tab­lished his own mag­nif­i­cent palace com­plex on the banks of the Ya­muna River in Delhi: Sha­ja­han­abad.


Delhi to­day abounds with trea­sures from the Mughal era but nowhere is the Mughal con­cept of in­te­gra­tion of gar­den and build­ing more beau­ti­fully ex­e­cuted than in Shah Ja­han’s own city – Shah­ja­han­abad. This new city was cen­tred around what is known to­day as the Red Fort.

The com­plex is bounded by mas­sive red sand­stone walls on three sides with the Yu­mana River and its flood plain bor­der­ing it on the fourth. Through­out the com­plex there is a con­stant in­ter­play be­tween the red sand­stone and white mar­ble; a con­sis­tent fea­ture of Shah Ja­han’s build­ings.

To­day these walls are re­sound­ingly red, but re­cent work by the Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey of In­dia has found that some of them were plas­tered with a mix­ture of mar­ble dust, dhal pulses, lime and fruit juice thus mak­ing them white. An experiment in restor­ing this plas­ter has been car­ried out on a wall with the Naqqar-Khana to a mixed re­sponse. This in­ter­play was off­set with a se­ries of gar­dens through­out the com­plex – red and white against the green.

It has a for­bid­ding en­trance through the La­hore Gate and the

mar­kets of the Chan­dri Chowk; the great tow­ers give no hint of the light­ness and beauty of the build­ings within its walls. Once past the street of mar­kets and the open space fac­ing the Naqqar-Khana, (Drum House) you are at the ac­tual en­trance into the royal palace.

Here the chaos of the en­try and the city of Delhi be­yond drops away. From this gate­way the court drum­mers would her­ald the ar­rival of the em­peror. He would en­ter through the La­hore Gate and down the Chan­dri Chowk with a chan­nel of run­ning wa­ter di­vid­ing it, on through the arches of the Naqqar- Khana dec­o­rated with pan­els of flow­ers and twin­ing vines, into the first of his gar­den courts. Now a wide green space, it has lost its orig­i­nal char­ac­ter.

Ahead is the Di­wan-I-‘Am, built of red sand­stone, but some ar­eas were orig­i­nally cov­ered in gilded plas­ter. This was where Shah Ja­han held court seated on the mag­nif­i­cent mar­ble podium on which, at some stage, stood the fa­bled Pea­cock Throne though this throne is known to have stood in the Di­wan-i-Khas as well. Even with­out the glit­ter­ing adorn­ment of this be­jew­elled seat it is stun­ningly beau­ti­ful with its back­ground of flow­ered pan­els of in­laid mar­ble of Ital­ian pi­etra dura dec­o­ra­tion. Here flow­ers of semi-pre­cious stone curl around pan­els dec­o­rated with var­i­ous birds; gar­dens frozen in stone. Vines and flow­ers climb the pil­lars and cross the canopy, be­low which sat the throne. The room would have orig­i­nally been hung with mag­nif­i­cent em­broi­dered cur­tains and silk car­pets would have adorned the floors.

This hall gives a taste of the beauty that lies ahead in the pri­vate quar­ters of the harem – the em­per­ors liv­ing apart­ments. From the Di­wan-I-‘Am you cross a crossax­ial gar­den with a large cen­tral pool onto which faces the Rang Ma­hal, part of the seraglio or women’s apart­ments. This pool has a high podium in the cen­tre with a foun­tain from which wa­ter once sprayed the sur­round­ing air. The wa­ter for this pool flowed from a wide chan­nel de­scend­ing by a chadar (wa­ter shute) from the Rang Ma­hal

(Painted Palace) and the Nahr-iBi­hisht, the River of Heaven.

The Nahr-i-Bi­hisht flowed through­out the pri­vate apart­ments with its wa­ter be­ing drawn from the Ya­muna River. The cool green gar­den in the past would have been alive with flow­er­ing plants match­ing, in their colour­ful­ness, the paint­ing and dec­o­ra­tion in the Rang Ma­hal. While we are un­sure ex­actly what flow­ers were used here, ex­am­i­na­tion of the paint­ings of the pe­riod help with sug­ges­tions. These paint­ings are richly dec­o­rated with an amaz­ing and easily recog­nised ‘gar­den of flow­ers. These in­clude

View of Shah Ja­han’s pri­vate apart­ments at Shah­ja­han­abad

Nahi-i-Bi­histh con­nect­ing the pri­vate apart­ments of Shah Ja­han

Beau­ti­ful flow­ers carved into a mar­ble panel in the pri­vate apart­ments

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