The legacy of Shah Jahan through his gardens
The gardens and their buildings of Shah Jahan
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.
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