Home Culture The Mughal Charbagh : Paradise Gardens on Earth

The Mughal Charbagh : Paradise Gardens on Earth

The Mughal architectural legacy in India needs no introduction. Apart from forts, tombs, and mosques, they also built gardens - which changed places like Delhi, Agra and Kashmir forever. In this post, take a look at some of the exquisite Mughal gardens - the charbaghs (four-fold gardens) - considered to be a slice of heaven on earth!

The root word for Paradise, pairidaēza (in Persian) means “walled garden” – and just like the word, the (Mughal) Charbagh gardens too, have their roots / origin in Persia.

A quadrangular / rectangular garden of fruit-laden trees, shrubs and flowers woven into symmetrical patterns, quartered by waterways; fountains spraying water, cool shaded pavilions to sit under – the Charbaghs, were meant to be a reminder of the Garden of Eden (paradise).

Baburnama | Collection of the National Museum New Delhi : do you spot the Persian Wheel ?

Dotted across Northern India you will find some of the most magnificent ‘Paradise Gardens’ commissioned by Mughal Emperors which serve the very purpose.

What does Paradise look like?

The biblical Eden is described thus:

And the Lord God planted a garden in the east in Eden…The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters…”

Watercolour of Safdar Jang’s tomb from ‘Views by Seeta Ram from Delhi to Tughlikabad Vol. VII’ produced for Lord Moira, afterwards the Marquess of Hastings, by Sita Ram between 1814-15 | British Library |

According to the Quran, ‘jannat’ (paradise) awaits the faithful. It is a place where springs burst forth from the earth, a place where there are shady groves, trees, and bushes, whose fruits are within easy reach and are just waiting to be enjoyed; a place whose channels are replete with water, wine, milk, and honey, where the shade of high trees promises relief from the searing heat, and seas of flowers fill the air with enchanting scents. Perhaps it is this description that led Babur to build the “Bagh-e-Wafa”, loosely translated to ‘Garden of Fidelity’.

Babur supervising the laying out of the Garden of Fidelity | Baburnama, V&A

The Charbagh Design & Architecture

In Persia, the garden was meant to be “a retreat from the desert” – perhaps Hindustan’s heat and dust prompted Babur (the first Mughal Emperor) to construct his own slices of heaven in the subcontinent. His longing for fruits and love of gardens is well documented in Mughal history as is his disdain for Hindustan’s dry, dusty weather. His successors continued the tradition and 17th and 18th century India saw mughal-gardens flourish. Flowering trees, fruit trees and the shade-giving ones were landscaped appropriately, and so the Charbagh fulfilled both aesthetic and practical needs.

Mughal garden

Guided by the artistic traditions and religious ideals of Islam, the design of the gardens followed the traditions of Central Asian and Persian ones with minor moderations.

The gardens were square or rectangular in shape with further divisions into smaller square parterres usually limiting the number to four. Imposing entrances were constructed for these horticultural marvels and larger gardens sometimes even had four entrances. The appeal of the gardens was increased by planting trees in such a way that it enhanced the general lines of the gardens. There was also space for public gatherings, feasts and the zenana.

a ruler entertained by dancers in a paradise garden, detail; Art Institute of Chicago

Irrigation works were an important feature as they were used to ward off the heat and provide respite. The canals and tanks constructed were kept brimming with water and fed into the shallow watercourses which lay along the walking paths. The gardens also adopted the Persian Qanat system (also on the UNESCO world heritage list).

“Based on complex calculations and exceptional architectural qualities, water was collected and transported by mere gravity over long distances and these transport systems were maintained over centuries and, at times, millennia.”

Canals flowed into tanks (called ‘hauz’) which were mostly studded with fountains. Sheets of water fell from one terrace to another, creating a cool retreat. Usually the principal pavilion was placed in the center where the largest body of water was present.

Taj Mahal : Thomas Daniell

The Paradise-garden of the Quran with its 8 terraces was always the ideal model for the perfect garden. It symbolised life, death and eternity and was in accordance with the 8 divisions of paradise mentioned in the Quran.

The gardening tradition was also implemented within forts and tombs such as the Red Fort, Humayun’s tomb, Taj Mahal etc.

“The idea behind these gardens at Mughal tomb sites was that if the dead were to wake up from their eternal sleep, they would want to stroll in a garden full of flowers and birds, maybe enjoy a fruit..”






– Vasant Kumar Swarnkar, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI-Agra Circle | Source

Stand alone gardens solely served the purpose of pleasure and recreation but many were sometimes used for certain unique purposes as well. In this post, we’d only be exploring the pleasure-gardens!

Jahangir Sufis Charbagh
Emperor Jahangir with Holy Men in a Garden (San Diego Museum of Art, 1990.345) : Notice the garden layout – in the background you see a pavilion set against the Garden’s enclosing wall and a central watercourse. This is probably a meeting being held at night, for you see the presence of candles!

Let’s take a look at some of the most exquisite Mughal Paradise Gardens in India:

AGRA

Babur celebrates the birth of Humayun in the Chahar Bagh of Kabul

Babur set up his capital at Agra. There was no spring or rivulet available in the region except the mighty Yamuna river and thus Babar was forced to establish gardens by starting with the digging of wells. He then proceeded with the tamarind trees, octagonal tanks etc. Today the original character of the gardens is lost. There are no alternating cypress and fruit trees as Babar wished and the Baradaris are in a dilapidated state or have been modified. There remain only vestiges of the terraces, fountains and narrow watercourses.

Many believe there were around 44 gardens in Agra whereas art historian Eba Koch has pinned the number at 26. Many gardens have been lost in the expansion of the city, but nevertheless the figures indicate Babur’s love for the gardens which was carried forward by his heirs.

Some of the most prominent Mughal Gardens in Agra include:

Ram Bagh

Empress Nur Jahan entertaining Khurram (the future Shah Jahan) at the Aaram Bagh which she remodelled.

Ram Bagh is the first Mughal garden to be commissioned in present day India. It has 8 terraces which have been built on a sloping ground and is made in the traditional charbagh style. A pavilion rests on the top most terrace. In 1621, the Empress Nur Jahan- also a patron of gardens – remodelled it and christened it “Bagh-e-Nur Afshan”.
Ram Bagh is said to have earned its present name from the Maratha rulers of Agra. It was here that Babar was laid to rest before his remains were shifted to Kabul. It is believed that the Ram Bagh set the precedent for future Mughal gardens.

Mahtab Bagh

bird’s eye view of the Taj complex with the Mehtab Bagh at the top across the river Yamuna

Mahtab Bagh – the moonlight garden was built by Babur in the early 1500s. Sitting right across the Yamuna bank from the Taj Mahal, it offered a spectacular view of the mausoleum. However, it’s location (on the floodplains) also meant that the Garden was susceptible to floods (even in the Mughal times!).

Source: British Library

Originally irrigated by the river, the garden now it uses underground water. In 1993, the garden was rediscovered by the Archaeological Survey of India revealing a huge octagonal tank with 25 fountains, a small central tank and a baradari (covered pavilion) on the east side. Read an account of it by Rana Safvi, published in The Hindu.

KASHMIR

The Mughal Emperor Jahangir greatly admired the region’s beauty and so did his wife Empress Nur Jahan. Most of the gardens in Kashmir exist due to their patronage. Location was of utmost importance to the Mughal aesthetic : the sites chosen are at the foot of the mountain, near water sources and are terraced. It’s almost as if they imagined the paintings of these gardens before laying them out.

Kashmir Shawl Map : V&A

All except Verinag have a central water channel sourced by natural springs. Pavilions or baradaris with a central open space are placed over these channels. The water from these channels then joins a water body. These features are further enhanced by avenues of poplar trees or the chinar. Kashmir houses the maximum number of gardens as it was used as a summer retreat by the Mughals when they wanted to escape the heat of the plains. Some of the most popular are:

Nishat Bagh

Nishat Bagh : a painting by William Carpenter (V&A London)

The Nishat Bagh was built in 1634 by Mirza Abul Hassan along the eastern bank of the Dal Lake in Srinagar and at the feet of the Zabarwan mountain range. Designed in the traditional charbagh concept, it has 12 terraces, presumably representing all the zodiac signs. Almost all Mughal garden-designs were based on symbolism. The lowermost terrace connects directly to the lake and the uppermost one has the zenana. Thus this garden was primarily used as a private space by the Mughal household.

A terrance of the Nishat Bagh : illustration by E. Molyneux

Shalimar Bagh

The Shalimar Bagh traces its origins to the 6th century villa constructed by Pravarassena II on the same site. In the 16th century an early Sultan, Zain-ul-Abidin, is said to have created a bund or an embankment there. In 1620, Jahangir got the lower part or the Farah Bakhsh (the joy-imparting garden) constructed. Built in the charbagh style, Shah Jahan later added the upper part or  the Fayz Baksh ( bounty-bestowing garden) or the zenana with a characteristic black marble pavilion in it. In total the garden has 5 terraces. The Lower three house the Diwan-i-aam with a pink pavilion there and the upper 2 terraces house the Diwan-i-khas and the zenana as mentioned before.

The Queen’s pavilion (Shalimar Bagh) | C.M. Villiers Stuart

Achabal Bagh

Photo: Mike Prince | Source : Wikimedia Commons

The Achabal bagh was a pre-existing garden which was enhanced by Empress Nur Jahan in 1620. It was then named after her and called Begumabad. It later came to be called Sahebabad in memory of Jahangir. The Spring is the  central feature of the bagh and it continues to be it’s water source even to this day. A charbagh built in a trapezoidal shape with chinar trees planted in it and the Achabal Thung mountain looming over, it makes for a picturesque view in winters. The location – Achapal nag lends it’s name to the bagh.

Chashma Shahi Bagh

Chashma Shahi, the smallest of the royal Mughal gardens in Kashmir, was built by Shah Jahan in 1632 around a spring as a gift for his son Dara Shikoh. It rests on the slope of Zabarwan mountains and has 3 terraces in total. The spring is now sheltered under a pavilion which dates back to the later kashmiri period.

Chashma Shahi Bagh

Pari Mahal

The Pari Mahal is situated near Chashma Shahi to the west of the center of the city of Srinagar. It was commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1650. Built at the site of the ruins of a buddhist monastery it acted as a residential school of sufism. It is believed that it was constructed for astronomical observations and teachings.

Dara Shikoh named it after his wife Nadira Begum who was also known as Pari Begum. The garden has six terraces and has 2 pavilions with domed ceilings. Water in the bagh comes through underground pipes from a nearby spring.

Verinag

Water-colour painting of the source of the River Jhelum in an octagonal tank at Verinag (Kashmir) by Charles J. Cramer-Roberts (1834-1895) | BritishLibrary

Verinag is an octagonal pavilion garden built around the spring that is the known source of the river Jhelum. It was constructed by Jahangir around 1619-20 and was later enlarged by Shah Jahan. It was thus called Shahabad for a while. The spring has a rich fish reserve and a stone walkway surrounds it. The original pavilions and bathrooms are now lost despite it being repaired by the Dogras in the 1870s.

PINJORE

Image: AIIS

A relatively later Mughal garden, the one at Pinjore was commissioned by Nawab Fadai Khan. He was one of the few people that Emperor Aurangzeb trusted. It is believed that he created the Pinjore Garden as a personal pleasure retreat while he oversaw the construction of the Badshahi Mosque (Lahore) – a responsibility bestowed upon him by Aurangzeb. Fed by a natural spring, the garden is terraced. Later, it was developed by the Patiala dynasty rulers and was named after Maharaja Yadavindra Singh.  It is now a popular garden near Chandigarh and at the foothills of the Shivaliks.

DELHI

Delhi was the seat of the Mughals for the longest time and it is evident when one views the monuments in the city. Gardens outside tombs and forts were also established here but are now in ruins, with many being lost forever. Azzabad was built along the lines of Shalimar Bagh by Shah Jahan’s wife A’azzu-n-Nissa who was also known as Bibi Akabarabadi. The garden along with being situated on the Grand trunk road holds significance because Aurangzeb declared himself King here. Hit the post below for more.

On the west of Sabzi Mandi lies Roshanara Bagh which was commissioned by Shah Jahan’s daughter by the same name. She was buried in her own garden much later. The characteristic features of the bagh such as most of the tanks and pavilions are now lost though a broken pergola and square stone pillars still exist. Another garden, the Talkatora bagh sits on the lower slopes of the ridge to the south of New Delhi. Like Roshanara Bagh, it is in a dilapidated condition and one can faintly trace the Mughal origin of bagh and the hammam under the growth of scrubs.

While the Mughal Gardens inspired poetry and painting, it also ended up influencing the Gardens at the Rashtrapati Bhawan!

The Mughal Gardens at the Rashtrapati Bhavan have been planted on an area spanning 15 acres. They draw inspiration from the gardens in Kashmir, Taj Mahal and the Miniature paintings of India and Persia. Sir Edward Lutyens finalised the design in 1917 and the work started in 1928-29. The Dean of Horticulture at the time, William Mustoe collaborated to bring the garden to life. The garden is opened to the general public once a year during its annual function Udyanotsav held in Feb- March. The main attractions here are roses, tulips, primulas and 50 other varieties of trees, shrubs and vines.

“Gar firdaus ba ruye zamin ast, hamin asto hamin asto hamin ast!”

Also Read: Building Heaven on Earth by Ambrin Hayat [Friday Times]

The paradise-gardens built by the Mughals were probably a sensory, out-of-the-world experience – as the paintings and photos lead us to imagine. The carefully manicured aesthetic of today hardly compares to the magnificence of the Mughals – but aren’t we glad that right in the midst of our busy lives, exists an oasis of calm, a slice of heaven on earth.

Pin It for Later!

Mughal Charbagh garden

Have you been to any of the Mughal gardens in India?
Share a picture with us and tag us on social media!


Ria Khetarpal
Ria Khetarpal
Ria is an undergraduate student pursuing History Honours at Indraprastha College For Women, University of Delhi.
X