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The Pleasure Gardens of India: ‘all aesthetic feelings will be satisfied there’

The story of Indian gardens, which served as a pleasure resort to their owners during their life-time and were often given over to the public after their death

Originally published in November 1924

Next to nothing is known with certainty about the gardens in ancient India before the Muslim rule. Therefore the gardens under consideration are exclusively those laid out by the Muslims. In India they are the direct product of Islam. The abode of a good Muslim in the life to come shall be a garden with fountains and flowing water, the Garden of Paradise, the place of the highest aesthetic enjoyment. All aesthetic feelings, from the lowest to the highest, will be satisfied there. The greatest enjoyment and the purest delight of the Faithful, nevertheless, shall be the coming face to face with the Perfect and Absolute Divine Beauty of Allah.

This Garden of Paradise has been conceived in terms of our earthly life. The Muslim sovereigns, princes, and the well-to-do people have tried to realize the image of the promised ideal Garden of Paradise formed by the mind, in the shape of earthly gardens, with their fountains and gurgling watercourses, their marble platforms and pavilions, their spreading plane trees, stately cypresses, fruit-laden orange and mango trees, lovely flowering plants and grassy slopes where one could revel to his heart’s content with his boon companions, making merry with music and improvised verses.

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Of the gardens of the early Muslim period hardly any trace is left. But we know on the authority of Sheikh Abu Bekr bin Kallal of Damascus, whose interesting and unique work is to be found in the National Library of Paris, that already in the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries, during the reign of Muhammad Tughlaq and others, Delhi was a city of gardens. ‘Gardens extended on the three sides of Delhi in a straight line for twelve thousand paces. The western side bordered on a mountain.’

But the most famous gardens, a number of which still exist, though in changed form or in ruins, were laid out during the dynasty founded by Babar, the prince of gardeners. During this dynasty of the Great Moghuls, the art of gardening became a fine art in India. Almost all of these gardens have special common features to be described later on.

The special form of these gardens the Moghuls brought from Turkestan and Persia. It has also been suggested that the four divisions of the old Indian village had very much to do in determining the forms of the Turkestan gardens, which later on found their way into Persia.

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Babar conquered India in 1526. From his autobiography, a faithful record of his life, we know of his universal interests, his genial nature and his love for gardens. He repeatedly refers to flowers, fruits, and gardens. More than once he speaks of his favourite garden, Bagh-i-Wafa (Garden of Fidelity), near Kabul, and makes mention of its excellent oranges and pomegranates. Another favourite garden of his in Afghanistan was Bagh-i-Safa (The Garden of Purity). His first concern after conquering India was to carry out his traditional plan of laying out gardens. About this he writes as follows in his Memoirs:

“It always appears to me, that one of the chief defects of Hindustan is the want of artificial watercourses. I had intended, wherever I might fix my residence, to construct water-wheels, to produce an artificial stream, and to lay out an elegant and regularly planned pleasure ground. Shortly after coming to Agra, I passed the Jumna with this object in view, and examined the country, to pitch upon a fit spot for a garden. The whole was so ugly and detestable, that I repassed the river quite repelled and disgusted. In consequence of the want of beauty and disagreeable aspect of the country, I gave up my intention of making a Char-bagh; but as no better situation presented itself near Agra, I was finally compelled to make the best of this same spot.

First of all I began to sink the large well which supplies the baths with water; I next fell to work on the piece of ground on which are the ambli (Indian tamarind trees), and octagonal tank; I then proceeded to form the large tank and its enclosure, and afterwards the tank and talar, or grand hall of audience, that are in front of the stone palace. I next finished the garden of the private apartments, and the apartments themselves, after which I completed the baths. In this way going on, without neatness and without order, in the Hindu fashion, I, however, produced edifices and gardens which possessed considerable regularity. In every corner I planted suitable gardens; in every garden I sowed roses and narcissus regularly, and in beds corresponding to each other.

We were annoyed with three things in Hindustan: one was its heat, another its strong winds, the third its dust. Baths were the means of removing all three inconveniences. In the baths we could not be affected by winds. During the hot winds the cold can there be rendered so intense that a person often feels as if quite powerless from it. The room of the bath, in which is the cistern, is finished wholly of stone. The water-run is of white stone: all the rest of it, its floor and roof, is of a red stone, which is the stone of Biana. Khalifeh, Sheikh Zin, Yunis Ali, and several others, who procured situations on the banks of the river, made regular and elegant gardens and tanks, and constructed wheels at Lahore and Debalpur, by means of which they procured a supply of water. The men of Hind, who had never before seen places formed on such a plan, or laid out with such elegance, gave the name of Kabul to the side of the Jumna on which these palaces were built.”

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Babar’s famous grandson, Akbar the Great, had his beautiful garden in Kashmir, called the Nesim Bagh. His tomb in Sikandra, near Agra, is in the midst of another fine garden, planned and laid out by himself in his lifetime. His Prime Minister, Abul Fazl, in his famous book, “Ain-iAkbari” (Institutes of Akbar) says:

“His Majesty looks upon fruits as one of the greatest gifts of the Creator, and pays much attention to them. The horticulturists of Iran and Turan (Persia and Turkestan) have therefore settled here, and the cultivation of trees is in a flourishing state… His Majesty is very fond of perfumes and encourages this department from religious motives …. ”

‘The Golden Age of historic India was the time of Shah Jahan when the most beautiful and artistic gardens were laid out’

Akbar’s son Jethangir, whose romantic love for the talented and beautiful Nur Jahan, the Lalla Rookh of Moore’s poem, is so well known to the lovers of English poetry, was exceedingly fond of gardens. More than thirteen times did the loving pair undertake the perilous journey to Kashmir in order to pass their summer in the gardens laid out by them.

But the Golden Age of historic India was the time of Shah Jahan, the son of Jahangir, when the masterpieces of Indian arts were created. His was the time of highest and wide-spread culture. Miniature painting reached its perfection during his reign. New Delhi, known as Shahjahanabad, was planned and built, with its matchless palace, its grand mosque, its marvelous water-system, and its beautiful and pleasure-giving gardens. The most splendid and costly peacock throne, valued by Tvernier at £3,500,000 sterling, was constructed. The masterpiece of Indian architecture, the most beautiful and idealistic building, the “Taj,” was begun and completed, with its wonderful gardens. His reign was one of comparative peace. He was very popular. It was during his time, too, that the most beautiful and artistic gardens were laid out.

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The Nishat gardens, the merriest of all the Moghul gardens, as the name implies, were built by his father-in-law in Kashmir. Shah Jahan was very fortunate in having Ali Mardan Khan, the most famous engineer of the Orient. It was he who constructed the Shalimars of Lahore and Delhi. The most distinguishing feature of the Shalimar gardens everywhere is a series of terraces. Trees of all kinds were abundant. The swans and the ducks gave life to the waters, which were already animated by the play of innumerable fountains and symmetrical cascades, all most artistically combined.

The water saturated the air with moisture and made it cool during the hottest season of India. Of the most charming gardens of the Delhi Palace nothing is left except the two solitary pavilions known as the Sawan and Bhadon, after the names of two months of the hot rainy seasons of India, when rain falls in slight and heavy showers respectively. Their peculiar charm was that one who entered these pavilions felt himself to be enjoying the delight of these months, which in India are the months of song and love. Of the palace gardens of Agra the ground design of only one of them, called the Anguri Bagh, has been left. The garden of Jahan Ara Begum, the most beloved and dutiful daughter of Shah Jahan, is still the ornament of the inner town of Delhi, of course also modernized. It was originally called “Begum ka Bagh” (Lady’s Garden), was afterwards named Company’s Garden, and was finally christened as the Queen’s Garden.

Outside the city are the Roshan Ara’s Garden. Roshan Ara was a sister of Jahan Ara and a great favourite of her brother Aurangzeb. This garden is till now a place of excursion for the men as well as the veiled women of Delhi. State garden parties, too, ·are often held here. Besides these gardens we have the shady and cool gardens of the Princess Qudsia Begum and the Sir Hindi Begum. The mausoleum of the Emperor Humayon, the father of Akbar the Great, was enclosed in another garden. The water system of it has been recently unearthed. It is still a resort for the people of Delhi, who seek to spend a day to break the monotony of life. Another garden near Delhi, of a later date, is that attached to the tomb of Safdar Jang, known as the Mansur’s Mausoleum or school. Near Qutub Minar are the ruins of several gardens. One of these excellent examples is the ruined little dainty garden known as the Jharna (Cascade). Its buildings and the central little pavilion are intact. Nearly every party of Delhi ladies and young people who make a pleasure excursion to the Qutub Minar spend a few hours in this most charming little shadow of a garden. I myself had the luck to spend there more than once a few most pleasant hours of my life.

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Besides the gardens laid out by the emperors, princes, and princesses for their pleasure and the pleasure of the public, there were the garden-villas and summer-houses of the omrahs, the nobles of the State. We know from Babar’s Memoirs that several of his courtiers had secured sites for their gardens on the bank of the Jumna near Agra. Even the houses of the poor had their few trees and flowerbeds. In most middle-class houses there used to be almost invariably a water basin, with a fountain jet, in the courtyard. In the new Delhi of Shah Jahan, the skill of Ali Mardan Khan had supplied every house with running water. Water systems therefore formed the chief features of the Indian gardens. But the real charm of these gardens was the harmonic combination of the water systems, the garden, and the building.

The gardens of later period are marked by the influence of the so-called landscape gardens of England. The vast and luxurious gardens of Lucknovv and Hyderabad lack the formal design of the Moghul gardens, which was their chief charm.

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I shall try to sum up the most common and general characteristics of these gardens. Almost all were square or rectangular in form. They were very often surrounded by high walls, each pierced in the centre usually by imposing gateways. At each of the four corners used to be an octagonal building. With the gates were often connected a number of buildings for lodging purposes and for public utility, such as schools, dining halls, boarding houses, etc., etc. In the centre of the enclosed area was, usually, found the chief building, which was sometimes the mausoleum of a sovereign, a queen, or some other important personage.

The main buildings of the Taj and the Mausoleum of Emperor Humayon are not in the centre of the garden but on one of the sides, facing the river. The central building divided the area into four parts. In the centre of each of these parts was a water basin, with water canals running from it to each of the four directions, thus dividing each of the four parts again into four parts. This remarkable division into four gave these plans the name of Char Bagh (four gardens). The water channels, which were originally for the purpose of irrigation, served also as an object of decoration and beauty.

At first, as imported from Turkestan and Persia, these channels used to be very narrow. But the remedy for the scorching heat and unpleasant dust of India was found by Babar in water, so with the march of time these channels began to gain in width, so that it can be safely said, that the relative breadth of these channels is a measure for the age of the garden ; the older gardens having narrower and the later ones broader channels. The edges of the marbled tanks were broad enough to form platforms on which carpets could be spread.

The area of each of the four parts, the so-called Char Bagh, was divided into a number of smaller square parterres, as can be seen in some of the pictures plainly. These smaller squares were planted with beautiful and sweet-scented flowers. There were fruit trees of all kinds in large numbers.

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Pergolas or avenues and walks covered with vine-creepers supplied cool and shadowy walks. The plane trees, the chenars with their spreading branches and green leaves, planted at the corners of the open squares, procured shadow for some marble platforms or grassy turf, where the inmates of the gardens passed secluded and lonely hours, or chatted with friends or enjoyed music and song. There used to be open spaces for feasts and other entertainments.

In general, the above is true for almost every garden; but there were always variations. In some there were more pavilions, more canals, more waterfalls, side baradaries, with water flowing under them, jets of water in the canals and the tanks, water falling like rain in some building; in fact, anything to while away the time and remove the monotony and make life more pleasant found its place in these gardens. In spite of remarkable common characteristics the gardens were not all so similar to one another that the epithet of monotonous in design could be applied to them.

‘The Indian knew very well the relation between the art gardener and the architect’

The Palace of Delhi contained two gardens side by side, the so-called “The Moonlight Garden” and “The Life-giving Garden.”

It has been remarked by the ablest artists and architects, for example about “The Taj,” that the slightest alteration in any of the details mars the beauty of the whole. The Indian knew very well the relation between the art gardener and the architect. Hence the extremely beautiful effects were produced. They knew also the effect of orderly grouping, the pleasing effects produced by different forms in combination with different colours. They even tried to combine the different kinds of odours with the style of their plans. The cascades and fountains even produced the desired tones, as the Sawan and Bhadon Pavilions in the Palace gardens at Delhi.

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Summer-houses of the omrahs were built in the middle of the garden, or on the bank of a river, in which case the building was often between the actual garden and the river. The gardens of these summer-houses, too, were surrounded by a more or less high wall, with the usual octagonal turrets at the four corners. The same Char Bagh Plan formed the basis of these little gardens, as those of the imperial and princely gardens. The large imperial gardens were usually a complex of several divisions.

Many gardens, which served as a pleasure resort to their owners during their life-time, were often given over to the public after their death. For this reason the owners were very careful to obtain the possession of the site in the rightful way. For the same reason they feared to use unlawful means in building and improving such gardens. The fruits of these gardens were partly or wholly distributed to the poor. The buildings which were attached to the gates often served as schools, rest-houses for the travellers, boarding-houses for the students, etc.

Usually the central building formed the tomb of the deceased owner. To the people of Delhi the mausoleums of Humayon and Safdar Jang are known at present only by the names of Medrassas (schools) of Humayon and Mansur. The owners in this way meant to make arrangements for a kind of everlasting and permanent charity, which could secure eternal peace for their souls. Even during the life time of the owner, the public had very often a part in the pleasures of the garden. These private gardens were open on certain days to the general public. Most private gardens were always open to the people when the owners with their ladies were not in residence. Besides, on certain public: and religious holidays the owners entertained the people free in their gardens with all sorts of merry-making. It was this role of the garden which endeared the sovereigns and princes and princesses and the omrahs to the people. The whole life of those days made the garden a place of the people. Remnants of this life are still to be found in India.

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The Message of Garden for an Indian Muslim is a message of Perfect Peace, Perfect Beauty, Perfect Comfort, Perfect Bliss, Perfect Love and Infinite Progress on Earth.

“Surely (as for) those who believe and do good their Lord will guide them by their faith; there shall flow from beneath them rivers in gardens of bliss.

“Their cry in it shall be : Glory to Thee, 0 Allah ! and their greeting in it shall be PEACE, and the last of their cry shall be : Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the worlds.”

(Koran X, 9 and Io.)

A Few Words about the Pictures

Most of the pictures used in illustrating this article are copies of the Indian water-colour paintings, known generally as the Indian Miniatures. This art flourished in India for about three hundred vears. Akbar introduced it from Persia; it was soon Indianized. Under Akbar’s son J ahangir and grandson Shah J ahan it reached its highest point. With the decline of the dynasty it began to deteriorate. When the English took over the sovereignty of India, the art lost the patronage of native rulers and princes, to which it owed its life. The well-to-do Indians came to like to have third-class European paintings. This art of painting in India was a court art. All the emperors sat as models. All the great omrahs and nobles of the State had their favourite painters. Even the ladies of the Zenana sometimes had their portraits painted. It has been justly said that no country possessed such a complete collection of the portraits of her great men as India during this period. The emperors and the omrahs engaged artists also to illustrate the classical works of Persia and India.

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Thousands of miniature albums and illuminated manuscripts, which we find scattered all over the world in public and private collections of London, New York, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Petrograd, Constantinople, Cairo, etc., once formed parts of the Imperial Libraries of Delhi and Agra and the private collections of the omrahs. According to the Spanish priest, Pater Sebastian Manrique, who visited Agra in 1641, the Imperial Library of Agra alone contained 24,000 volumes, which were valued at £720,000 sterling. Such libraries were greatly enlarged by Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb.

As I have already observed, the art of painting in India was a court art. Almost all the pictures were painted to order. They were strictly portraits of persons, of favourite animals, of favourite palaces, gardens and other objects. Therefore it can be safely said the gardens represented by the pictures here actually existed. These pictures must have been executed at the express wish or orders of the owners of these gardens or were painted by the artists in the hope of receiving high rewards. The scenes and the life depicted in these pictures must have been realities. The combination of rich colours in them is wonderful. Black prints can hardly do them justice.

Unfortunately, not many pictures of this kind exist. The Ethnological Museum of Berlin is very fortunate in having in its possession a number of them. Most of these garden pictures are bound in a single album.

Before I close I must express my thanks to Prof. Le Coq, Prof. Muller and Dr. Stoenner, of the said Museum, for their kind permission to reproduce these- paintings and procuring special facilities to work there.

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