The sun shone in Srinagar as we set out to visit the famous Mughal Gardens which would give us an insight into the world of the Mughal Emperors who reigned in India from the early 15th century to the early 18th century. Back in those days, when the summer weather in Delhi became too unbearably hot, the Emperors and their entourage would ride on elephants over the baking hot northern plains and up over the mountain passes to the relative cool and peace of the beautiful Kashmir Valley. Here, in the shadows of the lower Himalaya, they established their pleasure gardens. These have now been restored and were one of the highlights of our time in Kashmir.
The first Mughal garden we visited was the Pari Mahal garden, located on the Zebanwan Mountain, 5 km west of the center of Srinagar. It consists of six terraces aligned roughly north-south, with arched retaining walls supporting the terraces against the mountain. Unlike other Mughal gardens in Kashmir, this garden has no water cascades or ‘chadars’ – ramps that transfer water from one terrace to another.
Pari Mahal was built in the mid-seventeenth century on the ruins of a Buddhist monastery by Prince Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan (the Emperor of Taj Mahal fame). The buildings in this garden were used as an observatory for the teaching of astrology and astronomy.
After coming down from the mountain, we visited the largest and most famous of the Mughal gardens of Srinagar, Shalimar Bagh. Since the second century there has been a garden here on the northeast shore of Dal Lake. The revamping of this ancient garden was the dream project in 1619 of Emperor Jahangir who wanted to please his queen Nur Jahan. Although Emperor Jahangir had married many times to girls from very high-class noble families of the Mughals and Rajputs, a Rajput princess known as Jagat Gosain was said to have been his favourite. She was the mother of Shah Jahan, Jahangir’s successor. But Jahangir was also attracted to the ‘unparalleled beauty and intelligence’ of Nur (or Noor) Jahan. He married her as well and she was the reason he wanted his Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar to be perfect. The rebuilding of this ancient garden sat well with Jahangir’s interest in fine arts, poetry, paintings, dance and music. He was also a good writer and loved nature.
In 1630, Emperor Shah Jahan, Jahangir’s son, had extensions added to the garden. Today, 380 years later, this garden is considered the high point of Mughal horticulture.
The layout of this beautiful garden is an adaptation of the ancient Persian gardens which were built on a square plan with four arms radiating from a central location. This design couldn’t be exactly replicated in the hilly conditions in the Kashmir valley. So the design was modified to suit the terrain and the availability of water which was diverted from a higher elevation and runs by gravity down along the main channel that runs through the terraces of this rectangular garden. Colourful flower beds beside the water follow the line of the vistas and add that extra dimension to delight visitors.
There are many fountains and pavilions in this garden of 12.4 hectares. It’s 587 metres long and 251 meters wide. The terraces are lined with mature chinar trees (Plantanus orientalis), which create magnificent leafy vistas. Many of these trees were in fact planted by Shah Jahan during the early decades of the 17th Century.
But Shah Jahan did not stop garden design and building after completing Shalimar Bagh. In 1632, he began to build Chesma Shahi, the smallest of the Srinagar Mughal gardens. It’s known as ‘Royal Spring’ due to the mineral-rich spring water that feeds the water courses. The source of this water emerges within a pavilion at the top of the garden. Many visitors to these gardens believe in the healing properties of this water and come here to the source to drink.
Because this garden is built on a hill, some very steep flights of steps need to be climbed from one terrace to the next. At one point, a water ‘rill’ tumbles down beside the steps taking the water into a pool of fountains – a nice place to rest.
It seems that there was plenty of work for the horticultural trades in those times, or otherwise, prisoners and slaves from defeated armies were ‘gainfully’ employed for in 1633 a fourth Mughal garden was built in Srinagar. Known as Nishat Bagh, or ‘Garden of Joy‘, it was designed and built by Asif Khan the father-in-law and Prime Minister of Shah Jahan. As with Shalimar, a rectangular design was employed with the central axis being 548m in length. (Asif wasn’t silly enough to make his garden bigger than his Emperor’s) There are twelve terraces, each terrace representing a Zodiac sign. The cascades between each terrace and the numerous fountains create sound as the water falls. The water sparkles when the sun shines. Chinar and cypress trees again dominate the landscape.
But this was not always a ‘garden of joy’!
When Shah Jahan saw his father-in-law’s completed ‘Garden of Joy’, he was most impressed – and he said so. He hoped that Asif would give him the garden. But, when Asif didn’t take the hint, Shah Jahan was so piqued that he ordered the shutdown of the garden’s water supply, the Gobi Thirst, a natural spring which produces clean, clear water. Asif was beside himself with grief as his garden began to die for lack of water. He became depressed. One day, however, so the story goes, whilst sitting under a tree in this garden, Asif heard the sound of running water. When he realised that one of his gardeners had turned the water back on, Asif was mortified. He feared the wrath of his son-in-law and immediately ordered the water to be turned off again. However when Shah Jahan heard of the incident, rather than being upset, he rewarded the loyal servant for standing by his master. He allowed the flow of water to be restored.
Wandering through the Mughal Gardens of Srinagar was indeed a highlight of our time in the Kashmir. But, as always, after a day out exploring in the town, on the lakes or in the countryside of Kashmir, it was always a delight to return to the peaceful garden of our Lalit Palace Hotel. This garden, too, was designed somewhat along Mughal garden principles with pools and fountains, wonderful old chinar trees and long vistas of flower beds… but it lacks the water courses.
JT of ‘jtdytravels’
Photography © JT of ‘jtdytravels’
More of our photos of the Mughal Gardens of Kashmir are on flickr.com/photos/jtdytravels