Human Flower Project

Power and Light:  Mughal Gardens

By perfecting irrigation and making water integral to their design artistry too, the great Mughal gardens shine on with authority.


The world’s most famous Mughal garden: the Taj Mahal

Photo: via Trifter

By Russell Bowes

The great gardens of Mughal India grew from two opposing forces.  From lands to the west came the spread of Islamic faith, bringing the teachings of the Koran, ideas about civilised living and a rich history of both gardening and the “grammar” of decoration.  From the east came the equally relentless invasions of the Mongols, with despotic ideas about government and political control and highly advanced civil engineering skills.  When both forces finally penetrated the Himalayas and met on the plains of Kashmir, they combined to bring about the rule of the Mughal emperors.  In gardening terms, this new culture reached its zenith in the rules of Babur the Great (1508 – 1530) and his five direct descendants.  Under Jahangir (1605 – 1627) and Jahan (1627 – 1658), the art of gardening was to reach a climax of stylistic interpretation and ingenuity of construction to rival that of the Italian Renaissance, then attaining its height of expression in distant Europe.  Although separated by vast geographical distance, climate and religion, both these great gardening cultures expressed values and ideas through the same element – water.

imageJahangir and Prince Khurram with Nur Jahan 

India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1624

Photo: Freer Gallery of Art

Opaque watercolor and gold on paper 
25.2 x 14.2 cm 

Credit: The Freer Gallery of ArtBy assimilating the teachings of Islam into their adopted culture, the Mongols also assimilated many aspects of Islamic garden design and expression, the foremost of which was waters’ religious symbolism and compositional use; in the chahar bagh (literally, ‘four gardens’) layout, a square plot (or succession of squares arranged axially) is divided into four with rills or canals which cross at a central point in the plan, symbolic of the four rivers of Paradise.  The centre point of the chahar bagh would be marked by a raised tank holding water for ablutions before prayer or a fountain jet, circulating the water back around the pattern of canals and thus representing the Islamic belief that life is eternal, without beginning or end.  It is interesting to note that private royal gardens such as Nishat Bagh, which were created for the pleasure of the individual and not used ceremonially, do not generally conform to the chahar bagh design but are arranged axially with a series of canals and falls as the dominant visual element. Often they are terraced to accommodate changes in level, further echoing Italian Renaissance gardens, to which they bear a remarkable resemblance.

Because the circle represents perfection and so is sacred to Allah, circles and spheres are absent from Islamic (and therefore Mughal) garden.  Instead, pools and tanks were square (representative of human existence as nourished by the four rivers of life) or octagonal (eight representing not only of the eight divisions of the Koran but also the combination of the divine perfection of the circle and the square of human life). A magnificent garden filled with life giving water, in forms laid down by Allah himself, reinforced that the Emperor ruled as Allah’s earthly representative.  The very act of creating a garden carried with it visible signs of divine connections and support.


Chahar bagh (‘four gardens’) design, Hamilton Gardens Mughal garden building

Hamilton, NZ

Photo: Geoff Doube

If water could signify divine supremacy, it could also be used to demonstrate civic and political power.  In a landscape essentially arid except in the monsoon months of July and August, power over the water supply literally represented power over life itself. Those on top of a rigidly hierarchical society which had perfected irrigation possessed a brutally effective way of controlling a vast population spread over an equally vast geographical area.  This stark political power was subtly expressed in the royal gardens.  In sparkling rills and roaring chadars, the message was clear: access to the life-giving element depended on continued loyalty to the throne.  This is illustrated by an incident which occurred early in the reign of Shah Jahan (1628 – 1658).  The gardens at Nishat were not created by the royal dynasty but by Ashaf Khan, a high ranking official and father to one of Jahan’s 14 wives.  Shah Jahan expected to receive the gardens as part of the girl’s dowry but her father declined to part with them.  Infuriated, Jahan ordered the mountain stream which supplied Nishat’s water to be diverted.  Predictably, the fountains ran dry, the tanks emptied, and Ashaf Khan sat desolate in his slowly dying garden. He finally ceded to the Imperial will and gave the gardens over to the Shah to prevent their demise.

imageEnjoying the cooling fountains of Nishat Mughal Garden, over looking Dal-Lake in Srinagar

Photo: Getty

Power could also be expressed by the location of the Emperor’s throne itself.  Both Jahangir and Jahan were fond of placing throne platforms either at the head of a low waterfall or in the middle of an artificial lake.  This design not only implied dominion over land and water but, more prosaically, provided a cool and pleasant place for the Emperor to sit, giving relief from the stifling heat of the sun.  The spray from fountains, usually present in all but the very smallest expanse of water, drifted through the air and cooled it further.  Financial power was also discreetly proclaimed by extensive water use: when any resource is scarce, conspicuous consumption of that resource proclaims to all exactly which hands hold the purse strings.  Although huge expanses of still water such as the great bassins of Versailles were not possible in India because of the relative scarcity of the water supply for ten months of the year (as well as constant evaporation in the fierce heat), water was deployed with great ingenuity to make it appear the dominant element of a garden’s design, even when this was not actually the case.

imageBird’s Eye View of the Taj Mahal, 1790-1810 

Photo: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Water could also signify the triumph of love over the forces of death.  The gardens of the Taj Mahal, today perhaps the most famous of the great Mughal gardens, were commenced in 1632 by Shah Jahan to provide a setting for the white marble mausoleum of his favourite wife, Mumtaz, who had died in labour with her 14th child.  The gardens follow the classic chahar bagh pattern, with a vast central ablutions tank and further subdivision of each quarter by smaller secondary rills.  However, the Taj does not occupy the central point of the garden, as would be expected according to tradition.  Instead, it is placed to one side, with the gardens laid out before it.  In this position, it is suspended between the slow rills of the garden (representing the orderly human world) and the fast flowing river Jumna behind it (representing naturally flowing eternity).  In this way, Mumtaz neither leaves the light of life nor enters the darkness of death, but waits in eternal half light for her husband to join her once more.  Before his death in 1666, Shah Jahan commenced the building of a mausoleum for himself – this time in black marble – on the opposite bank of the river, with a funerary garden corresponding to that of his wife.  This mirror imaging of tombs and gardens across the axis of the river may point to further imagery—the river as symbol of death itself dividing the Emperor and his wife.

Symbolism aside, gardens need water. In Mughal gardening, rills were raised above ground level, making it easier to transfer water to the beds through run-off.  The design of the garden also played an integral role – by further subdividing the four main quarters of the garden with secondary rills, with pools or tanks at the subsidiary intersections, water could be more easily made available across the whole area.


“Chirikana” (pigeon holes) maximize the glittering effects of water in a Mughal garden

Photo: Russell Bowes

One of the most unusual roles of water was to bring light to the garden.  A common feature, particularly in regions where the garden had to accommodate changes in altitude (for example, the gardens of Shalamar Bagh that Jahangir created in the foothills of Kashmir) was the chadar, a narrow sloping chute to conduct water through the descent from one terrace to another.  Stepped or intricately carved, they were constructed at an angle to reflect sunlight to the maximum possible degree, creating glittering patterns of water.  At Pinjaur, a garden created by Shah Aurangzib between 1658 and 1707, the principal feature of the grand canal bisecting the garden is the chirikana (literally ‘pigeon holes’) in which water falls over a high ledge, honeycombed with decorative recesses.  At night, lighted candles were placed in each recess through access at the rear.  The view of light glittering through a solid sheet of falling water must have been spectacular, its effect enhanced by the reflection of the lights in the pool below. 

The reflective quality of water is one which the Mughal Emperors exploited to the full, to bring a further dimension to the garden.  Even the shallowest tank or canal was thoughtfully placed in order that it might reflect its surroundings. Nowhere are the effects more brilliant than at the Taj Mahal, where the shining white marble building repeats itself endlessly in the waters that surround it.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 05/26 at 03:33 PM


I found the courtyards within buildings - open to the sky to allow rainwater to fill shallow pools - in the Chinatown of Georgetown, Penang to be refreshing spaces, away from the heat + humidity of the city’s streets.

Posted by Georgia on 06/04 at 10:47 AM
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