The Lost Gardens of the Taj

How to see the architectural marvel, as Shah Jahan once did.

Published: October 29, 2017 12:21 am
Taj Mahal Wah Taj!: A photograph of the Taj shot by Raghu Rai in the early 1980s.

Taj Mahal was not meant to be seen all at once. Today, we see it at the edge of the river Yamuna. But when it was built in the mid-17thcentury, the Taj was part of a larger complex, which included the river and Mehtab Bagh. For the Mughals, gardens were their defence against the arid desert heat. The idea of paradise lies embedded in these gardens that were planned as char baghs, or quartered gardens. An easy way to irrigate land, just like our farmers do even today, the design and simple geometry of the char bagh evolved into a stylised form that we identify with high Mughal aesthetics.

It was the time when the empire was at its syncretic best. The synthesis of both Islamic and Hindu cultures came together, in art, culture, and even its gardens. The Mehtab Bagh, or the moonlit garden, was meant to be a pleasure garden, where life and eternity were expressed in the planting. There were alternate trees of cypress and fruits; the former’s evergreen leaves represented eternity and the fruit trees were a symbol of life. It was emperor Shah Jahan’s private garden, from where he could view the Taj. Here, he had multiple vantage points to view his favourite wife’s mausoleum. From the entrance gate of the garden, he could see the dome of the Taj rising above the trees, floating in the sky, and as he inched closer to the octagonal pool and the pavilion, the Taj would be framed against its backdrop. He always entered from the north, the river side, from where he could see the reflection of the Taj in the water.

This experience of a slow revelation from Mehtab Bagh would also be replicated at the south side, from where we enter today. From the high platform, where one would only see the dome, hidden behind the lush trees, the Taj would unfold slowly as you drew closer. So it wasn’t meant to be a bland experience, as it is today. These multiple ways to view one of the world’s iconic structures added to its mystical quality.

Islam, we must remember, is a desert religion. After a hard day’s journey, you would rest in an oasis. Similarly, after the journey through life, you would rest in a setting that was like an oasis. The tomb garden has the symbolism of a paradise setting. Even in the Quran, there are references to the gardens of this world and gardens of hereafter. Babur, an emperor on the run, was a lover of nature. He issued many diktats to lay out gardens. Agra came to be known as Little Kabul. There were close to 42 gardens lined along the riverfront during Nur Jehan’s time.

Aqueducts would carry water into the paradisiacal water channels to operate the fountains and pools that fed the gardens. However, Mehtab Bagh was prone to flooding. Agra too was growing crowded, and to establish his supremacy as emperor, Shah Jahan shifted his base to Delhi. The pavilion walls were eroding and the garden was slowly wiped out. This is also how the myth of the Black Taj emerged, which people believed was built across the river from the Taj Mahal. In reality, what they imagined to be the foundation of the Black Taj, was in fact the ruins of the octagonal pool at Mehtab Bagh. This pool is exactly proportionate in size to the Taj Mahal. It is only during the excavations of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in the 1990s that they discovered the outline of the pool, saw the fountain heads and dispelled the myth. ASI is currently restoring the footprint.

By the time the British arrived at the turn of the 19th century, the Taj Mahal had seen centuries of neglect. There are letters and documents that tell of how the locals objected to the misuse of the Taj by the British, which for them was a sacred space. The Agra Regiment Band wanted to perform on the podium of the Taj Mahal, and there are stories of how the British wanted shooting at the Taj since it attracted a lot of birds. Finally, Lord Curzon intervened to make improvements. In his attempt at turning the Taj into a hero, trees were razed and the idea of the Mughal garden, erased.

In its place is the English lawn, which is the template for almost all our monuments today. British artist William Hodges, who was captivated by the Taj Mahal, couldn’t stand the overbearing smells of the juhis and chamelis, being used to the lavender and the English rose. John Marshall, who was director-general, ASI, didn’t take to colour, and did away with reds and yellows, and said that flowers should be in shades of lilac. So, the hibiscus and the marigolds were gone, and what is left is a sterile landscape of a char bagh. Unfortunately, the colonial hangover continues. Trees are pruned to ensure the Taj is not obstructed. It is seen as an object in space, more than a viewing experience.

When we worked with the ASI and Taj Mahal Conservation Collaborative on the site management plan for Taj Mahal in 2000, and, recently, with the World Monuments Fund, our decade-long research showed that the restoration of the Mughal garden was not just an exercise in historicity, but it was also ecologically sound. Lawns are alien to an Indian landscape. It’s a monoculture that requires too much water and offers no shade, unlike trees that have a more diverse ecosystem, with birds and insects feeding off it. Had there been trees at the Taj, walking around would have been pleasant even in peak summers. The trees could supplement income through auctions, like it used to happen in the Mughal days, and as they still do at Pinjore Gardens, Haryana. And it would be in consonance with the Supreme Court order of increasing bio-mass around the Taj to reduce pollution, which was turning the Taj yellow. Above all, it would provide a more authentic experience of visiting the Taj Mahal, and viewing it as Shah Jahan once did.

Priyaleen Singh is a Delhi based conservation architect and academic.

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