All that we know today about the characteristics of the Indian garden in ancient times can only be obtained from a study of historical and literary sources, as nothing tangible has come to our days. It can be deduced that the torrid climate of the country strongly influences its fundamental features such as the central presence of running water and the presence of fruit trees. The garden in ancient India was in fact conceived as a place of retreat and peace where to find and shelter from the heat.
In the sixteenth century the Mughals conquered the country and forcefully introduced the basic canons of the Persian garden and medieval Islamic architecture, contaminating them with the nomadic Turkish-Mongolian influences of Central Asia. The founder of the Mughal empire Ẓahīr al-Dīn Muḥammad known as Bagur, a direct descendant of Tamerlane, made no secret of his preference for the type of garden chahar bagh (“Chār” = 4 and “bāgh” = “garden” in Persian). It is a type of enclosed Persian-style garden (the medieval concept of Hortus Conclusus) characterized by the recurring presence of the number 4 through subdivisions of spaces obtained through vegetable squares and channels arranged perpendicular to each other, in which water flows continuously at speed . In India, however, there was not a large availability of watercourses with suitable characteristics. For this reason, while numerous chahar bagh flourish in the territories of the empire currently found in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, the designers (often women of the dynasty such as Nur Janan, wife of Emperor Jahangir) concentrated particularly on the design of elaborate geometric variations and rigorous symmetries.
The ensemble expressed symbolic references linked to the Koran (the four rivers of paradise) and numerological (the numbers 8 and 9 were considered particularly lucky) linked to the zodiac and to one’s family tradition. Subdivision perimeter walls, pavilions, towers, terraces and swimming pools, made of marble or red sandstone, were frequently octagonal in shape. Distinctive elements of nomadic influences are instead canopies, curtains and carpets whose size and number was a real status symbol. Typical aquatic elements were also the fountains, chosen for their relaxing musicality and for their ability to cool the surrounding air. The paradigm of the Indian chahar bagh is the Ram Bagh of Agra, almost certainly the first example ever.
The Indian Mughal gardens also developed along rivers or lakes and, unlike the more intimate Persian chahar baghs, they preferred wide open spaces. They were in fact used as a setting for sumptuous court receptions and ceremonies or, in this case, with the inclusion of the cypress, a symbol of death, as gardens of imperial mausoleums. Examples are Humayun’s tomb in Delhi or the Taj Mahal.
Bagur‘s grandson, Jahan-ghir, a lover of botany and excursions aimed at seeking ever more particular varieties, gave a strong impetus to the development and use of flowers in Mughal gardens. In the ponds and canals the use of the lotus was often used, typical of India and strongly connected to Buddhist symbolism.
The apex in the use of flowers and floral motifs, however, was reached in the reign of his son Jahan-ghir. It was he who built the Red Fort of Delhi, the Mehtab Bagh (Moonlight Garden) characterized by jasmine and other evening blooms in soft and delicate colors, and in honor of his favorite wife, the famous Taj Mahal whose white, rich marbles of inlays in semiprecious stones modeled on the central theme of the tulip, reflect the moonlight.
Finally, following the English occupation in the mid-nineteenth century, Indian gardens acquired a new element in their style, often very expensive to maintain in relation to the climate, large expanses of very green lawn.Back to index