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The Red Fort: Know more about its architecture, and its resplendent gardens based on the concept of Chahar Bagh

This article contains selected excerpts from the chapter ‘Paradise as Perfumed Gardens’, from the book “Red Fort: Remembering the Magnificent Mughals”, by Debasish Das. The sub-headings are not a part of the original text, and have been added by The Dispatch.
The Red Fort Complex contained many architectural innovations. One of these was river-fronting palaces encompassed in gardens. The river front was considered prime real estate and therefore the principal private apartments were built along the river. Even outside the palace, permission to build havelis on the river front was granted only to high-ranking amirs and princes. Each river-front royal apartment, such as the pavilions and halls of the Emperor and the zenana, was patterned on a modular plan. The buildings consisted of a terrace component and a corresponding garden unit. The apartments sat on high platforms (kursi) in front of which were laid beautiful gardens (bagicha) watered by the murmuring offshoots of the main watercourse in the complex, the Nahr-i-Bihisht. The fusion of palace and gardens was a metaphor for paradise. Each garden had its own sunken pool and water channels.
In fact, so profusely were water and gardens used in the palace layout, that it somewhat highlighted the ‘soft power’ of Mughal supremacy. The Yamuna not only flowed along its eastern face, its waters were diverted into a moat thereby fully surrounding the palace. Innovative hydraulic systems raised the water up from Yamuna to the Shah Burj. It was then made to flow right inside all river-facing apartments as a fusion of solid structures and a murmuring, streaming water body. While the Chandni Chowk was primarily a street around an east-west water canal, there existed another arcaded street inside the Fort built around a north-south water canal. Its huge gardens were watered from the Yamuna. Sawan and Bhadon pavilions were erected at either end of a water canal equidistant from a large tank at the centre, in which Zafar later built a water-pavilion (jal mahal).

The Hayat Bakhsh Garden in the Red Fort

The biggest garden was the Hayat Bakhsh (Life-giver Garden), measuring 250 gaz x 225 gaz, on the north-western corner, built at huge cost. As we stand back to view the Sawan and Bhadon from a distance, it is difficult to imagine that these structures were once built at the geometric centre of this huge garden, whose western half is now almost gone and taken over by the ugly barracks built by the British. The eastern half is renovated, thanks to the British again, with two huge quadrangles of the original char-bagh grassed and demarcated for easier visualisation. These two quadrangles on the east are further divided into four squares each with water canal-ways demarcating the eight garden squares. On the west of the Sawan-Bhadon axis, space exists for only half of two remaining rectangles of the char-bagh. An iron fence abruptly cuts the char-bagh’s spread with barrack buildings standing up as if to peer down at the playful flow of water between Sawan and Bhadon.

Hayat Bakhsh Bagh in the Red Fort. (Picture Courtesy:

Origins of Chahar-bagh

The origin of Chaharbagh, the formal quadripartite garden, is obscure, though it is normally believed to be a Persian concept. Maria Eva Subtenly says, ‘The Chaharbagh was not a Timurid invention, since the concept of a formal, walled, quadripartite garden containing a pavilion was an ancient Iranian one going back to Sasanian and even Achaemenid times’. It is not easy to trace the history of gardens which easily disintegrate, still, the credit of formalising this garden layout appears to belong to 15th century Persia. In the Timurid text of the Irshad al-zira’a, written in 1515 by Qasim b. Yusuf in Herat, we come across a pioneer of such formalised gardens in the context of South Asia. These “symmetrically planned and well laid out gardens and pools’ are credited to Mirak (Mirak-i Sayyid Ghiyas, born 1446 A.D.), whose father, Sayyid Ghiyas al-Din Muhammad ‘Baghban’, had the unusual sobriquet of ‘gardener’ or baghban.
He was in the employ of the Timurid Sultan as a landscape gardener. The importance of gardens in Persia can be attributed to a symbolism which rulers there distinguished themselves more as metaphorical gardeners rather than shepherds, writes Professor Sunil Sharma of Boston University. When Babur came to India, interestingly Mirak also joined him and worked at Agra and Dholpur. Babur appears to have wanted to demonstrate the idea that Hindustan would be new Emperor’s garden. Abul Fazl writes in the Ain-i-Akbari that, “Garden and flower beds are everywhere to be found. Formerly people used to plant their gardens without any order, but since the time of the arrival in India of the emperor Babur, a more methodical arrangement of the gardens has obtained; and travellers now-a-days admire the beauty of the palaces and their murmuring fountains.”
From the text of the same book, Irshad al-zira’a, we come to learn about the rigid format of the chaharbagh. The layout of a chaharbagh complex consisted of three parts: a pavilion, a garden and water; i.e. a composite whole of agronomy, hydrology and construction. Location of the pavilion, the imarat, was recommended to be at the south side of the garden, facing the north.  A pool, or hauz, faced the pavilion. The pictorial reconstruction of Irshad al-zira’s description would be a long rectangular garden plan with a central water course and a hauz in front of a pavilion. Non-fruit bearing ornamental trees lined the wall encompassing the whole layout. Such trees were poplar(safidar), plane (chinar), cypress(sarv), pine (sanaubar), or willow (bid). Fruit trees filled the immediate vicinity of the pavilion, such as apple, cherry, mulberry, fig etc. The two quadrants of the garden nearest to the pavilion were laid out with aromatic flower beds (gulshan), such as many varieties of rose (yellow, red, common ‘six-petalled’ rose, ‘hundred-petalled’ rose), eglantine, violet, saffron, iris, tulip (blue, white, yellow), narcissus, red poppy, etc. The quadrants farther from the pavilion were planted with trees such as apricot, plum, peach, pear and pomegranate.
Stephen P. Blake writes in Delhi Through the Ages, “The cypress symbolised death and eternity and the fruit tree (almond or plum or mango) life and hope. Interwined they represented the union of life and death, the joining of the ephemeral and the eternal in the garden of everlasting joy and happiness.”

The Gardens of Shahjahanabad

Blake then lists a number of gardens that once enlivened the city of Shahjahanabad, most of them in the outskirts of the city proper. The khizrabad garden was built by Shah Jahan some five miles south of the Akbarabadi Gate of the city. It is here that Dara Shukoh was imprisoned in 1658 after his capture by Aurangzeb. Tis Hazari Bagh was also built by Shah Jahan outside the Kabuli Gate of the city. It is here that Aurangzeb’s daughter Zeb al-Nisah Begum and Muhammad Shah’s wife Malka Zamani were buried. Roshanara Bagh was constructed in 1650 by Shah Jahan’s daughter Raushan Ara Begum outside the city’s Lahori Gate. She was buried here after her death in 1671. Shah Jahan’s wife, Nawab Sirhindi Begum too built a garden at the same place. Shalimar Bagh was built in 1654 by another wife of Shah Jahan, Nawab Akbarabadi Begum, where Aurangzeb was first crowned as the Emperor. Qudsiya Begum, wife of Muhammad Shah, built a large garden in 1748 on the bank of Yamuna near the Kashmiri Gate, called the Qudsiya Bagh. Within the city, Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahanara Begum built the Sahibabad garden near the Chandni Chowk in 1650.

One of the Sawan/ Bhadon pavilions. (Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The Philosophy of Chahar-bagh

By 17th century, paradise (bihisht, firdaus) became associated with gardens. They were likened to the paradisiacal gardens. In Islamic symbolism, the four water-channels are representation of four mythical rivers: of water, milk, honey, and wine.
Art Historian Ebba Koch interprets the philosophy of this river-garden-palace fusion in a most interesting manner. Together, the whole scheme was planned as a terrestrial representation of an Islamic Paradise (Jannat) under which rivers were flowing. We need to visualise that the concept of paradise for the hot desert people dependant on oases was obviously a lush green garden with water gushing in streams. Paradise in Quran is described as jannat al firdaus or ‘gardens of paradise’ and jannattajri min tahtiha al-anhar meaning ‘gardens underneath which rivers flow.’ Literally, it could mean water channels under pathways to irrigate the flowerbeds or on a spiritual level, the water-like ‘soul’ flowing below or ‘hidden’ to purify and nourish the flowers (of character) inside us.
While the gardens were full of blooming plants and flowers swaying in the winds, their fragrance caressing the inhabitants with the breeze of happiness, the buildings themselves were decorated with exquisite plant motifs inlaid in hard stones by pietra dura or parchinkari. Virtual flower beds on the dados of building were executed as if to draw envy from the spring itself (dar u diwar-ash aztaswirgulzar). As Mughal court poet Abu Talib Kalim wrote, “They have inlaid stone flowers in marble, which surpass reality in colour if not in fragrance.” It was said that “Hayat Baksh is to a building what the soul is to the body”, as inscribed on the north and south arches of the Khwabgah in Persian: Bagh-i Hayat Baksh ka darmanazilchunruhdar badan ast.  Kamboh merges the Islamic concept of Paradise and the gardens of the palace when he compares it with the mythical paradisiacal garden called Iram: “In front of each Iram-like pavilion is a garden of perfect freshness and pleasantness”. He continues, “. . . this [whole] paradisiacal ground [i.e., the palace] from one end to the other, because of its exuberant vegetation, has drawn a veil across the green sky and the sight is presented to the eyes of the beholder like the highest paradise.”
It may seem odd to see the sky referred to as green, but in Persian poetry, the colour of the sky is often described as green, with various poetic epithets for the sky such as: sabz-ashyaneh (green ceiling), sabz-gulshan (green flower-garden), sabz-tasht (green bowl), sabz-maidan (green field), sabzta’us (green peacock) and so on. Perhaps the poets wanted to blur the distinction between a green, blooming garden and the heavenly skies by stroking them both with the same colour.
Reference to Paradise can be seen again in Amir Khusrau’s verse inscribed in the Diwan-e-Khas, “If there is a paradise on the face of the earth, it is this, it is this, O it is this.” Apart from the visual symbolism, the architecture possibly had a political undertone. In a country wreathed with ‘human-flowers’ brimming with happiness, Shah Jahan’s garden scheme perhaps epitomised the ‘spring of the flower garden of justice and generosity’.
There is another interpretation of the chahar-bagh or four-squared gardens. Sulh Kul or ‘absolute peace’ was the state policy of Akbar, where he rejigged his court composition so that all ethnic groups were equally represented, with no single group enjoying a majority. He distributed the position of mansabdars amongst Turanis (central Asians), Iranians, Afghans and Hindu Rajputs. The state policy like the four-side cap of a Sufi dervish, as well as like the beautiful four-squared chahar-bagh gardens introduced by the Mughals in India.

Excerpted with permission from Red Fort: Remembering the Magnificent Mughals, Debasish Das, Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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