Politico-Cultural Agenda Behind Renaming The Iconic ‘Mughal Gardens’ In Delhi – Analysis


It is part of a campaign to erase the Muslims’ contribution to India’s culture. The Mughal dynasty (1526-1858) pioneered the concept of “pleasure gardens”, vast and well laid-out retreats with trees, flowers, artificial streams and fountains.

The iconic Mughal Gardens in the Indian Presidential palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan) in New Delhi, laid out by the British rulers in 1929, was renamed “Amrit Udyan” or the Garden of Nectar, by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government on January 28. 

Navika Gupta, Deputy Press Secretary to President Droupadi Murmu said in a statement that “Amrit Udyan” was a “common name”, presumably unlike the name “Mughal” gardens. Welcoming the change, Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said that with the change, “another colonial relic” has been removed “reflecting India’s aspirations for the Amrit Kaal”.   

The characterization of “Amrit Udyan” as a “common name” as opposed to “Mughal Gardens” makes the latter “sectional” or “communal” in character when the moniker “Mughal” only indicates  that the garden is laid in the “Mughal pattern.” True, the Mughals were Muslim invaders from Central Asia, but they cannot be considered the “other” because they settled down in India becoming natives. They cannot be considered “colonials” either, because, unlike the typical colonial rulers, they did not take away the wealth of India. In fact, they added to its wealth.

Further, shedding the name “Mughal” also does violence to the design of the Mughal gardens, which is a pleasing mix of the Mughal and the British styles, but predominantly Mughal. The garden has two channels intersecting at right angles. It is a “Charbagh” or a four-cornered garden, which is typical of gardens laid by Mughals in many parts of North India. Noted architect K.T Ravindan told The Hindu that the Mughal garden was designed in the Persian style of landscaping typical of Mughal gardens. “You will see Chajja (dripstone), the chattri (domed kiosk), the jali (pierced screen),” he said.

Garden Culture in India

Not to acknowledge these aspects will be doing injustice to historical facts. It is tantamount to brazenly erasing an important part of India’s cultural and architectural history. 

By erasing the term “Mughal” the Modi government has also hidden the Muslim rulers’ seminal contribution to the ‘culture of gardens” in India. In pre-Muslim India, there were no deliberately-laid “pleasure gardens”. Gardens existed primarily to grow flowers for worship at temples. It was the Mughal dynasty (1526-1858) that pioneered the concept of “pleasure gardens” –  vast and well-laid-out retreats with trees, flowers, artificial streams and fountains.

Sattar Kheiri, the author of The pleasure gardens of India written in 1924 (https://www.architectural-review.com/places/india/the-pleasure-gardens-of-india) says that the history of Indian gardens began in the 13th. and 14 th, centuries during the reign of Muhammad Tughlaq and other Delhi-based Sultans. Delhi was then a city of gardens.  However, the most famous gardens were laid out during Mughal rule founded by Mirza Zahirudddin Muhammad “Babar”, who Kheiri describes as the “Prince of Gardeners”. It was during Mughal rule that “the art of gardening became a fine art in India,” Kheiri points out. 

The Mughals introduced the concept of “pleasure gardens” where people could relax in the midst of nature, not nature in the raw, but carefully laid out gardens with trees, flower plants, canals and fountains. The credit for founding an elaborate culture of garden-laying goes to Babur. 

Hailing from cooler climes in Central Asia, Babur found India to be too hot and too disorganized for his liking, and he built gardens of the kind found in Iran and Central Asia to beat the heat.  

This is what Babur writes in his autobiography: “It always appears to me, that one of the chief defects of Hindustan is the want of artificial watercourses. I had intended, wherever I might fix my residence, to construct wheels-wheels, to produce an artificial stream, and to lay out an elegant and regularly planned pleasure ground. Shortly after coming to Agra, I passed the Jumna with this object in view, and examined the country, to pitch upon a fit spot for a garden. The whole was so ugly and detestable, that I passed the river quite repelled and disgusted. In consequence of the want of beauty and disagreeable aspect of the country, I gave up my intention of making a Charbagh; but as no better situation presented itself near Agra, I was finally compelled to make the best of this same spot.”   

“I began to sink the large well which supplies the baths with water; I next fell to work on the piece of ground on which are the ambli (Indian tamarind trees), and octagonal tank; I then proceeded to form the large tank and its enclosure, and afterwards the tank and talar, or grand hall of audience, that are in front of the stone palace. I next finished the garden of the private apartments, and the apartments themselves, after which I completed the baths.”

“In every corner I planted suitable gardens; in every garden I sowed roses and narcissus regularly, and in beds corresponding to each other.” 

Babur repeatedly refers to flowers, fruits and gardens. More than once he speaks of his favorite garden, Bagh-i-Wafa (Garden of Fidelity), near Kabul, and makes mention of its excellent oranges and pomegranates. Another favorite garden of his in Afghanistan was Bagh-i-Safa (The Garden of Purity), Kheiri points out.

The Mughal concept of the garden was rooted in Islamic thought.  Kheiri  writes: “The abode of a good Muslim in the life to come shall be a garden with fountains and flowing water, the Garden of Paradise, the place of the highest aesthetic enjoyment. All aesthetic feelings, from the lowest to the highest, will be satisfied there. The greatest enjoyment and the purest delight of the Faithful, nevertheless, shall be the coming face to face with the Perfect and Absolute Divine Beauty of Allah.”

“This Garden of Paradise has been conceived in terms of our earthly life. The Muslim sovereigns, princes, and the well-to-do people have tried to realize the image of the promised ideal Garden of Paradise formed by the mind, in the shape of earthly gardens, with their fountains and gurgling watercourses, their marble platforms and pavilions, their spreading plane trees, stately cypresses, fruit-laden orange and mango trees, lovely flowering plants and grassy slopes where one could revel to his heart’s content with his boon companions, making merry with music and improvised verses.”

The water in the gardens, which saturated the air with moisture, made the atmosphere cool during the hottest season of India.  

Babar’s grandson, Akbar the Great, built a beautiful garden in Kashmir, called the Nesim Bagh. His tomb in Sikandra, near Agra, is in the midst of another fine garden, planned and laid out by himself in his lifetime, Kheiri says. However, the “Golden Age” of Mughal garden architecture was the time of Shah Jahan when the most beautiful and artistic gardens were laid out. Shah Jahan constructed the Shalimar garden of Lahore and Delhi. 

There were other Mughal gardens in Delhi such as Roshan Ara’s Garden and Qudsia garden. These gardens became a place of excursion for men as well as veiled women of Delhi, Kheiri says. The tomb of Humayun, the father of Akbar, was enclosed in a garden. It became a resort for the people of Delhi, “who sought to spend a day there to break the monotony of life.” Near Qutub Minar too, several gardens were laid, making them ideal picnic spots.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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