The founder of the Mughal dynasty, Babur, complained in his autobiography
that in Hindustan “except their large rivers and their standing-waters which flow in ravines or hollows (there are no waters). There are no running-waters in their gardens or residences.”
No wonder the overjoyed Great Mughals laid out hundreds of gardens in Kashmir. Of the few that have survived into present times the remarkable ones are Nishat, Shalimar, and Cheshma Shahi – a series of exquisite gardens on the foothills of the Zabarvan Hills overlooking the Dal Lake in Srinagar – and Verinag and Achabal in South Kashmir.
Morning in the shadow of the Nishat Bagh,
evening in the breezes of the Naseem,
Shalimar and its tulip fields,
these are the places of pleasure in Kashmir and none else.
Millions of visitors throng these gardens every year and countless photographs find their way into print and are posted online. Very few people however know that these gardens looked quite different till just a few decades ago. It is interesting to compare photographs from the pre-independence era with current images of Kashmir’s famed Mughal gardens.
Nishat (The Garden of Delight)
At Nishat, stone bases still exist of the fluted wooden columns of a baradari* erected on the third terrace in the post-Mughal period. Later the first terrace accessible from the lake was converted into a metalled road with the result that the baradari would have been on the second terrace before it was razed.
The stone steps leading to the lake have been dismantled and only the lions-head fountain still gushes in the first terrace while the forgotten chini khana** is a hidden and lightless witness to past glories. In the heyday of the Mughals the twinkling of its lamps under a shimmering sheet of water would have guided boats to the Nishat Bagh at night.
A strikingly accurate watercolour of the interior of the baradari by Constance Villers Stuart compared to an undated photograph.
Cheshma Shahi (The Royal Spring)
At Cheshma Shahi as you reach the first terrace via a steep flight of stone steps an inelegant post-Mughal baradari built on the second terrace has thankfully been dismantled opening up the magnificent vistas of the Dal and the Zabarvan range above the chadar***.
Shalimar (The Abode of Love)
In Shalimar the traditional Pinjra-Kari# partitions are missing altogether while the carved devri## fountains are a marked improvement over the older ones. The unique burza pash### has been replaced with a practical modern metal roof.
Verinag (Abode of the Naga King)
In Verinag apartments on the first floor have been removed arguably improving the view from both sides – the pool and the watercourse.
baradari* Persian/Mughal pavilions traditionally had 12 entrance doors, three on each side lit. bara (twelve) dar (door).
chini khana** Tiered rows of arched niches behind a curtain of falling water that held flowers in the daytime and diyas (oil lamps) at night.
chadar*** Stone ramps engraved with varying scale-like patterns to form little wavelets, each design producing a distinctive gushing sound.
pinjra-kari# Wooden lattice work
devri## Local grey limestone extensively used in Kashmir. Stone was reputedly worked to a degree artistically comparable to marble by artisans in ancient Kashmir.
burza pash### A roof of birch bark covered with a layer of soil that permits the growing of flowers especially red tulips (Gul-e-Lala) narcissi (nargis) and irises.
As usual we turn to Walter Lawrence, “Sometimes in the village one finds the roofs of the larger houses and of the shrines (ziarats) made of birch bark with a layer of earth above it. This forms an excellent roof, and in the spring the housetops are covered with iris, purple, white, and yellow, with the red Turk’s head and the Crown Imperial lilies. In the city nearly all the houses of well-to-do people are roofed with the birch bark and earth, so that looking down on Srinagar from the Hari-Parbat hill one sees miles of verdant roofing.”