Revealing a strikingly modern message about the power of women and the relevance of ancient technology, one of the five surviving Mughal riverfront gardens of Agra is now restored along with the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Dhaulah, and open to the public at Moti Bagh.
In earlier times both sides of the Yamuna were filled with the lush plantings and sounds of fountains from the 44 gardens that the Mughals viewed as paradise on earth. Like Babur or Jahangir, Mughals would pitch their red tents and celebrate the sweetness of the birds’ songs with discourse, music, books and poetry. Business, politics and family agreements were resolved in the surrounding archways, making the gardens central to every aspect of life.
Though the Mughals of Central Asia were historically nomads, they took their cultural inspiration from Persia where gardens were considered as much a part of a lavish setting as buildings. Gardens were to be symmetrical and filled with trees, flowers and waterways, all of which were underpinned by invisible, inventive and sometimes complex hydrological engineering, meant to supply just the right amount of water for each type of flower no matter what the season.
The first Mughal emperor, Babur, brought the first gardens to Hindustan which he initially found to be “a place of few charms”, asserting that the cities and provinces were unpleasant, that the gardens lacked walls, and the buildings lacked harmony and symmetry. He fondly describes in his autobiography his first garden in Kabul: “I laid (it) out on a hillside facing south. In the middle, a little stream flows constantly past the little hill on which are four garden plots. In the southwest, there is a reservoir around which are orange trees and a few pomegranates...encircled by a meadow. This is the best part of the garden, a most beautiful sight when the oranges take colour.” Babur soon began to build what would be 11 gardens along the Yamuna.
The Taj Mahal was built for a woman. Mumtaz Mahal, beautiful and beloved, on her deathbed asked that her mausoleum should resemble the earthly paradise of her dreams. She died leaving her 14th child, and her grieving husband, emperor Shah Jahan, in the world of reality.
The architect of what is widely recognised as one of the most beautiful buildings is not known for certain. Nor was the Taj the first tomb to be built in the gardens of paradise along the Yamuna. Nor was the stunning use of white marble, which makes the Taj seem to float above the gardens, an original idea.
The I’timad-ud-Dhaulah mausoleum, which is often referred to as the Baby Taj, was the first tomb to be built along the river and the first to be completely sheathed in white marble with colourful inlays. It was designed and built by a woman, empress Nur Jahan, the first and only female ruler of the Mughal Empire. She was the 20th and most-favoured wife of emperor Jahangir. Her innovation of using white marble, perhaps to emphasise the idea of light, inspired her stepson, Shah Jahan, when he built the Taj. She built the I’timad-ud-Dhaulah mausoleum is memory of her Persian parents: her father was one of the most distinguished nobles of the Mughal court and was given the title I’timad ud-Daulah (pillar of the state).
The Mughal riverfront gardens of Agra has been a partnership project of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the World Monuments Fund (WMF). According to Lisa Ackerman, Interim Chief Executive Officer of WMF, "the work was launched in 2014 with a workshop on an ambitious plan to conserve Mehtab Bagh and the tomb...The goal was to understand available archival resources, existing scholarly texts, current conditions at the site...Throughout the process there were challenges: drought and heavy rains killing plants in alternate years; changes in personnel at both ASI and WMF; the pressure to secure adequate financial support and more. In the end, the project concluded with a very successful launch of the visitor centre and a model for how other Mughal Gardens can be approached."
To the Mughals, their gardens were paradise on earth and signified the eternity of life after death. For visitors today, these beautiful gardens and tomb complexes are not to be missed and represent a swath of Indian history newly revealed.
The entry fee to visit the monument is INR 30 for Indians and INR 310 for foreigners