Rediscovering the Mughal Gardens of Kashmir (Full Article)

The Mughal gardens of Kashmir are, apart from being of exceptional beauty, important and irreplaceable physical evidence to the understanding of Mughal and Kashmiri history and Mughal Garden history. Different periods of history have created historical layers in the gardens with distinct markings. The most recognized and renowned representation of the Mughal Period of Kashmir is in the Mughal gardens. It is said that during the height of Mughal glory in mid-17th century of Shah Jahan’s rule the city of Srinagar boasted of something around 700 gardens.

The water channel at Nishat Bagh (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2011).

The Mughal gardens of Kashmir are now visited and enjoyed by masses of local, national and international visitors. Thanks to the management and maintenance by the staff and malis of the Department of Floriculture the access to the gardens and their colourful presentation has been safeguarded. In the meantime the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Jammu & Kashmir Chapter (INTACH J&K) has started to put major efforts into enhancing our understanding of the gardens and the requirements for their conservation. By starting this new process of re-examination of the evolution of the gardens it has already become clear that the gardens and their wider historic landscape features and settings (such as for instance the Shalimar canal or the Oont Kadal at Nishat Bagh) have evolved much since Mughal times. Pressures of urbanisation and development, and the impacts of management for visitor purposes and tourist reception, have over the past forty years resulted in modifications and alterations and changes at the properties.

A chinar avenue at Nishat Bagh (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2011).

While Mughal garden research in the wider global arena has evolved significantly over the past decades, limited in-depth historical and scientific research and surveys had been undertaken about the history and conservation of the Mughal gardens of Kashmir. The initial findings from the surveys and research that was done in 2010 have started to provide us now with new evidence and understandings about the evolution of the gardens and their wider significance. For instance, it is clear that there is a need to establish new long-term conservation visions for the gardens within the spirit of key international conservation charters and the philosophy of the World Heritage Convention.

This is particularly relevant now that we are working towards the UNESCO World Heritage nomination and must occur for the garden areas and core zones of the properties, as well as for the wider buffer zones and settings of the properties. The objective of all stakeholders should therefore be that through seamless collaboration between the interdisciplinary experts and managing authorities, the gardens’ uniqueness, historic significance and integrity can be safeguarded and rehabilitated, while balancing the needs for a contemporary use and purpose of the properties.

Shalimar Bagh with the Black Pavilion in the background (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2010).

From the 2010 survey and analysis work we for instance are starting to understand the layered history of the gardens. Regarding Shalimar Bagh and its wider cultural landscape we know for instance that an early villa stood at Shalimar that was built by Pravarassena II in the late 6th century and that the Shalimar canal appears to date back to the reign of Zain-ul-Abidin in the 15th century when a canal and a bund from Dal Lake to Shalimar was created. The Emperors’ Garden (c.1620) and the Zenana at Shalimar Bagh (c.1634) were created in the 17th century in two phases. It is also known that during the Dogra Period various alterations occurred in the gardens as part of restoration works, including the building of various new baradaris, which at times replaced older removed pavilions. This initial research now must be further elaborated as part of the preparation of the World Heritage nomination dossier and the conservation management plans.

The remains of the Oont Kadal in Dal Lake at Nishat Bagh (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2010).
One of the stone thrones in Nishat Bagh (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2010).

The study of the topography, terraces and chahar baghs at Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Bagh also confirm that the sophistication in the use of terraces is far more complex than seen in possibly any Mughal gardens. Historical research now must help us to take decisions about the type of plantations, such as fruit trees, chinars, poplars, cedars or flowering plants, that can be restored or recreated on these terraces.

Crucial to this long-term process is an investment in training and capacity building for horticultural and traditional skills and crafts. Kashmir has a rich history in gardening and the safeguarding of the gardens and a rejuvenation of the horticultural authenticity and integrity can only materialise through the safeguarding of the historic crafts of the malis.

In October 2010 a final application to include a serial nomination of six gardens in the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List was submitted.  The application for the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List application was approved in December 2010. The information can now be read online. Inclusion on the Tentative List is an important and mandatory first step towards the preparation of a full nomination dossier for UNESCO World Heritage status.

Chasma Shahi (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2010).

With the new research and the inclusion of the gardens on the UNESCO Tentative List major steps were taken towards the full re-examination and re-discovery of the Mughal gardens of Kashmir. To build on the momentum and to inform the preparation of the comprehensive conservation management plans for the gardens, and the full nomination dossier for UNESCO World Heritage status, it was decided to organise a specialist seminar. This International Expert Seminar on ‘Mughal Gardens of Kashmir – Towards the World Heritage Nomination’ took place in May 2011.

It is hoped that all stakeholders will put their weight behind the protection of this significant heritage and the UNESCO World Heritage Nomination, so that a continuation of this process can lead to an enhancement of the gardens and their historic characteristics and pave the way for their inclusion in the prestigious UNESCO list.

Text and photographs by Jan Haenraets

Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada; and an Adviser to the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Jammu & Kashmir Chapter

Parts of the paper were published on 22 May 2011 in the Greater Kashmir Plus newspaper special on the Mughal Gardens of Kashmir, and in the Proceedings of the International Expert Seminar on ‘Mughal Gardens of Kashmir – Towards the UNESCO World Heritage Nomination’ . Watch the NDTV Report at this video link.

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