|August 07, 2000|
Nursery of History
The ASI's efforts to restore the Taj Mahal's fabulous medieval garden are bearing fruit
By Anshul Avijit in Agra
The Taj Mahal looks stunning from its grand entry. But did you know that Emperor Shahjahan booked the best view from a grassy, crescent-shaped floodplain across the river Yamuna? Back in the 17th century, when the Mughal rulers spared no expense to indulge their whims, the 25-acre patch was dramatically transformed into a moonlit pleasure garden called Mehtab Bagh, profuse with white plaster pathways, breezy pavilions, pools and fountains. Over the centuries, floods -- and villagers scouring for building materials -- almost effaced the memory of this medieval haven until excavations, which began in 1994 and are still continuing, revealed a magnificent four-quartered garden that blended perfectly with the sanctified complex of the Taj. Now the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is attempting to restore the Mehtab Bagh to its horticultural grandeur, almost as Shahjahan saw it.
In the process, many myths are being cleared. Mehtab Bagh was also rumoured to be the proposed site for the Taj's black marble twin that Shahjahan wanted as his mausoleum. This legend was fuelled by the 17th century French traveller Jean Baptiste Tavernier who observed in his account that before Shahjahan could begin work on his tomb he was incarcerated by his son Aurangzeb. Much later, in 1871, a British adventurer called Carlyle discovered the remnants of an old pond at the site and mistook them for the foundation of the fabled structure, keeping alive the non-identical twin theory.
Finally, the ASI decided to pick up the shovel in 1994. Says P.B.S. Sengar, superintending archaeologist with the ASI and the man who spearheaded the excavations: "We wanted the truth behind the mythical black Taj to finally come out. Our guess was right ... there is absolutely no evidence of Shahjahan having planned another prototype." What Sengar and his men actually unearthed, after winnowing 90,000 cubic metres of earth, was a typical charbagh garden that formed an intrinsic part of the Taj complex -- with Mumtaz Mahal's tomb positioned exactly halfway between the main entrance to the complex and the end of Mehtab Bagh. There were also remnants of an octagonal pond (that misled the hasty Carlyle), a baradari for viewing the Taj, a boundary wall and a sophisticated network of water channels criss-crossing the landscape.
The Supreme Court's direction in 1996 to the ASI to create a 500 m-wide green belt around the Taj Mahal to reduce pollution around the monument proved to be a hurdle in the resurrection of Mehtab Bagh. The National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) suggested that 25 pollution-mitigating plant species be planted every two metres in the proposed green belt. The ASI cried foul, arguing that the plan would result in a chaotic jungle replacing the thoughtfully planned Bagh. The garden should only have plants that the Mughals used in their gardens, it pleaded. The Supreme Court agreed, but directed the NEERI and the ASI to agree on a common list of plants.
Shyam Singh, a landscape architect who trained at Delhi's School of Planning and Architecture and is now deputy superintendent in the ASI's department of horticulture, is striving to replicate the garden's original ambience. Singh has gone back in history, poring over texts of the Mughal era, examining existing gardens like Shalimar in Kashmir and analysing petiole-packed miniatures to isolate some of the 81 plants that featured in Mughal horticulture. His much-deliberated list includes guava, maulshri, kaner, hibiscus, citrus fruit plants, neem, bauhinia, ashoka and jamun. Most of these have bright coloured flowers that would shine in the moonlight.
The herbage is also being arranged in order of its height. Tall trees are followed by shorter ones, followed by shrubs and finally small flowering plants. Also, the gardeners assisting Singh in nursing the young garden are constantly weeding out the weaker species. "Plants not suited to the sandy soil are being constantly replaced," says gardener Rishi Prakash. "The garden is a mixture of what looks nice and what sustains."
The origins of the Mehtab Bagh are a matter of much speculation. It probably existed even before the Taj was built and was later refashioned to suit the mausoleum's symmetry. There is also a reference to the garden in a letter written to Shahjahan by Aurangzeb while he was on his way to the Deccan. The prince had cautioned his father that during the monsoon, rainwater had completely submerged the Mehtab Bagh and even seeped in at the Taj.
The concept of a riverside garden was essentially a Mughal idea, probably brought to India from central Asia. In fact, Mehtab Bagh was the eleventh and the last in a series of gardens built by the Mughals along the bank of the Yamuna opposite the Agra Fort and the Taj. The first was Rambagh (the only perfect charbagh); others include Johra, Chini ka Roza and Itmad-ud-daulah. But time has destroyed the structures of most of them and private nurseries have sprung up in their place. Mehtab Bagh, undoubtedly the most important among them, has been salvaged just in time.
Well, most of it anyway. The southwest corner of the garden, where once a gazebo proudly stood, now houses a temple. And in the courtyard adjacent to it stands a tawdry cement statue of B.R. Ambedkar clasping the Constitution. Just behind the temple are the battered relics of the network that once supplied water to the park -- sections that have been excluded from the restoration of the Mehtab Bagh. Making things tough for the ASI are rumours that the Uttar Pradesh Tourism Department may convert the sensitive oxbow into a tourist plaza of resorts, meditation centres, even a golf course. But mercifully nothing concrete has emerged. The ASI's decision to keep Mehtab Bagh off limits for tourists (and plastic bottles) is laudable. If only it could remain like that forever.
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