Restoring Mughal Landscapes

The Dumbarton Oaks Garden and Landscape Studies Program, which is affiliated with Harvard University, organized a lecture on the restoration of two of the most important Mughal empire landscapes — Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi, and the Bagh-e Babur in Kabul, both UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, an Islamic philanthropy, has spent the last few years undoing the damage caused by colonization and, more recently, urbanization. Ratish Nanda, an Indian architect, who organized the restoration work, said the threats to cultural heritage are real. “Right now, no historically relevant Mughal Garden exists in Pakistan today.” Restoring Mughal landscapes means creating a plan for sustainability and addressing the economic and social factors that support cultural landscapes.

Aga Khan’s Cultural Trust believes gardens are a part of modern life, and need to better integrated into contemporary society. In India, Mali, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, there are key examples of Mughal garden art that need to be preserved. One park that was recently restored in Egypt now “brings more visitors than the Great Pyramids.”

Mughal landscapes originated in Persepolis, Iran, in 7BC. Inspired by Koranic descriptions of paradise, the gardens attempted to offer visual representations of heaven.

Humayun’s Tomb, New Delhi: The tomb of Humayun, one of the Mughal emperors, predates the Taj Mahal by two centuries. This site in New Delhi is one of the densest set of Muslim buildings in the world. During the era when the tomb was built, it was auspicious to be buried near saints. Given a Sufi saint is buried in the area, Humayun decided to create his tomb there as well.

The site is imbued with colonial history. After the failed Indian Uprising in the mid 180o’s, the last Mughal emperor and his sons fled to Humayun’s Tomb. Once the British put down the uprising, which Indians view as the first major step in their independence movement, they brought the emperor out of the tomb and exiled him to Rangoon, Burma, while executing his three young sons.

Soon more and more Brits were coming over to see the site of Mughal’s final defeat. So the local colonial administration decided to turn Humayun’s Tomb into a tourist site. To demonstrate their mastery over the Mughals, the British intervened in the landscape design, replacing the Islamic landscape design with English country gardens.

Since then, there have been four efforts to restore the gardens to their original Mughal design, yet each successive effort ended up doing more damage by moving water channels and altering the original design.

In 1999, Aga Khan’s trust completed an MOU with the Indian government to restore the site to its original design. Nanda said the site “had been beautified, but not restored.” Excavating the site, the trust found the early fountains. They recreated almost 180 groundwater recharge pits, dug out wells, and restored the rainwater system. Lemon, lime, and hibiscus plants were brought back. All sandstone used was hand-chiseled.

Bagh-e Babur, Kabul: In Kabul, the tomb of the Babur, the original emperor of the Mughal empire, was created in 1508. It’s been the site of numerous battles in contemporary Afghan history. Nanda said when he first visited the site in a few years ago, he was dismayed at the degradation of the place Babur wished to be buried. Recently, the garden had been the site of a battle between two warlords. “It looked like a madman has shot bullets into every wall and every tree.”

Restoring the tomb and gardens created opportunities for employment. “The great thing about conservation work is that it involves lots of jobs.” They first rebuilt the walls surrounding the site — this involved creating almost a mile of mud walls by hand.

The gardens were then restored to their original design. Nanda said this is “cutting-edge restoration,” and won the approval of UNESCO. While the restoration doesn’t represent the original tomb and garden, “it represents the original intent.”

Like other orchards in the region, the garden is broken into a grid and features zones with different types of fruit plants — cherries, apricots and quinces now grow in the gardens, drawing some 15-20 thousand people for picnics each Friday.

Nanda said the restoration work on both sites is incomplete. Aga Khan believes the sites need to be integrated into the communities through education, training and job programs, so they can stand on their own and survive long-term. There are plans to make Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi accessible to more New Delhi residents, particularly students. The Bagh-e Babur now has events spaces and an adjacent pool that earn revenue to pay for the garden’s upkeep. Every business associated with the gardens must be included in economic sustainabilty plans if the restoration is to take hold, Nanda argues.

The trust has more projects coming in New Delhi. Plans are underway to turn a New Delhi British tree nursery into a 70-acre publicly-accessible arboretum. “Right now, it’s still a government tree nursery, and there’s no public access.” The goal is to turn it into an educational park. A landscape master planning process underway will restore the original New Delhi habitat.

Read more about Humayun’s Tomb and Bagh-e Babur.

Image credit: Humayun’s Tomb, New Delhi / Mitesh Vasa Blog

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