Saturday, April 4, 2009

Achabal Garden in the 19th century

Bernier went to Achibal along the pilgrims' way. " Returning from Send-bray (Bawan) I turned a little from the high road for the sake of visiting Achiavel (Achibal), formerly a country house of the Kings of Kashemire and now of the Great Mogol. What principally constitutes the beauty of this place is a fountain, whose waters disperse themselves into a hundred canals round the house, which is by no means unseemly, and throughout the gardens. The spring gushes out of the earth with violence, as if it issued from the bottom of some well, and the water is so abundant that it ought rather to be called a river than a fountain. It is excellent water, and as cold as ice. The garden is very handsome, laid out in regular walks, and full of fruit trees apple, pear, plum, apricot, and cherry. Jets d'eau in various forms and fish ponds are in great number, and there is a lofty cascade which in its fall takes the form and colour of a large sheet, thirty or forty paces in length, producing the finest effect imaginable;especially at night, when innumerable lamps, fixed in parts of the wall adapted for that purpose, are lighted under
this sheet of water."

As in the case of nearly all these Kashmir gardens, the lowest terrace is destroyed by the highway, and Achibal Bagh is much smaller than it was in Mughal days. But nothing can spoil the natural loveliness of this river, gushing out of the honeycombed limestone cliff, just at the point where the mountains intrude farthest on the plains. It is an ideal site. If I were asked where the most perfect modern garden on a medium scale could be devised, I should answer without hesitation, Achibal. Nowhere else have I seen such possibilities for the combined appeal of a stately stone - bordered pleasance between ordered avenues of full-grown trees, and a natural rock and woodland upper garden with haunting, far-reaching views, where the white wild roses foam over the firs and the boulders, rivalling the " sheet of water " Bernier praised.

The garden, which had fallen into decay, was re-enclosed on a smaller scale by Gulab Singh, the grandfather of the present Maharaja of Kashmir. Opening out of the south wall there is a large harem building, with a Mughal hummum and a swimming tank for the ladies in the centre of the square.

The actual pavilion through which the spring bursts out is broken down, and all that remains is an arched recess, a ruined portal set against the side of the cliff. One would give much to see in what manner the great rush of water was first confined and utilised. On either side of the reservoir into which it falls is a stone-edged chabutra shaded by big chenars. There are several Kashmiri pavilions built on the Mughal stone foundations; delightful little structures with their cream plaster walls and rich brown cedar woodwork, their airy latticed windows and their carved flower-bell corbels. They are neither as elaborate nor so fine as the older work of the same class scattered up and down the country; but they are beautiful and useful none the less, and represent a national living art, which the builders of the Srinagar villas and the pine huts of Gulmarg might with advantage make more use of than they do. In many out- of-the-way villages the old tradition lives, and the head man's new house springs up adorned with rough but tasteful plaster-work and the cunning carving of an older day. One reads therefore, with something more than astonishment, the Report written only five years ago, which, in its archaeological zeal for Mughal work, recommended that the Kashmiri pavilions should be pulled down to the level of the underlying stone, not on account of their ugliness or want of utility, but merely because they were not Mughal ! Surely this is a short-sighted and unhistorical view. The antiquarian spirit in India is a pious one; but without a sense of proportion, a study of the life of the people, and aesthetic enthusiasms, it will have no force or driving power. Meanwhile the clever carvers of Srinagar spend their time on hideous, over - elaborated travesties of European furniture, tortured tea-tables, and uncomfortable chairs, not that they have forgotten the larger and bolder work so suited to their style, with its balconies and the flower-bell ends, but for the simple reason that nobody nowadays wants such things. The Delhi Durbar showed what Kashmir workmen well inspired
could do. The gateway of their Maharaja's camp was perhaps not very happy a stone temple design carried out in wood but the high pierced and carved railing on either side of it was one of the most beautiful and satisfactory examples of modern Indian craftsmanship.


 - An Extract from C.M. Villiers Stuart's 'Gardens of the Great Mughals' (1913). Another passage regarding Achabal from elsewhere in this book:

Green, white, and brown are June colours at Achibal, for the garden itself has few flowers, though some of the old orchard trees have been spared; and in autumn the quince trees weave a spell of their own when the gnarled boughs droop over the water with their burden of pale yellow balls. To plant fruit trees close up to the edges of the reservoirs was a favourite custom. And a very pretty one it was. Nothing was more tiresome in the English garden of the last century than the sham gentility which spoke of 'ornamental trees' as if they must be necessarily useless ones, and banished the apple, plum, and pear trees to the distant kitchen garden regions. Well, that is past now, and thanks chiefly to Japan, the orchard is again in favour. But we might have been reminded of its beauties long ere this, for every Indian garden was once full of fruit trees; Moslem and Hindu artists never tire of their symbolic contrast with the cypress; and Babar noted long ago: 'One apple tree had been in excellent bearing. On some branches five or six scattered leaves still remained, and exhibited a beauty which the painter, with all his skill, might attempt in vain to portray.'

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More from 'Gardens of the Great Mughals' here:

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About the image: Plan of the 'two remaining' terraces of Achabal Garden. Found in 'Gardens of the Great Mughals' (1913).

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