Saturday, April 4, 2009

History of Nishat Bagh

The Nishat Bagh, true to its name, is the gayest of all Mughal gardens. Its twelve terraces, one for each sign of the zodiac, rise dramatically higher and higher up the mountain side from the eastern shore of the lake. The stream tears foaming down the carved cascades, fountains play in every tank and watercourse, filling the garden with their joyous life and movement. The flower-beds on these sunny terraces blaze with colour roses, lilies, geraniums, asters, gorgeous tall-growing zinnias, and feathery cosmos, pink and white. Beautiful at all times, when autumn lights up the poplars in clear gold and the big chenars burn red against the dark blue rocky background, there are few more brilliant, more breathlessly entrancing sights than this first view of Asaf Khan's Garden of Gladness.

When Shah Jahan was in Kashmir in 1633, he visited this garden. Its high terraces, and wonderful views of lake and mountain, so delighted him that he at once decided that the Nishat Bagh was altogether too splendid a garden for a subject, even though that subject might happen to be his own prime-minister and father-in-law.
He told Asaf Khan on three occasions how much he admired his pleasure-ground, expecting that it would be immediately offered for the royal acceptance. But if Shah Jahan coveted his neighbour's vineyard, the Wazir was no less stiff-necked than Naboth ; he could not bring himself to surrender his cherished pleasance to be " a garden of herbs " for his royal master, and he remained silent. Then as now the same stream supplied both the Royal Garden and the Nishat Bagh, which lies on the mountain side between the Shalimar and the city of Srinagar. So Shah Jahan in his anger ordered the water- supply to be cut off from the Nishat Bagh and was avenged, for the garden he envied was shorn of all its beauty.

Nothing is more desolate than one of these great enclosures when their stone -lined tanks nd water channels are dry and empty. Asaf Khan, who was staying in his summer palace at the time, could do nothing, and all his household knew of his grief and bitter disappointment. One day, lost in a melancholy reverie, he at last fell fast asleep in the shade by the empty watercourse. At length a noise aroused him ; rubbing his eyes he could hardly believe what he saw, for the fountains were all playing merrily once more and the long carved water-chutes were white with foam. A faithful servant, risking his life, had defied the Emperor's orders, and removed the obstruction from the stream. Asaf Khan rebuked him for his zeal and hastily had the stream closed again. But the news reached the Emperor n his gardens at Shalimar; whereupon he sent for the terrified servant, and, much to the surprise of the Court, instead of punishing him, bestowed a robe of honour upon him to mark his admiration for this act of devoted service ; at the same time granting a sanad which gave the right to his
master to draw water for the garden from the Shalimar stream.

The old approach was by water, and the Nishat Bagh, like other Kashmir gardens, loses greatly by the intrusion of the modern road, which cuts off the lake-side terrace from all the others. The enclosure is now five hundred and ninety-five yards long and three hundred and sixty wide. Being a private garden, and not a royal pleasure-ground, there are only two large divisions : the main garden built in a series of terraces each slightly higher than the other; and the upper zenana terrace, where the wall is eighteen feet high, and runs across the full width of the garden. The water-chute running down from the second story of the small pavilion on the ladies' terrace is constructed of paved brick arranged in the usual wave patterns, and there are traces of a similar brick pavement on each side of the canal, which at the Nishat is thirteen feet wide and eight inches deep. Each end of the high retaining wall is flanked by octagonal towers, with inner stairways leading to the upper garden.

The number of stone and marble thrones is a special feature of the Nishat Bagh. There is one placed across the head of almost every waterfall. The gardens have recently been partly restored, and an attempt has been made to replace the vases which once adorned the platforms and terrace walls of all these Mughal baghs. Those already made for the Nishat are decorative and add something of the old character, but they are too small for the scale of the gardens. The Indian mali is often laughed at for his devotion to his " gumalis " and tubs, though they are very practical in the plains, where the white ants are likely to devour everything growing in the ground, for his crazy patchwork bedding, and his rows of untidy little pots. It is the small scale and multiplicity of these gumalis, and flower-beds, which prevents us seeing that they are only the degenerate forms of two well-known Mughal motives geometrical floral designs and plants in vases. Beautiful carved stone and moulded earthenware garden- vases might yet be made by Indian masons and potters if they were given scope and time. Filled with flowers, their effect on the great masonry platforms would be wonderfully fine. After all, the mali has a sound tradition in his favour.

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From C.M. Villiers Stuart's 'Gardens of the Great Mughals' (1913). In the book the passage about 'Mali' has the title: The Mali and His "Gumalis"

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About the Images:
1. An old photograph of Nishat Bagh. Found in 'Gardens of the Great Mughals' (1913)
2. View of Dal Lake from Nishat Garden. In the frame, just near the second electricity cable from the top, you can see the Akbar's Bridge (16th century) in the distance. Shot one late evening in June 2008.

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