The vanishing Moghul gardens...

SPEND AN evening at Delhi's Roshanara Club and you are sure to come back filled with nostalgia. Half the club has been renovated - or rather the two wings. The old building in the centre is now being demolished. It was built with much care and affection in 1922 and as the labourers wield their hammers not only they but also the onlookers realise how strong it is. It is a reminder of old times, which have been faithfully recorded in the paintings adorning the walls of the new lunch and dining room.

You see the sahibs and memsahibs dancing away an evening or enjoying a picnic on the Ridge - or engaged in club games - cards, tambola, billiards. However, one didn't see any painting of the British families of early 20th Century Delhi having fun in Roshanara Garden. Maybe it's somewhere around but no longer hung on the walls.

Roshanara Garden was laid by Shah Jahan's second daughter, who was later buried in a baradari built in it. The garden is not what it was once, though its despoliation had begun soon after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857.

Roshanara, like her elder sister Jahanara, was fond of gardening. The latter had planted 30,000 saplings in the area now occupied by the Tees Hazari Courts. Hence, the name of the place, though some would have us believe that it was because of the 30,000-strong Sikh Laskhar or force that had camped at the site during the time of Shah Alam. Jahanara's grave is in Nizamuddin.

Both she and Roshanara died spinsters, which is rather unfortunate. They both had fallen in love with somebody or the other on the quiet, but marriage was out of the question since their beloveds were not noble enough to win the emperor, Shah Jahan's approval.

But back to Roshanara Bagh. Writing on the gardens of the plains in her famous book on Moghul landscape gardening in 1913, Miss C.M. Villiers Stuart was witness to the sad state of the garden as is evident from the following observation.

"Nearer the city, to the West of Sabzi Mandi, the suburb of the vegetable market, are Roshanara Begam's gardens. Roshanara lies buried in the garden in an elaborate white pavilion with creeper-clad walls, her grave standing on a low wide platform in the centre of the upper terrace in the garden still called by this name.

"The shaded walks and old symbolic avenues are gone - though one replaced path is still shaded by a broken pergola of vines. On two sides the garden walls are broken down; the terraced wall beside the water cascade can hardly be distinguished and the great tank beyond has lost its three pavilions....

"Everywhere winding roads, riven through the old garden, have cut up and completely spoilt the beauty of the original design. Even the approach has been altered to a carriage drive, through a low insignificant gate, set in a corner of the grounds and the fine old entrance with its lovely tiles is hardly ever seen."

So even 90 years ago, Roshanara Bagh was not what it had been. The same was the case with Shalimar Bagh, about which Miss Stuart says: "This last famous royal pleasure garden - mentioned by many old travellers, but hardly even known to the present inhabitants of the city - was build in imitation of the Kashmir royal gardens and the Shalimar Bagh at Lahore, by one of Shah Jahan's wives, A'azzu-un-Nissa, known as Bibi Akbarbadi, after whom the place was named Azzabad."

Shalimar Bagh is about six miles north of the city along the Grand Trunk Road and, though encircled by a colony of that name now, is famous as the place where Aurangzeb was crowned emperor in the Shish Mahal.

"The Shalimar Gardens," Miss Stuart goes on to say, "are mentioned by Franklin, who saw them in 1793 in the reign of Shah Alam. The garden, being a royal one, was confiscated and sold after the revolt of 1857.

"It consists at present of four parts, two of which still have the appearance of a garden, the others have been given over to cultivation. The depressions of the three principal fountains - mentioned by Franklin - and the long water channel connecting them can still be traced. They lie outside a fine mango grove which shades the picturesque tank overgrown with lotus; and a half-ruined baradari, called the Shish Mahal, stands at the southwest corner of the garden."

The Shish Mahal continues to be in a dilapidated state, the ornamental fountains have been carried away by vandals and now it is hard to visualise that they ever played in the neglected surroundings to gladden the hearts of the emperor, his queens and the princes and princesses camping in the baradari during their sojourns.

Another garden visited by Miss Villiers Stuart on the Grand Trunk Road, between Shalimar Bagh and the city, was Mubarak Bagh, which was then the property of a Nawab of Lucknow.

The garden was given to his family by one of the latter Moghul emperors on condition that it supplied the royal court with dalis of vegetables, fruit and flowers.

Gardens and flowers that provide enchantment both to the eye and the heart, however, seem to stand on a different plane than even lofty monuments and the thought of their disappearance leaves one sadder.

The roses that bloomed in them have long withered away and in their fairy circle one finds tufts of grass, which cling on like old associates. A Japanese style garden came up there in the 1960s but poor maintenance hampered it.

Outside the Red Fort, adjoining the moat was formerly a large square, with gardens on either side running down to the water, which is now being redeveloped. Inside the fort, behind the Dewan-e-am, were originally several small garden courts, and beyond them two larger ones - Bagh-e-Hayat - life-giving garden - and Mehtab Bagh or moon garden.

Mehtab Bagh has vanished, and only half the Hyat Bagh remains. Now it's the turn of Roshanara Bagh, unless the campaign to save it succeeds. But the club named after the princess seems to be flourishing as also the Moghul Gardens in Rashtrapati Bhawan.


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