Early Muslims were pioneers in establishing gardens and fountains. With miles and miles of barren land and desert sand in sight, they envisaged their gardens as the proverbial oasis, a cool place to relax and reflect. This is how the concept of Charbagh or Chaharbagh gardens came into existence in the Islamic world and can be deemed as its singularly most pleasing contribution to the world of aesthetics in gardening. Charbagh, literally translated as four gardens, with an intricate system of water channels and fountains was meant to represent the garden of paradise with four rivers, that of water, milk, honey and wine flowing.
This love of plants is clearly shown in a genre of poetry, the Rawdiya or garden poem, probably of Persian origin, which came to be one of the main poetic forms from the eighth to the tenth century. In the garden poem, the author exclaimed at the coolness of the shade, the heaviness of the perfume, the music of the running water, the lushness of the foliage and so forth – in short at all the features of the artificially created environment which contrasted so strongly with their arid natural world.
These were not mere words; they corresponded to a reality. Early Muslims everywhere made earthly gardens called Charbagh that gave glimpses of the heavenly garden to come. Long indeed would be the list of early Islamic cities which could boast huge expanses of gardens. To give only a few examples, Basra is described by the early geographers as a veritable Venice, with mile after mile of canals criss-crossing the gardens and orchards; Nisbin, a city in Mesopotamia, was said to have 40,000 gardens of fruit trees, and Damascus 110,000; Al-Fustat [Old Cairo],with its multi-storey dwellings, had thousands of private gardens, some of great splendour, writes D F Ruggles in his book ‘Islamic Gardens and Landscape.’
So, when Babur arrived in India in the 16th century, he was disappointed at not finding fast-flowing artificial streams, fountains and lush gardens, in any built structure. He introduced the Charbagh gardens to the country, an idea of garden layout and related water works that would, later, place India in a significant position world over in garden heritage. Ram Bagh in Agra on the banks of Yamuna was one of the earliest and most elaborate of Mughal style Charbagh gardens in India. Some of the highlights of a Charbagh garden are disciplined geometry, fountains, running water and central pools to reflect the beautiful sky and garden.
Ram Bagh in Agra
Yamuna flowing beside Ram Bagh
Details of Ram Bagh
The central pool of char bagh at Humayun Tomb, Delhi
The Char Bagh Garden at Humayun Tomb in Delhi
Akbar built several Charbagh gardens and water works in Delhi, Agra and in his new imperial capital, Fatehpur Sikri, the most well-known being the Anup Talav.
Anup Talav at Fatehpur Sikri
As the Charbagh gardens grew in numbers and its pleasing aesthetics nothwithstanding, some of the Hindu kings too adopted the concept while designing their palaces and forts. One of these is the Deeg Palace, the erstwhile summer palace of Bharatpur Maharajas in the 18th century.
Suraj Mal, the celebrated Jat ruler, started building the Deeg Palace and was completed by his son Jawahar Singh. The summer palace was designed as a Jal Mahal between two large water bodies, Gopal Sagar and Rup Sagar. According to an inscription on the northwest corner of the retaining wall of Rup Sagar, it was built by the elder brother of Suraj Mal. It is interesting that in Jat tradition, a masonry well or a tank with ghats was constructed, to cherish the memory of the one who had no children to take his name forward.
Part of the reconstructed palace at Deeg
Suraj Mal captured Delhi and plundered the Red Fort carrying away a large chunk of valuables including an entire marble building, which was dismantled and numbered. The palace was then reconstructed in Deeg. He was so taken in by the Mughal architecture and the magnificence of the Charbagh gardens at Delhi and Agra that he hauled whatever he could back at their summer retreat and also tried to replicate the gardens and its waterworks.
Except for these big hauls from Mughal sites, Suraj Mal to his credit did not raze any structure especially mosques to the ground. His Maratha allies even jeered him for it but he stood his ground. Suraj Mal set an example by building a tomb and mosque for Shamsher Bahadur who succumbed to his injuries from the Panipat War, in Bharatpur. Shamsher Bahadur was the son of Peshwa Baji Rao and Mastani, who was relinquished by his half-brother and sent packing to his cousins in Banda.
The Deeg complex is built within a Charbagh comprising a central octagonal pool with fountains, from which four paved waterways lead to various pavilions and palaces. A huge reservoir feeds the elaborate network of water channels that form part of the cooling system of the palace complex. Various quarters and pavilions within the palace are fitted with ingenious ways to experience the rain and simulate the monsoon. It is said that Suraj Mal had an obsession with water. He installed nearly 200 fountains, all designed to create an artificial monsoon.
The months of Sawan (July) and Bhadon (August), when the monsoon is at its strongest lend their names to two pavilions on both sides of the iconic Keshav Bhavan that projects out over the Gopal Sagar tank. Keshav Bhavan is a flat roofed building with deep projecting eaves or chhajjas resting on symmetrically placed pillars with arched openings. The pillars are hollow and within them are pipes which continue within the structure over the arches. Heavy stone balls used to be placed on the roof when water gushed up through the pipes, these stone balls rolled to produce sound of thunder. For the Maharaja’s birthday the fountain pipes would be filled with colours and the fountains flowed in rainbow hues.
Keshav Bhavan along with two pavilions overlooking the Gopal Sagar tank
Gopal Bhavan, the main palace by the tank also appears as if it is rising out of water.
Inside Gopal Bhavan
The Nand Bhavan, the last but not the least among the Deeg palaces used a traditional indigenous method to keep its interior cool. Between its double roofs are sandwiched upturned earthen water pitchers that serve the purpose of insulation.
The Deeg Palace is truly a wonder of water aesthetics and is imbued with the syncretic spirit that is the idea of India. It represents in stone and splendour, the climax of an idea that had originated more than thousand years back in Persia and evolved slowly in India with every emperor adding his personal bit to it.
Authors – Jitu Mishra and Zehra Chhapiwala
Zehra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Jitu can be reached at email@example.com