Chahar Bagh: Persian idea of paradise on Earth

History Contributor
Chahar Bagh
Shalimar Gardens, Srinagar, India. Photo Courtesy: Srinagar Tourism

Have you ever visited the Taj Mahal, and spent the entire time in the garden surrounding it? If you are one of the rarest of the rare few to have actually done that, you will have realized what a Chahar Bagh, or Charbagh as it is known in India, is all about. You will have realized how the greens have an inexplicable calming effect on your mind, in stark contrast to the dizzying exhilaration of the grand monument.

It’s meant to be that way: a calculated balance struck through contrasts. It’s mysterious indeed. Even after being in so much public discourse the legendary Taj has much in its nooks and crannies that often go unnoticed. But that we will take a peek into some other day. Today it may be worthwhile to try and appreciate briefly the secret of the garden only.

Persian Gardens called Chahar Bagh in India

Well, to begin with it’s not unique, but is an excellent example of what is studied in horticulture as Persian Gardens, more specifically as Chahar Bagh, aka Charbagh in India. In India it came with the Mughals. Babur was fond of gardens, and the Aram Bagh he built in Agra, in 1528, is said to be the first Chahar Bagh in India. However, the first true grand Persian Garden was designed as part of the Humayun’s Tomb, between 1569 and 1572.

I have had the great fortune to visit some of the finest Persian Gardens in the world, almost all of which are UNESCO world heritage sites, such as Bagh-i-Naqsh-i-Jahan and Hasht-i-Behesht in Isfahan, Daulatabad Bagh in Yazd, Golestan Palace Garden in Tehran, Humayun’s Tomb Garden in Delhi, Shalimar Bagh in Lahore, Taj Mahal Garden in Agra, and of course Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh, the two great Mughal Gardens, in Srinagar, Kashmir.

Paradise replicated

Trust me, it’s an experience unmatched. Strictly built within a specified area, and almost always inside walls, the crisp air, the changing fragrance from one nook to another, the sound of water flowing through channels and fountains, the myriad shades of green, the colours of the flowers, everything in a Persian Garden mingles in my brain to conjure up the eternal mystery of a woman’s pure existence that can never be explored enough, the obvious boundaries of her skin notwithstanding. For many others, it may feel like being in Behesht, paradise, itself, which is what a Chahar Bagh is meant to replicate.

Yet, there is nothing mystic about it. Every square inch of a proper Persian Garden is designed through precise calculations. And the calculations have been honed to minute precision over a millennium of experience. The first recognized Persian Garden was raised in Pasargadae, near Shiraz, Iran, by the town planners of Kurosh the Younger, around 500 BCE, but the concept truly developed in Islamic Persia. The UNESCO’s note on Persian Gardens writes, “With regards to the main principles of the geometry of Persian Gardens, the whole garden is considered as the symbol of the world with a pool of life in the centre. The garden is divided into four quarters by the waterways as the main axis.”

Contributions of Mughals

This is why this pattern of gardens is called Chahar Bagh, Chahar meaning four in Persian, and Bagh is garden. It is too vast a chapter to be justifiably dealt with within this brief space, but the Chahar Bagh, does attempt to create an ambience, in the right season, and the right time of the day, through a harmonious mingling of sound, that of the gushing water, smells, those of the flowers, colours, of the plants and trees and flowers, and the touch of the breeze, a sense of being in the Behesht.

“The term Chahar Bagh is more subtly linked to the idea of paradise,” comments the UNESCO note. It is an arrangement of plants, trees, channels and fountains in a strict pattern that allows the gardener-artist just enough liberty to give each bagh its individual life. The design of the Chahar Bagh is meticulous and marvellous. However, to truly absorb its effect in your being, spent a day in springtime in any of the several Chahar Baghs built by the Mughals in the Indian subcontinent. Knowledge, after all, can never substitute experience!



(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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