Early Muslims, living where the climate was always hot and dry, were inspired by the idea of an oasis. Thus evolved the elaborate Islamic gardens with enclosed courts, planted with trees and shrubs, and surrounded by cool arcades. They were enlivened with coloured tile work, detailed curbstones, fountains and pools. The interplay of light and shade lent further character.
Take Taj Mahal, for instance. What heightens its splendour is the surroundings— the mirror-like pool before it, the green lawns and the soft whisper of fountains. Each of these elements is a key to Islamic architecture, where natural features subtly soften the stark monument.
All Mughal garden architecture has roots in the Persian (Iranian) paradise gardens. In Persia, the garden was born as a retreat from the desert. Water, being scarce, was brought from distant mountains to create these gardens. It is only natural then that water was the guiding thread of a Persian garden arrangement.
A Persian garden incorporates architecture and planting—groves of flowering almond, pomegranate trees, damask roses— with water rills and shade-giving pavilions. It evokes a place where walls shut out the desert.
The Mughals in 17th and 18th century India built gardens in which flowers, fruit trees, water and shade were arranged in a unified composition. The most notable examples are, of course, the Taj Mahal gardens in Agra and the Shalimar Garden of Kashmir. The Taj is an intricate masterpiece of Mughal symbolism—a wide metaphysical landscape with the Yamuna river on one side and a paradisical garden on the other. The motif is of the ‘charbagh’; but the heart of the Taj, the tomb, lies not at the centre of the ‘charbagh’, but on the terrace to the north, overlooking the Yamuna.
The symbolism of paradise
The Islamic garden design vocabulary is drawn from descriptive verses of paradise gardens in the Quran and Hadith.
It explores the power of geometry through the use of a square, circle and an octagon. The basic design elements include water, pavilions, walls, gates and shade.
Fourfold harmony: The plan of the Taj Mahal gardens. Photograph: Anita Kulkarni
• All Islamic gardens have an inward orientation.
• They are enclosed by walls, providing seclusion and protection from the climate.
• The garden is divided into four quadrants by water channels or walkways, with a fountain at the centre—hence the ‘charbagh’.
• The ‘charbagh’ signifies the four rivers in Allah’s Gardens of Paradise according to the Quran: the rivers of water, wine, milk and honey.
• Water and shade are two important design elements—they are mentioned in the Quran as rewards for the righteous, possibly owing to the aridity of the lands where Islam originated. So, pavilions are built directly above running water. Trees are planted for cool shade and breeze.
• The designs use classic motifs to depict a rich green oasis, rather like the vast carpet of cultivated agricultural land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They are known for their endless vistas and play with light and colour.
• The garden layout is meant to be appreciated from a distance, from pavilions, rather than expressed through walkways or paths through it.
• The mood changes depending on the time of day and season, which influences the blooming of flowers and shape of trees. It is manifold and moving, just like life.
Persian gardens beautifully exhibit a fine understanding of the fundamentals of landscape architecture—long before the science acquired its name. Indeed, the rich artistry of Persian carpets also employs the imagery of the Persian paradise gardens with the classic motifs of ‘charbagh’, flower beds and vine-covered walls.