India, as we know it today, extended much further than today’s boundaries, that were only established in 1947. In the North and East it reached as far as the Himalayan mountains and in the West reaching into current day Afghanistan.
Historically the outer, Northern reaches of the Indian subcontinent were a great destination to escape the Summer heat, think about the popular hill station of Simla, at the foothills of the Himalaya, frequented by the English during the days of the Raj. Another popular destination was, and still is, the Kashmir valley with its beautiful Dal Lake.
The Kashmir Valley, surrounded on all sides by the Himalayas, is frequently referred to as a paradise. With their refined tastes, the Mughal rulers alchemised the natural advantages of the Valley with their own interpretation of paradise; Gardens!
From Akbar’s time the Valley became the treasured summer retreat for the Mughal rulers. The royal court journeyed for months to Srinagar and the springtime exodus becomes a yearly returning event. It was the great builder and aesthetic visionary Emperor Jahangir who created the most beautiful of all, for his beloved wife Noor Jahan in 1619, in Srinagar at the borders of Dal lake. He called it Shalimar Bagh or Abode of Love.
‘Shalimar Gardens, an evanescent dream made of cascading waterfalls, perfumed flowering trees, bushes and eternal pavilions ‘ – Daughters of the Sun, Ira Mukhoty
As Jahangir, Noor Jahan too shared her husband’s passion for creating a paradise and over the next years some of the most beautiful gardens of the Mughal empire are realized.
The quadrilateral garden layout is based on the four gardens of Paradise mentioned in the Quran. The design is also known as Char Bagh. It is divided by walkways or long fountain filled (a staggering 410!) canals dividing the two main gardens up into four smaller parts
Shalimar gardens consists of three terraces. The first smaller terrace, the public garden or Diwan-e-Aam. The second terrace is the Emperors terrace or Diwan-e-khas and the third terrace is the Zenana or ladies garden which features the black marble pavilion. The pavilion holds the inscription written by Persian Poet Amir Khusrau saying “If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”.
One of the famous features of Shalimar gardens is the fountain pool that surrounds the black pavilion. A double cascade of water falls against a low wall with small niches, Chini Khanas, marking a distinct feature compared to other terraced gardens. These niches where once lite with oil lamps at night to create a mesmerizing atmosphere sparkling through the cascading water.
Up and until today visiting the Kashmir Valley and its beautiful gardens is a popular retreat for all who want to escape the heat from the cities and dessert. To me it is a wonder that an area, unfortunately, so contested, still offers to all who visit, a vision of Paradise.
Contributing author: Marie Claire van Schooten–van Gelder
Cultural marketeer & consultant – Social entrepreneur – @marieclairevg