Discovering India’s first Charbagh

History says that Babar built his first garden ‘Aram Bagh’ at Agra, on the banks of the River Jamuna. This garden was also his resting place after his death, till his body was carried back to Kabul where he lies in a splendid garden named after him. At Aram Bagh, one can still see the empty grave and the platform in which he was laid to rest, next to the walls of the river.

Having established his base at Agra after his conquest of a greater part of the northern areas of Hindustan, the homesick monarch built Aram Bagh (often referred to as Ram Bagh), to remind him of the beautiful gardens of his hometown Ferghana. Unable to bear the oppressive heat of summer in Agra, he would spend his days in these gardens where he could rest in the pavilions, cooled by the breeze that wafted in from the river.

Babar brought to India his favourite concept of a garden, the Persian Charbagh. Set in an enclosed space, in perfect symmetry that divided the garden into four quarters, watered by flowing channels and fountains, this garden was laid out with borders of flowers such as the narcissus and the rose. Orchards of fruit trees like the citron, pomegranate and orange, were bordered with slender trees such as the cypress and poplar.

Aram Bagh, which was laid out in this classic Persian style adopted by the Mughal dynasty, had the traditional water ways criss-cross and run vertically and horizontally with a platform in the middle. These gardens were laid out symmetrically on the four sections thus created, which were multiplied in the same style with more squares being added for larger gardens. Fountains played all along the waterways and raised platforms were created at each crossing. Running water below the platforms, offered the coolest places to rest in the evenings. It is said that  Aram Bagh abounded in fruit trees and fragrant flowers, carefully arranged by size and colour to add to this sense of balance and symmetry.

There are two Pavilions built on the banks of the river with inner and outer chambers. The painting on the roof of the inner chambers and on the walls of the exteriors, is still discernable. One of the most interesting features among these frescoes is the fading image of a fairy in one of the corners of a ceiling—giving credence to the statement that the Mughals built their gardens on the theme of ‘Paradise’. The garden’s name is also an adapted from the Persian ‘Aaram Bagh’, which means ‘Garden of Paradise’.

It is often forgotten now, that a garden was meant to be lived in as a habitable space and not merely a park to be visited occasionally. The Mughals, with their spirit of adventure coupled with a taste for leisure, understood the need to retire to an open but if necessary enclosed environment, for privacy.

Today at Aram Bagh, two massive tamarind trees appear ancient enough to have been in the garden for at least 250 years. All the other trees (of which there are few) seem of a more recent origin: the guava and pomegranate trees one sees growing in the wilderness and rubbing branches against the yellow champak. Nowhere, except in the waterways, do we see  the orderliness and symmetry that was the hallmark of these classic Mughal Gardens. Pathways are often covered with wild shrubs and though attempts were made to repair the pipes, so far I have not seen any water running through the carefully created canals. The fountains that should have been there have also disappeared – possibly due to the water shortage. Visitors can’t indulge in the luxury of perfumed fountains. 

The only area of Aram Bagh that appears to live up to its name is the raised terrace on which rest the two original pavilions. Here one sees people stretched out in repose, to beat the summer heat of Agra—cooled by the gentle breeze blowing in from the river. While crossing the

Jawahar Bridge to reach the other side of the river, one could see the boundary walls and the Pavilions in the garden on the other side of the river. I had been full of eager anticipation to see Babar’s first garden in all its glory. As I leave, I feel positively let down. All the while I had spent at the garden, the gate had remained only partially with a lock and chain, allowing one person to enter at a time. There was no one to monitor who entered or left and no plaque anywhere, to enlighten a visitor on the importance of this garden—the first Persian style ‘Charbagh’ created in India by Babar.

At this time when the cause of ecology has everyone's attention, why should Agra’s oldest garden be neglected? If not for any other reason, surely environmental considerations should lead to trees being planted to beautify this splendidly laid out garden, to bring it back to its former glory?

Shona Adhikari