Written by Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare
Called the ‘Garden of Joy’ and located on the eastern side of Dal Lake, Nishat Bagh is divided into four equal parts © J&K Tourism
It doesn’t matter if horticulture isn’t your thing: the Mughal Gardens are far more than collections of plants. Built in accordance with traditional Persian garden design, which in turn took its inspiration from the Islamic view of heaven, replete with flowing water, fruit trees and architectural follies, these were the pleasure gardens of the late medieval period.
Sensitively restored and lovingly tended by teams of gardeners, they show man’s desire and ability, now as when they were first made, to shape the wilderness, to tame aspects of nature to his will.
The ‘Garden of the Royal Spring’ (Cheshma Shahi Rd; open: 09.00–19.00; entrance fee Rs10/5 adult/child) was built in 1632 by Ali Mardan Khan, a noble at the court of Shah Jahan. Steep stone steps flanked with bright flowers lead visitors to the painted, Mughal archway that marks the entrance to the garden. Laid out in the traditional Persian style across three terraces, replete with watercourses that delight the local pigeon population as well as small children, and immaculately maintained, the planting is carefully thought out and complements the fountains, watercourses and other architectural features. Though substantially smaller than some of the other Mughal Gardens, Chashma Shahi is a beautiful, calm place and well worth taking time to visit, especially in the early evening.
Though they speak little English, the gardeners are happy to chat about their work and will eagerly identify the different plants for you if you don’t know quite what you’re looking at. They’ll also sell you a selection of ten different packets of seeds that they’ve collected from the garden (Rs100).
On the eastern shore of Dal Lake, with views back across the water, the ‘Garden of Joy’ (Nishat–Harwan Rd; open: 09.00–19.00; entrance fee Rs10/5 adult/child) is thought to have been commissioned by Asaf Khan, brother-in-law of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, in the early 1600s.
It is said that Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan, visited the garden in 1633 and, having repeatedly stated how beautiful he found it, he expected it to be given it as a gift. When Asaf Khan demurred (he was, after all, rather fond of his garden himself), Shah Jahan ordered that the garden’s water supply, which came from his own Shalimar Garden, be cut off . A servant disobeyed the order, and the garden and its plants were saved.
Nishat Bagh is divided into four equal parts, with a water channel separating each section and leading one’s eye to the lake. Originally it had both public areas and a separate, private section for the women of the zenana (harem), although this is no longer the case today.
The garden has a total of 12 terraces, and it is remarkable how the water flow is manipulated to pass from one to the next: there are successions of pools, chutes, channels and numerous fountains. Equally of note is the wooden baradari (pavilion), the octagonal towers flanking what was the zenana garden, and the chadar, the manmade waterfalls carved from slabs of marble and sometimes elaborately engraved.
Up above the Chashma Shahi is the Pari Mahal, the ‘Fairy Palace’ (Chashma Shahi Rd; open: 09.00–19.00; entrance fee Rs10/5 adult/child). Founded by Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, in 1635, the garden was originally watered by natural springs, though many of these have now run dry.
The garden was built across seven terraces, five of which survive, and they lead up to the central building with its numerous archways. Perhaps originally built as a Buddhist monastery, it was converted by Dara Shikoh into an observatory, as he was a keen and able astronomer.
The Pari Mahal is floodlit at night, and indeed the early evening is the best time to come here. The soft light is flattering to both the buildings and the plants, and there can be no more romantic place from which to watch the sun set across the lake.
The largest and most famous of the Mughal Gardens is Shalimar, ‘The Abode of Love’ (Nishat–Harwan Rd; open: Apr–Oct 08.00–20.30; Nov–Mar 09.00–19.00; entrance fee Rs10/5 adult/child). There has been a structure on the site since the 6th century, but it was Jahangir who built the first garden here in 1619. It was then extended in 1630 on the orders of Shah Jahan, ultimately covering an area of 12.4ha.
The garden is made up of four terraces, the water for which is supplied by a nearby tank and network of canals lined with chinar trees. The different terraces were originally for the use of the public, the emperor, and his zenana.
Though the planting is as exquisite as in any of the other Mughal Gardens, it is the buildings that set Shalimar apart. Just above the entrance gate is the Diwan-I Aam, the public audience hall where the emperor would sit atop his black marble throne to attend to daily affairs of state. Little save the foundations of the Diwan-I Khas (private audience hall) remains, but there are a number of other attractive pavilions, including the Black Pavilion, a marble structure in the zenana garden, and smaller buildings that would have been used as guardhouses, preventing unwanted visitors from accessing the zenana.