How to look at the Taj Mahal?

November 2, 2007

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

East and West have very different ways of approaching garden history by Ambra Edwards

One of the most famous views in the world is about to change radically – a view so familiar, most of us barely think of it as a garden at all.  We are transfixed by a white marble dome reflected in a pool – a long, still canal that runs between the gateway where we stand and this object of wonder.   In our first, heart-stopping view of the Taj Mahal, it is easy to overlook the fact that this canal is the centrepiece of a garden, and this most perfect mausoleum, one of a series of linked garden buildings.

This historic garden is not the ‘original’ garden, but a colonial construct from the days of Lord Curzon, dating from 1906 – a neat, orderly, imperialist idea of what a garden should be. But it retains the traditional Islamic four-square (chahar-bagh) form, divided into quarters by two intersecting canals.  Unusually, the focal point, the tomb, stands not at the centre but on a platform at one end of the garden.  The result – those limpid reflections familiar from a million biscuit tins, doubling the presence of the building, amplifying its creator’s wealth and power, his monumental love and loss.

The Taj Mahal is one of 26 World Heritage Sites in India, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (1591-1666) in memory his beloved Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian princess who died in 1631, soon after bearing their fourteenth child.  The Taj is the mausoleum of them both, created, legend would have it, in obedience to a promise exacted by the dying queen.  No expense was spared in the building, which took seventeen years, summoning masons, stonecutters, inlayers, carvers, painters and calligraphers from every corner of the Mughal empire.  White marble was brought from Rajasthan; precious stones from distant parts of India, Ceylon and Afghanistan.  Squadrons of engineers were employed to raise water for the fountains from the neighbouring Yamuna river.  In its ambition, its costliness and lordly contempt for topography, it curiously resembles Versailles, begun just three decades later.  The romance of the enterprise is only slightly diminished when we discover two other lesser queens discreetly buried in the southernmost corners.

The garden completed in 1648 would have appeared much less austere than it does today. The French traveller Francois Bernier writes in 1663 of ‘garden allees shaded with trees and many parterres full of flowers’.  These were edged not in box, in the European manner, but in stone, and the paths were built up to the height of the blooms, giving the impression of walking across a richly embroidered carpet.  This embroidery continued into the building itself: the marble walls are inlaid with exquisitely worked flower motifs in semi-precious stones – lapis and cornelian and luminous holly-green malachite.  Fountains played in the water basins, which, being raised above the level of the flower beds, allowed easy irrigation – a clever piece of engineering lost when the garden was flattened.  Early eighteenth century miniatures depict a luxuriant growth of flowers and trees, and by the close of the nineteenth century, the garden, falling into neglect, had become the apotheosis of the exotic picturesque: among many visitors inspired to paint its glories were Hercules Brabazon Brabazon (friend and teacher of Gertrude Jekyll) and the nonsense poet Edward Lear.  Lear’s diary rhapsodises about aloes, ferns and palms, showers of bougainvillea, poinsettias ‘in huge crimson masses’ and ‘innumerable flights of bright green parrots flitting across like live emeralds.’  A far cry from Curzon’s tidy lawns and military rows of cypresses – a garden plan that allowed visiting memsahibs to view the building conveniently from the gate, without the trouble of alighting from their carriages.

Today the custodians of this World Heritage Site are faced with a dilemma. The garden as it stands is dilapidated and unsustainable.  So what should happen next? Should one of the most famous views on the planet be preserved? Or should – at the risk of disappointing tourists – an older, more ‘authentic’ garden be recreated, illustrating the Emperor’s original intentions?

Neither, is the radical suggestion of Navin Piplani, the young landscape architect charged with drawing up a conservation plan.  For neither of these solutions would be genuinely authentic.  In this case, in this place, authenticity requires something that is created afresh.

Piplani is beset by contradictions. He trained in landscape conservation in the UK (he is an expert on the conservation of York Minster) and is thoroughly at home with Western conventions of garden history.  But as an Indian (with his ponytail and chiselled profile, he could have stepped straight out of a jewel-bright Mughal miniatures) he has quite different ideas of what heritage, history and authenticity mean, from those which obtain at UNESCO HQ.

“Authenticity, in our Indian context,” explains Piplani, “is associated more with living cultural traditions, than the iconic monuments they produced.  It is the content or spirit that is venerated more than the form or body of the artefacts of cultural expression.”

This difference proceeds, he believes, from our very different understanding of time.

In the West, we see time as an irreversible linear progression, in which there is a strong distinction between the past, and the present and future.  He quotes Ruskin’s phrase, ‘the golden stain of time’.  Conservation in the West is rooted in a sense of loss, a nostalgia for irrecoverable time: the past is honoured above the present and the future.  Successful conservation is that which fixes an object in time, effectively halting it – an impossible task, as we all know, for a garden.

The Indian view of time, however, is quite different.   Time is cyclical, ‘an eternal becoming’  in which there is no segregation of the past from the present or the future.  “More than what was, the emphasis is on what will be, which is a consequence of what is.  This simultaneous occurrence of the three time references forms the essential inherent spirit of the Indian consciousness.”

In this context, fixing things in time has no meaning. So conservation concerns itself less with the When, than the Where and the How and the Why.  The fabric of the artefact becomes less important than what it embodies; the process of creation more important than its object.  As long as the site and cultural traditions of the conservation object are maintained, it may be repaired, rebuilt, and redecorated ad infinitum. “And since a garden is a living thing, growing and changing with time,” concludes Piplani, “more than the physical form, the design and layout, it is the spirit that should inform and guide historical gardens.”

So this is the question: what can now give best expression to the spirit of the Taj garden?

The project has begun in a conventional enough manner, with garden archaeology, to establish the precise layout of the Emperor’s garden.  But more important is to discover Shah Jahan’s intentions for the garden, what he meant by it – and then to understand what it has come to mean in the intervening centuries.

The Islamic chahar-bagh is well understood as a paradise garden.  Most descriptions sound rather louche, like a celestial Balinese resort hotel.  In an exclusive leafy enclave resplendent with swelling fruit and dazzling flowers, the Blessed, lulled by tinkling water and fanned by fragrant breezes, loll eternally, their every want supplied by hosts of doe-eyed virgins. Architectural historian Ebba Koch, who has studied the Taj for 30 years, suggests that Shah Jahan had something more rigorous in mind; that rather than a heavenly holiday, the Taj ensemble was intended to resemble the Garden of Allah. “The quotation from the Koran that is carved in perfect symmetry on the entrance arch says that all souls of the dead wait in the Garden of Allah before the Day of Judgement arrives. The Taj is a replication of this garden, where the souls of the Emperor and his beloved Queen await their final departure to the presence of Allah.”  Thus every part of the garden was steeped in a solemn symbolism: even the flowers inlaid in precious stones in the marble of the Taj are associated with funereal services.

“The gardens of the Taj were not meant to be just a setting, but part of a larger vision replete with its own symbolism and meaning,” says Piplani.  The conservation plan proposes to reinstate the Mughal ground plan and replant the squares with flowers, fruit and ornamental trees.   But where our conservation industry would fuss about correct materials and period plants, Piplani is more interested in finding and preserving traditional indigenous building, craft and horticultural skills. “If we can conserve a process, we are in a much better situation than just conserving a building or garden.

“We are talking about preserving the skills and practices related to the creation and maintenance of Islamic gardens in India – both the artistic conception and horticultural maintenance strategies. The gardens of Taj were maintained on sustainable traditions, and these need to be revived not only in terms of documentation but in practice.”

The first task is to reinstate the old water lifting mechanism from the Yamuna river,  to fill the water channels and power the fountains, which are still in working order, but do not play for lack of water.  In fact water is fundamental to the whole project.  With water shortage such a key issue for the whole state, even the Taj cannot be profligate with it.  So out go the water-wasteful lawns, which cost so much money and effort to maintain, and in come densely packed flower beds and orchards, tended in a water-wise fashion handed down over generations.  Gardeners will once again grow plants for the garden “in a systematic way, and not as per the availability of government funds.”  And fruit and flowers grown in the garden will be offered for sale, to provide an income for the garden.  “Working with the past, in the present to inform the future: we hope to redefine the chahar-bagh for the twenty-first century.”  Or as Piplani sees it, rather than merely preserving authenticity, they will create it afresh, in making a garden that is relevant and sustainable today.

Part and parcel of that relevance is the controversial scheme to redevelop the two entrance courtyards to provide a pair of visitor centres.  Visitors are a fact of life: the Taj has attracted tourists since the 17th century.  2.2 million of them visit every year. They need information and water and lavatories and places to sit.  For the garden to be viable, it must be able to absorb their huge numbers without being damaged. If that means some structural changes to re-route them round the garden and spread the traffic, so be it: that is what is needed to make the garden work now.

The task, as Piplani defines it, is to maintain both the ‘value’ and the ‘significance’ of the garden. That significance will change with succeeding generations, and exists, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder.  For the religious, be it Muslim, Christian or Jew, the garden is a place of contemplation and spiritual refreshment.  For the romantic, it is a temple of love. Either way, the garden begs for the restoration of a sense of fruitfulness and plenty – its value resides in its emotional and spiritual power.

The Emperor set an inscription on the tomb:

Like the garden of heaven, a brilliant spot
Full of fragrance, like Paradise fraught with ambergris

Perhaps, within a generation, this garden will be a paradise again.

Ambra Edwards – garden writer

This article first appeared in HORTUS in 2007

© Ambra Edwards

Navin Piplani is a lecturer at the TVB School of Habitat Studies in New Delhi, and a member of the Conservation Collaborative of the Taj Mahal.  Ebba Koch is the architectural advisor to the Conservation Collaborative, and a professor at the Institute of Art History in Vienna. The conservation plant has been presented to the government of India and is currently awaiting approval. (aka struggling through  the labyrinthine coils of Indian bureaucracy!)

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