Mughal Gardens: MEGT

The Mughal Gardens along the Grand Trunk Road in Pakistan and Afghanistan

Abdul Rehman and Munazzah Akhtar
This introduction has been edited for style. Read and download the original essay (PDF).

The Mughal gardens introduced by the Mughal emperor Babur developed until the late Mughal period. Their architectural features found resonance during the Sikh period, becoming a part of urban culture, and the tradition continues to the present in the parks of all small and large Pakistani towns. These gardens were not only designed as architectural masterpieces, but also hosted activities that transformed the culture of cities across time. In that respect the Grand Trunk Road played a pivotal role.
The Grand Trunk Road stretches between Kabul and Bengal, and although it has existed in several forms since antiquity, the precursor to the modern road was first laid out by the powerful Afghan chieftain Sher Shah Suri in the sixteenth century. It starts in Kabul and, passing through the Jalalabad and Khyber Passes, reaches Peshawar. Moving south, it crosses the Indus river near Attock and, passing through Rawalpindi and Rohtas, it reaches Gujrat after crossing the Jhelum river near Sarai Alamgir. From Lahore, this imperial highway enters India, and after touching Sirhind, it reaches Delhi and continues toward Agra and beyond. The Mughal rulers passed along it quite frequently, and each one of them enhanced it by constructing public structures separated from each other at convenient distances.
In addition to providing a path for people and goods, the Grand Trunk Road served equally route for communication and transmission of ideas from one region to another. Its entire length passes through a variety of climates, landforms, and geographical features. It traverses mountains, valleys, plains, and plateaus with diverse water features. Thus the presence of wells, natural springs, streams, and rivers provided important element for the selection of garden sites, as well as a source of life for them.
Gardens built in the suburbs of existing towns were commissioned at three levels of the court: by the Mughal Emperors, by court members at subimperial level, and by ladies of the harem. Later, during the reign of Shah Jahan (1628–1658), every one took lead and thereafter a strong garden city relationship developed at all hierarchical levels. The projects ranged from gardens for small houses to those for large retreats.

Imperial Commissions
Babur (1526–1530): Founder of Mughal Gardens
The first Mughal gardens were created in Afghanistan by the Mughal emperor Babur, a native of Mavara un Nahar in modern-day Uzbekistan. Babur was a poet, a writer, and an untiring campaigner. He spent his childhood in gardens laid out by the Timurids, for whom gardens played an important role in daily life. An additional legacy of Timurid tradition to the Mughals was the participation of women of the harem in the construction of public welfare buildings as well as gardens.
Babur visited the Timurid and Uzbek gardens in Samarkand, Kabul, and Herat before coming to Hindustan. He left a description of Samarkand and its fascinating gardens, which probably inspired him to develop a meaningful relationship between architecture and urban landscape design:
Few towns in the whole habitable world are as pleasant as Samarkand. . . . The Kohik River flows along the north of Samarkand. . . . The Dar-i Gham canal flows along the south at a distance of some two miles. . . . This is a large and swift torrent, indeed it is like a large river, cut off from the Kohik River. All the gardens and suburbs and tumans of Samarkand are cultivated by it.Zahiru’d-din Muhammad Babur, Babur-nama, trans. Annette S. Beveridge (Farghana, 1912), 1:74 and 76.
After describing the water features and garden development, Babur describes the gardens and building activities of Timur and Ulugh Beg Mirz (1393–1449). He also describes the various meadows and gardens around Samarkand, including the Chihil Sutun (Forty Pillars), which served as a prototype for pavilions built at the center of Mughal gardens. In describing another chahārbāgh (four-part garden laid out with axial paths meeting at the center), Babur indicates that gardens were not thought of as self-contained entities, but rather as part of the surrounding landscape:
In the time also of Ahmad Mirza, the great and lesser begs laid out many gardens, large and small. For beauty, and air, and view, few will have equaled Darwesh Muhammad Tarkhan’s chahar bagh. It lies overlooking the whole of Qulba Meadow, on the slopes below the Bagh-i Maidan. Moreover it is arranged symmetrically, terrace above terrace, and is planted with beautiful nawan and cypresses and white poplar. A most agreeable sojourning place, its one defect is the want of a large stream.Ibid., 1:80–81.
From Samarkand, Babur moved on to Kabul before proceeding to the Indian subcontinent. His first major garden project, Bagh-e Babr, was a chahārbāgh built outside the city wall of Kabul between October 1504 and June 1505. The garden displayed strong Timurid influences while projecting his personal vision of a planned landscape environment. He gave special attention to site selection outside the town, good views, and the availability of water for laying out canals and growing fruit trees. These pleasure gardens were primarily developed for enjoyment, but also for the display of imperial power and wealth. It was built as a residential environment and included the dīvānkhāna (a sitting place) as well as a picture hall. In addition, it had stables for horses as well as a camping place where Babur, like Timur in his gardens outside Samarkand, could erect his tents and experience the pleasure of outdoor life. He built a splendid gateway, which symbolized his dignity as a supreme ruler.
Babur’s favorite garden was the Bagh-e Wafa (Garden of Fidelity), because of its climate and beauty, and he frequently mentions it in his memoirs and repeatedly visited it. The garden was on high ground with a mile-long stream flowing through its center and emptying into a reservoir to the southwest. He laid out a chahārbāgh and planted orange trees and pomegranates around the reservoir, and the whole was enclosed by a trefoil meadow.
Babur continuously searched for suitable sites for gardens. In 1519, he made additions and alterations to the Bagh-i Kalan (Principal garden) at Istalif, which originally belonged to his uncle Ulugh Beg. The garden was located on a hillside overlooking the Koh-i Daman valley, and contained a spring known as Khawaja Sih Yaran. He purchased the land and carried out a project that he describes in the following words:
Few villages match Istalif, with vineyards and fine orchards on both sides of its great torrents, with water needing no ice. Cold and mostly pure. . . . A mill-stream with tree-lined banks flowed through the center of the garden, and he ordered its formerly zigzag and irregular course to be made straight and orderly, so the place became very beautiful.
Babur’s interest in gardens continued during his military campaigns. In 1519, when he crossed the Indus on his first campaign, the lake of Kallar Kahar struck him. The site, with hills, a large lake, peacocks, and an abundance of loquat trees, lies twenty miles north of Bhera and five miles from Malot and enjoys a good climate. On the southwestern side of the lake, Babur laid out the Bagh-e Safa (Garden of Purity), traces of which still exist, including a rock-cut platform (Takht-e Baburi) approached by steps and used for sitting.
In his autobiography he frequently describes the attractive features of the landscape, which he tried to capture in his gardens. When he reached Hindustan he felt the absence of gardens acutely:
One of the great defects of Hindustan being its lack of running waters, it kept coming to my mind that water should be made to flow by means of wheels erected wherever I might settle down, also that ground should be laid out in orderly and symmetrical ways. With this object in view, we crossed the Jun-water [the river Jamna] to look at garden grounds a few days after entering Agra. These grounds were so bad and unattractive that we traversed them with a hundred disgusts and repulsions.
Babur’s feeling for the features of his home country’s landscape, and their absence in the subcontinent, compelled him to construct gardens on the subcontinent. Before he came to the subcontinent, Babur had taken advantage of natural stream and spring water to create gardens, but on the Indian plain a different approach had to be followed. He introduced the Persian waterwheel system to irrigate the chahārbāghs.
His descriptions make clear that Babur stressed site selection: an elevated place with a commanding view of the surrounding landscape and the presence of a spring or flowing water were important considerations. The orderly and symmetrical layout and the construction of a resting place and a place for prayer were important architectural features. All of these became permanent regular features of future Mughal gardens.

Humayun (1531–1540, 1555–1556)
After Babur’s death, his son Humayun was proclaimed ruler of Hindustan, but strong opposition from the Afghan chieftains led by Sher Shah Suri (1540–1545) prevented him from setting foot in the territory inherited from his father. He first fled to Kandahar and then to Kabul in 1540, but three years later he was forced to seek refuge with the Safavid shah Tahmasp (1514–1576). Humayun finally regained power in 1555.
During his turbulent reign, he constructed a number of buildings, but none of them relate architecture to landscape. The only contemporary examples of garden building by a Mughal prince are by his brother Mirza Kamran (1530–1540 and 1555–1556), who is said to have constructed two superb gardens in Lahore. The nolakha garden no longer exist, but one adjacent to the Ravi River remains almost intact. Kamran, who had been earlier granted Kabul and Kandahar, annexed Punjab shortly after Babur’s death in 1530, leaving Humayun no choice but to confirm this arrangement. A riverfront garden there was the setting for a major conference of the Mughal princes in 1540. The next reference to this garden is found in Akbarnāma in an entry under 1591, which describes how Akbar traveled across the Ravi by boat with many “veiled ladies” to enjoy the spring flowers. Although the contemporary sources do not mention the form of this important garden, the floods of late 1980s and later excavations unearthed some of the hydraulic features. An eight-sided, star-shaped pool and grid plan demonstrate the continuity of the tradition laid down by Babur.

Akbar (1556–1605)
After Humayun’s death his son Akbar succeeded him. The earliest project that he undertook was the construction of the tomb garden of Humayun at Delhi close to the tomb of Nizam un Din Auliya. This was also the first major Mughal project, one which not only changed the landscape character of the town but also provided a model for later architecture. The services of a skillful architect, Mirak Syed Ghiyas, who had worked in Herat and Bukhara, were secured, and the entire construction work supervised by Hamida Begum, Humayun’s widow.
The reign of Akbar is considered important for the construction of large-scale projects, including fortress palaces, strategic forts, new towns. Cities were transformed during Akbar’s reign. Monumental buildings were constructed in Agra and Delhi, although the latter already had sultanate-period monuments. Akbar made Lahore the capital of the Mughal empire between 1584 and 1598, and he surrounded the city with double defensive wall and enclosed the fort with a permanent wall with two gates. He began the construction of official and residential buildings within the fort, and buildings dating to his reign were mainly located in the northeastern corner overlooking the river Ravi.
Akbar gave very little attention, however, to the construction of pleasure gardens, and the only one built on his order is at Baghanwali in Jehlum District in Pakistan. The site is located on the main highway connecting Lahore with Kashmir and Kabul, in the same area where Babur created the Bagh-e Safa. A large number of specialist bāghbāns (gardeners) must have been required for the garden’s upkeep. This highway garden, belonging to a category of gardens so far ignored by scholars, fulfilled a dual purpose: to improve the area’s landscape and to provide a resting place, with necessary conveniences, for travelers moving in either direction.
Members of the Mughal nobility, however, enhanced the landscape and pleasure gardens in the major cities and towns across the empire by constructing tombs. Hasan Abdal, located on the Grand Trunk Road adjacent to a hill with numerous springs, is one site of garden activity during the reign of Akbar. One of the earliest projects was the tomb of Hakim Abul Fateh Gilani. This was the earliest site to integrate fish as a dominant garden feature, and a square fish tank, which received water from one of the springs, survives to this day in front of the tomb.

Jahangir (1605–1627)
Jahangir’s reign transformed the character of cities in Pakistan and Afghanistan as the emperor himself and other members of the royal family constructed gardens. This was also the period when women of the harem increasingly became involved in landscape development. The construction of gardens in Agra, Lahore, and Kashmir by the emperor’s chief consort, Nur Jahan, and his family is unrivaled.
He added architectural and landscape elements to fortress palaces built by his father and ordered the planting of trees on both side of the road between Agra and the Indus river. William Finch who traveled in India during Jahangir’s reign admired the mulberry trees planted on both sides of the road between Agra and Lahore.
Jahangir’s love for nature and animals drove these activities. Sheikhupura, a town west Lahore on the ancient road to Kabul and Kashmir, was his favorite hunting ground where he constructed a minaret in memory of his favorite antelope, a large water tank, and a palace (dawlatkhāna) beside a fort.
Jahangir improved the garden of Raja Man Sing and remodeled the existing gardens of Hasan Abdal by adding a few structures. He built another garden in Kabul near the Shahr Ara garden, created by the daughter of Mirza Abu Said, Shahr Bano Begum. Jahangir describes it in his autobiography:
In the neighborhood of this garden [Shahr Ara] an excellent plot of land came to view, which I ordered to be bought from the owners. I ordered a stream that flows from the Guzurgah to be diverted into the middle of the ground so that a garden may be made such that in beauty and sweetness there should not be in the inhabited world another like it. I gave it the name of Jahan-Ara (world-adorning).

Shah Jahan (1628–1658)
The reign of Shah Jahan witnessed the height of garden building in cities along the Great Trunk Road. More gardens were built under his rule than during all previous regimes. He constructed gardens at Kashmir, Lahore, and Delhi and renovated the garden of Hasan Abdal. He stopped at this last on his way to Kabul and Kashmir, visiting nine times during his reign and celebrating two birthdays there. Surrounded by hills, an abundance of trees, a natural stream, and several fountains, it is very different than the gardens in the hot plains, and its beauty was praised by court historians and European travelers. Sometime around 1645, Ustad Ahmad Mimar was summoned by the governor of Punjab to make additions and alterations to the garden’s existing layout. He seems to have designed and built two baradaris (building or pavilion with twelve doors) and raised the level of the terrace and the water tank. At the same time, the fountain channel was tessellated and a zanana (ladies’) garden was added. Shah Jahan also constructed a caravanserai to the west of the town.
Shah Jahan took extraordinary interest in the details of art and architecture, and craftsmanship and the technology of hydraulics reached its zenith under his rule.
Lahore became the city of gardens during Shah Jahan’s reign. Its boundaries spread over a radius of about nine kilometers from the historic town. To the north, gardens were located on the right bank of river Ravi, and to the east, its boundaries touched Fateh Garh where two beautiful gardens still existed until recent times.
In addition to contributions to Lahore Fort (including Shish Mahal [Hall decorated with mirrors] and the Naulakha pavilion), he built the Shalimar Garden, located on the east side of Lahore on the Grand Trunk Road. They match the splendor of Shah Jahan’s great architectural marvel, the Taj Mahal, and, in addition to their technological achievements, the Shalimar Garden had spiritual importance. Sufi saints spent time in the gardens to praise God’s creation, and it may have inspired some, including Mian Mir, the spiritual master of Shah Jahan’s eldest son, Dara Shikoh, to found their own gardens.
When the canal from the river Ravi reached the suburbs of Lahore, Khalil Ullah Khan was ordered to take architects and engineers to select a suitable site for a garden near a canal. The site had to be naturally terraced so that it could have tanks, canals, cascades and fountains as described by the emperor. After a careful consideration of a number of possible sites, Khalil Ullah Khan laid the foundation of Shalimar on 12 June 1641. The garden has three terraces. The lowest terrace is meant for public use, the middle was the emperor’s garden, and contains the most elaborate water system among all Mughal gardens, and the highest (Farah Bakhsh) was reserved for the harem. In Shalimar Garden, the combination of aesthetic and technical ingenuity produced a garden that must have stunned early visitors.
In addition, the canal was an important catalyst for urban expansion. Several gardens were built in and around Baghbanpura and irrigated by water channels drawn from the canal, and, compared to other cities of the empire, Lahore became a city of gardens.
On 28 September 1646, Shah Jahan issued a royal order for the planting of a garden, Bagh-e Farah Afza, at Nimla, and for the construction of a canal. It was completed by the following September, when the court historian Kanbo states that Shah Jahan visited.

Aurangzeb (1658–1707)
Garden activity along the Grand Trunk Road continued during the reign of Aurangzeb. This includes several mosques and tombs on the left bank of the Indus near Mallahi Tola, as well as the construction in Lahore of a ladies’ garden by Zebinda Begum, probably a daughter of Aurangzeb. Nadira Begum also built a beautiful garden east of Lahore. After her death she was interred in her own garden. It is apparent that the Mughal nobility built gardens on the main roads several miles away from residential areas.
Dara Shikoh (1615–1659), the eldest son of Shah Jahan, praised the gardens of Lahore in his writings, and Fatehgarh is attributed to him. These gardens derive much from earlier garden traditions, including those found at the gardens at Shalamar, Hasan Abdal, and Doraha Sarai.

Noble Patronage of Gardens 
In addition to commissions of emperors, consorts, and the imperial family, important contributions to landscape design were made by individuals below the imperial level. Governors and important nobles built gardens throughout the Mughal Empire. Towns located on the Grand Trunk Road received special attention. After the death of Babur, two gardens of Mirza Kamran, in the northwest and southeast and another garden east of Lahore, built by the governor of Lahore near the shrine of Bibi Haj Taj, changed the character of the urban landscape.
During the reign of Akbar, members of the nobility began building gardens in the suburbs of smaller towns and settlements along the Grand Trunk Road, especially in Lahore, which was the Mughal capital from 1584 to 1598. Around 1578–1587, Raja Man Sing laid the foundation of an important garden about two kilometers southeast of Hasan Abdal. The terraced site included a pavilion and a water tank. A beautiful waterfall and stream and the abundance of trees surrounded by hills were so exquisite that future Mughal emperors felt the urge to develop the site into the most important garden of Mughal India.
During the reign of Jahangir, Lahore turned into a garden city. Many grandees preferred to live in Lahore as the emperor regularly visited on his way to Kabul and Kashmir. The important gardens added in Lahore include Bagh Mirza Momin Ishaq Baz, Bagh Shamsuddin, Bagh-e Dilkuska and Bagh-e Anarkali. William Finch who traveled in India during the reign of Jahangir also came to Lahore and mentioned the gardens of Lahore, and he gave an elaborate description of the haveli garden of Asif Khan.
The city of Lahore which served as the capital of the empire during Akbar’s time continued to be a favorite city where to live during the reign of Shah Jahan. Chandar Bhan, a historian of Shah Jahan’s reign, mentions that the officers of the Mughal Empire maintained mansions in Lahore even if they were posted elsewhere in the empire.
The governor of Lahore, Kabul, and Kashmir under Shah Jahan, Ali Mardan Khan, was responsible for a number of important gardens. He built two beautiful gardens in the northwest and west of Peshawar. Ali Mardan also built a garden in Sohdra, a small town on the left bank of river Chenab, as well as a tomb garden for his mother in Lahore.
In 1655, the Persian noble Mirza Sultan Beg built Ghulabi Bagh (Garden of rose water) on the Grand Trunk Road two kilometer from the Shalimar Garden. The majestic gateway, all that remains of the garden, has rich and vivid mosaic tile work and superb calligraphy on plaster base.
Sufi saints also took the lead in improving the landscape along the Grand Trunk Road. Shah Daula, a Sufi saint of Gujrat, constructed bridges on Bhimbar Nala near Gujrat and on Nala Dek near Sadoki and Sialkot. Similarly Mulla Shah, a disciple of Mian Mir, constructed a garden in Kashmir. Meeting of sages and poetry reading, important subjects of miniature paintings, usually took place in gardens, and they were mentioned by court historians such as Kanbo.
During the reign of Auranzeb, Behram Khan, son of Khushal Khan Khattak, built a walled garden overlooking the river along the Grand Trunk Road at Attock. The picturesque site was much frequented by travelers; Begum Ki Sarai was built there. The concentration of large number of monuments in close proximity makes this site unique on Grand Trunk Road.

Mughal Women as Garden Patrons
During the Mughal period, women of the harem had a prominent role in affairs of state, including participation in construction activity in general and of gardens in particular. A part of a woman’s wealth, which provided a measure of financial independence, was allotted to them in outright gifts of land. Munucci reported that usually an allowance was paid half in cash and half in the grant of a land assignment (jagir) from which she could collect an often sizable amount of money. Women used part of this money to layout gardens, waterways and to construct buildings, such as sarais for travelers, mosques for worshippers, or tombs for themselves and for relatives. Nur Jahan, wife of Emperor Jahangir, in particular contributed to Mughal architecture and garden history, but other women of the harem were likewise active in transforming the character of the urban landscape.

Gardens in Mughal Society
Gardens were chosen by Mughals as the location for various activities, ranging from personal family functions to official gatherings and including grand festivals like naurauz, mushaira (poetry recitation), feasts, meetings of Sufis, birthday parties, and contests. Gardens were also used as official resting places, and sections were reserved exclusively for women (zenan khāna). There was no strict distinction between gardens and architecture in Mughal gardens—each flowed seamlessly into the other—but in palace gardens in particular there was a functional segregation of spaces, and areas designed for court ceremonial became increasingly separated from residential quarters.
Gardens were extensively used as imperial spaces. Royal audiences were often held in them. Aurangzeb’s hasty coronation ceremony took place in the Azizabad garden, and he made the garden of Hasan Abdal his imperial capital for almost a year and a half, from June 26, 1974, to December 23, 1675. Imperial birthday, New Year (Nowruz), and feasts were organized and often took advantage of the particular garden and architectural features available. Jahangir described how Nur Jahan arranged a feast in her own garden. On the day of Shab-i-barat in 1617, Nur Jahan hosted a feast on the bank of a large reservoir. At the beginning of the evening, lanterns and lamps were lit around the reservoir and buildings. The light cast a reflection on the surface of the water, and it appeared as if the reservoir were a plain of fire. (Jahangir 1974, I:385–86.) Finally, gardens, especially along the Grand Trunk Road, served as rest areas for rulers traveling between different parts of the empire. For example, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb regularly stayed at the garden of Hasan Abdal.
Gardens were also intellectual and spiritual environments, the sites of scholarly discussions and poetry readings, and frequented by Sufi saints. Dara Shikoh discussed at length the various gardens where Hazrat Mian Mir (1550–1635) and his disciples meditated.
Finally, a number of battles during the Mughal period took place near gardens, which served as hiding places and launching points for offensive attacks, as well as spaces for dialogue between rulers and rebels.

-Abdul Rehman, Munazzah Akhtar

Originally published at: Rehman, Abdul, and Munazzah Akhtar. “The Mughal Gardens along the Grand Trunk Road in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Middle East Garden Traditions. Dumbarton Oaks, May 8, 2017. Archived at:

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