Mehtab Bagh and the Baby Taj Mahal: Mughal Gardens Restored in India
Long overshadowed by the Taj, two neglected spots in Agra have now been restored to their original splendour
Tourists Christine and Martyn Andrews, first-timers to Agra, would have visited Agra Fort and Taj Mahal and been on their merry way back to their hotel, had it not been for a guide who directed them to what the locals call ‘Baby Taj Mahal’ — the tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah.
The tomb is the marble precursor to its more famous sibling across the Yamuna, and its English-style gardens and charming ivory-tinted facade are a lovely surprise for the rare tourist or history buff who gets here. And now, after four years of dedicated restoration, the monument is slowly finding its rightful place on the tourist circuit, along with the other famous garden here, Mehtab Bagh.
The restoration of the two Mughal gardens was carried out jointly by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the World Monument Fund (WMF) and the Ministry of Culture, under the Mughal Riverfront Gardens of Agra (MRGA) project, and opened up in January this year.
The tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah — loosely translating to ‘pillar of the state’ — was commissioned by Empress Nur Jahan for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg in the early 1620s in the typical Mughal ‘charbagh’ style.
It consists of four equal square-shaped gardens (hence ‘char’ and ‘bagh’) with the mausoleum sitting smack in the middle.
Fruit for monkeys
A typical Mughal garden also meant lush, chaotic gardens, filled with colorful flower beds and trees heavy with fruit for monkeys and birds, says Lakshmi Narayan, ASI’s junior foreman for horticulture at the site.
Imagine a cross between the secret garden of Frances Hodgson Burnett and the exquisite visuals in Lewis Carroll’s literary masterpieces. But that is also an unfortunate comparison because, under the British Raj, the gardens of I’timād-ud-Daulah were transformed to the exact opposite — stately, manicured lawns with not a tree in sight.
The MRGA project aims to correct that. “The idea behind these gardens at Mughal tomb sites was that if the dead were to wake up from their eternal sleep, they would want to stroll in a garden full of flowers and birds, maybe enjoy a fruit,” says Vasant Kumar Swarnkar, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI-Agra Circle. The British revived what had turned into agricultural land after Nur Jahan’s time, but in doing so they also removed many markers of the Mughals.Trees were removed, walkways were relaid, the ground was leveled.
Very little recorded
Armed with research papers, paintings, and historical records, conservationists took a stab at restoring the gardens to their former glory.
“There is a very little actual record of how the garden looked during its heyday,” says Swarnkar. “But we’ve tried our best with the information we found.”It’s a cloudy, ozone-heavy afternoon when the photographer and I visit. We can hear the cacophony of birds right from the gates. There is a fair number of visitors lining up at the ticket counter, much more than before, says Sonvir, an ASI supervisor.
“On an average, we get about 700 visitors per day,” he says. The walkway from the main gate is lined on both sides with flower beds, while the pathway to the tomb itself, from the inner gate, is lined with cypress trees, in typical Mughal garden style. On either side of the trees are flower beds, hibiscus plants, and pomegranate trees symmetrically planted in order of increasing height. “Beyond that, we’ve planted amla trees, amaltas, mango trees, guava trees, and others like it,” says Narayan.
The tomb’s traditional water system has also been restored. Irrigation systems were modernized in 1958, but they needed more work. “An integrated water management system was designed to address the needs of the project as well as ensure there would be no discharge or waste. Today, clean water is again flowing in the channels and the gardens,” says a statement from WMF.
The project also created an information and ticketing center, an office for ASI, and a toilet for visitors. Just three kilometers away, along with the banks of the Yamuna, lies Mehtab Bagh, the ‘moonlight garden’. This one is quieter, perhaps because of its size.
Even though we’re surrounded by people, we are easily lost within the symmetrically planted trees and pathways. A quick stroll from the entrance and the Taj Mahal is suddenly upon us, breathtaking as always, but even more special when seen from this distance and without the teeming crowds one always experiences.
Packed with more
The flora at Mehtab Bagh is pretty much the same as that at I’timād-ud-Daulah, only much more. Spread over 22 acres, there are 20 plots packed with flowering shrubs and fruit trees. The trees are laid out with near-military precision, not one of them out of place. Excavations in 1979-80, originally undertaken to confirm whether this was the site of the famed ‘Black Taj Mahal’, revealed a rectangular garden and its foundation walls.
Further excavation in 1993-94 revealed the octagonal pond, the terracotta pipes connecting it, and the 25 fountains around it.“The remnants of the traditional system indicate that water was drawn from the river to a series of wells and carried into the complex via an aqueduct and fed into the pools through a network of underground terracotta pipes,” reads an information slab.
Even though the traditional aqueduct cannot be revived, the idea is to restore the octagonal pool at least so that the reflection of the Taj Mahal can be seen in it. Mehtab Bagh is also in the same ‘charbagh’ layout, but there is one crucial difference, says Swarnkar.
“The Yamuna cuts through the garden, so parts of the charbagh lie on either side of the river,” he says. The garden could be conceived thus because of the unusual layout of the Taj, he says. “Since the Taj is located at the end of the garden, instead of in the middle, the Mughals might have planned a garden across the river.”
At the boundary wall, there’s a mini photoshoot going on. We can’t resist either, what with the Taj in the backdrop. Meanwhile, the Andrews are finished with their tour of the tomb of I’timād-Ud-Daulah and have reached Mehtab Bagh.“I’m glad we came here first instead of heading to the Taj first,” says Christine. Just then it begins to rain and the sky turns a brooding grey. The Taj doesn’t dim one bit though.