Cover

Monsoon Special

The Mughal gardens of pleasure

Catherine B Asher | Updated on June 08, 2019

Another day in paradise: A garden gathering with a prince. Folio from the Minto album by Bichitr, compiled for the Mughal emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan, c 1615-20   -  CHESTER BEATTY LIBRARY, DUBLIN

While each season brought its joys, the Mughal char bagh looked its best in the monsoon

It is a day for enjoyment and revelry in the garden; it is a day for a market of flowers and herbs. The earth gives off an aroma of ambergris; rose water drips from the breeze’s skirt. From encountering the zephyr the face of the pond is jagged as a sharpened file.

Thus wrote Jahangir, quoting the famous twelfth-century Persian poet Anwari, when recounting his visit to one of the imperial gardens on 5 August 1619. The garden, Jahangir notes, has been rendered particularly green and beautiful thanks to the monsoon rains. What, we might ask, makes the monsoon garden so special? What emotions—bhava—are evoked during the rainy season?

Monsoon Feelings: A History of Emotions in the Rain; Edited by Imke Rajamani, Margrit Pernau and Katherine Butler Schofield; Niyogi Books; Non-fiction; ₹1,750

****

At each season, colourful flowers, shrubs and trees would bloom in Rajput and Mughal gardens, many giving off heavenly aromas, to the delight of the garden’s user. Figure 39 [above], a painting of a prince and his guests, shows the garden divided into quadrants, a typical Mughal garden type known as a char bagh, beautifully planted with many different types of flowers and trees. While the garden of each season brought its own particular joys, the monsoon garden appears to have had a special appeal as the torrid heat of summer gave way to the rains and replaced dried cracked soil with moisture and colour. The aroma of wet earth, spicy and sweet herbs, and rich-smelling flowers such as the champa and jasmine was a relief from the choking dust of summer. An examination of two gardens, one Mughal and the other built by the rajas of Bharatpur, provide insight into the bhava or moods evoked in these gardens during the four months of the rainy season.

Perhaps one of the best ways to commence is to turn to the Mughal emperors, Babur and Jahangir, as they each wrote their own memoirs. Although it is common belief that prior to the nineteenth century such writings rarely reveal inner feelings or emotions, I would argue, as others have at least in the case of Babur, that these two memoirs are unusual in that they do reveal genuine reactions and are not simply formulaic. Their words give us insight into the actual experiences and feelings of men who experienced the changes in South Asia’s weather.

****

Babur’s attitude toward India in some ways was that of a coloniser. That is, he wrote about Indian history, the land, its birds, animals and plants to access information in order to rule what to him was a foreign land and culture. For Babur there is often a pro and a con to things Indian. He writes of that which is favourable: ‘The weather turns very nice in the monsoon. Sometimes it rains ten, fifteen, or twenty times a day; torrents are formed in an instant, and water flows in places that normally have no water. During the rainy season, the weather is unusually good when the rain ceases, so good in fact that it could not be more temperate or pleasant.’ He speaks of the ber tree that ‘puts out its leaves’ during monsoon and ‘becomes fresh and verdant’. The hibiscus is one of the marvellous flowers of India, writes Babur, that blooms ‘well and plentifully during the four months of monsoon’. Babur describes its flowers’ deep red colour which he likens in size to a red rose, but notes that in spite of its beauty it has no smell. The oleander is another of India’s remarkable flowers that blooms ‘beautifully and plentifully during the monsoon’. Its red flowers have a pleasant smell and its multiple small flowers from a distance look as if it is one large flower. Another joy of the monsoon for Babur is the mango which he notes ripens during the monsoon, although in fact many varieties are summer fruits. Quoting Amir Khusrau, Babur writes, ‘Our naghzak (mango), beautifier of the garden, most beautiful fruit of Hindustan.’ Babur here is listing the flora that are unique to India in his experience, but given his love of gardens and his construction of multiple gardens, he easily could be describing the very trees and flowers of his own gardens.

****

Jahangir’s passage on Mandu’s beauty suggests it was probably not only visual but also awoke the olfactory system. The champa flower has a strong perfume and herbs in general are noted for both taste and smell. Although we don’t know exactly which herbs Jahangir was referencing, quite a number flourish in the Indian monsoon and yield distinctive scents. These include the pleasant odour of Indian borage, the bracing bouquet of mint, the savoury scent of basil, the pungent smell of thyme, the earthiness of fenugreek, and the lemony tang of coriander. Others include the pungent asphodel and sweet chamomile. Perhaps this potent concoction of aromas awoke in the emperor’s mind the evocative sounds of Rag Gaund that in the early seventeenth century was a major monsoon raga. This raga, Lunn and Schofield suggest (this volume), represents that charged ‘moment of the most intense anticipation when the lover knows that the promise of her beloved’s return is definitely going to be fulfilled, but has not quite yet come.’

Jahangir never calls Mandu’s monsoon landscape a garden, but he does seem to think of it as a living carpet much as a woven carpet often emulates a garden. In a similar manner Saqi Musta‘idd Khan, writing a little later, likens the landscape of Ellora to a garden:

In all seasons, and particularly the monsoons, when this hill and the plain below resemble a garden in the luxuriance of its vegetation and the abundance of its water, people come to see the place. A waterfall a hundred yards in width tumbles down from the hills. It is a marvelous place for strolling, charming to the eye. Unless one sees it, no written description can correctly picture it. How then can my pen adorn the page of my narrative?

From the chapter ‘It is a Day for Enjoyment and Revelry’: The Monsoon Garden by Catherine B Asher, professor, department of art history, College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota

Published on June 07, 2019

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor