by Ahmad Rafay Alam
Though the first Islamic tomb-garden in India is Sikandar Lodi’s, it was the Mughals who used it to much greater dramatic affect. Aware that the founder of the dynasty has died in Kabul and that the second emperor had spent most of his time as an exile, the third Mughal emperor, Akbar, saw to it that the burial site of his father, the Emperor Humayun, made an unequivocal political statement: the Mughal was not a marauding nomad, he was in India to stay and had chosen its soil as his eternal resting place. Then, in the tradition of the great Persian and Islamic-style garden, Akbar went about ensuring the area resembled paradise.
The word paradise comes from the Persian phrase for “surrounded by a wall.” From the Semitic concept of Eden, where from a well water flows in the four directions, we have the concept of a chaharbagh surrounded by a wall enclosing paradise from the outside world.
For the Mughals and the ancestral traditions they carried from Central Asia, the garden was meant to be a paradise on earth. Standing on elevated walkways, visitors could gaze over rows of exotic flowers – evidence of the Emperor’s plenty – and reach into the branches of fruit trees for ripe apples, pomegranates or other produce. They would be amazed at the beautiful and curious birds and animals that came from the four corners of the Emperor’s realm. And they would be in awe of the skill involved in irrigating the area, water being a scarce commodity in pre-canal India; of the knowledge of hydrology involved in storing the water and operating hundreds upon hundreds of fountains; of the science involved in the knowledge of so much flora and fauna; of the political stability required to patiently oversee the growth of century-old trees. Just as Washington DC is claimed by some to have been designed to awe visiting foreign dignitaries, its affect is nothing compared to the effect any one Mughal garden has on any visitor. I was at Shalimar Gardens recently and must admit my ill-informed knee-jerk conservationist reactions against trivial matters like litter, congestion and the lack of a proper parking facility were immediately silenced by the remarkable statement that the Gardens so loudly still proclaim.
Just behind the Hammam and outside the Shalimar Gardens – on its backside, so to speak – I should mention that there is a two-story bungalow built on no more than a couple of marlas. Its owner has set up railings on the rooftop and arranged some garden furniture. From there, he has the same view of the three-tier garden with cascading waterfalls and fountains as the Great Mughals once had the pleasure to enjoy. That this is not the most prized real estate in the country is evidence of how upside down the values that inform the property markets are.
Chinese and Japanese cultures also value the concept of the garden. However, their approach is different from the Mughal tradition. Where the Mughal tradition tries to replicate paradise on earth, the Eastern tradition sees paradise in nature and attempts to replicate the latter. Japanese and Chinese gardens are examples of man-made replications of nature. You may see cascading waterfalls and layers of foliage, but these are man-made. The art and the science was in making an exact copy of what existed in nature. The Japanese garden has taken a step further and added the dimension of spirituality. Not only are the Japanese garden meant to be examples of political strength and technical know-how, they are also places of mystical and spiritual contemplation.
Gardens also have a very long tradition and history in India. Reference to magnificent palace and non-palace gardens is plenty in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Some were said to be so beautiful that they brought envy to the heart of the staunchest of enemies. But it has been said that, on account of the Hindu communion with nature, the Hindu garden was not subject to any formal or informal design. Nature was plentiful on its own and needed no replication. The desire to cultivate exotic plants and flowers still persisted, but this was either on account of religious warship or the Ayurvedic diet and did not translate to a well-organised garden tradition.
There was, however, the need for artificial waterways. Command over water and mastery of irrigation has always been premium in agricultural societies, and Hindu tradition is not shy from boasting they possess such skill. This skill, however, was manifested in ponds and water tanks. According to Meera Uberoi, who has written a superb book on gardening in India, “ponds and tanks were built not so much for irrigating the gardens but because they were considered auspicious and as catchment areas. Enclosed gardens with a definite plan and structure, such as the Persian garden, simply did not exist in ancient India.”
In ancient and Hindu India, the water tank served the same political and scientific purpose as the Mughal garden.
There is a water tank in the middle of Lahore. It was donated to the city by Sir Ganga Ram and is a close walk from his other donation to the city: the Ganga Ram Hospital. It is situated on the main road next to the Fatima Jinnah Medical College hostel in Lahore’s Mozang locality. One wouldn’t know it as the tank premises – now under the control of the Evacuee Trust Property and the Ministry of Minorities – are surrounded by a wall and have been allowed to fall into disrepair. The Fatima Jinnah College has long claimed the tank premises as its own so that it can extend its hostel facilities. The ETPB has for some time contemplated developing the land into a multi-story commercial high-rise. I even met someone who wanted to use the land for as an itwaar bazaar until the daunting prospect of having to provide adequate parking and loading/unloading facilities made them reconsider their best BBC-Food-Farmers’-Market intentions.
In modern Lahore this water tank symbolises just how far the city has come its mult-cultural, multi-religious background of less than a century ago. It’s true we hardly spare a conservationist’s thought for monumentally important things like the Fort or the Badshahi Mosque. But this isn’t about conservation. It’s about plurality. At the time of Partition it is reported that there were over a dozen cremation grounds in Lahore. Now there are none. Sikh temples and shrines have been allowed to decay until, only recently, a thaw in relations between East and West Punjab has shown some the potential and importance of restoring Nankana Sahib and providing it with a direct four-lane dual carriageway all the from Wagah Border. But that’s another story.
The Ganga Ram tank is thought of by many as a waste of space and a public service utility that has become redundant with the introduction of water and sanitation works. This is the attitude that, more often than not, fails to recognise the historical relevance of non-Muslim heritage. It is wrong. If immediate steps to reclaim the Ganga Ram tank are not taken, the people and city of Lahore will lose yet another one of its treasures. It is as important to the city of Lahore as the Shalimar Gardens, and as militancy and conservative Islam threaten the free spirit of Lahore, the preservation of the Ganga Ram water tank may be the measure to save us from ruin.