Gardens of bliss

Gardens of blissIn her book The Complete Taj Mahal and the Riverfront Gardens of Agra, Austrian art historian, Dr Ebba Koch, gives an insightful picture of what Agra may have been like in Shah Jahan’s day, and how little of that survives today. The Taj Mahal and its gardens were originally part of a vast complex in which funerary architecture was linked formally and functionally with utilitarian buildings, bazaars and caravansarais in an attempt to generate all revenue for repairs and maintenance within the complex itself. “Guest houses and a marketplace with merchandise from every land, varied goods from every country, all kinds of luxuries of the day and things that are essential to a civilised and comfortable life, brought from all quarters of the world. Behind the imperial carvansarais, merchants have built many substantial houses and…this thriving dwelling place founded for all eternity which has become a large city is called Mumtazabad,” wrote Abdul Hamid Lahauri, Shah Jahan’s historian.    “The ambition of the builders to combine paradisiacal symbolism with political propaganda were realised by means of perfect planning and minute attention to every architectural detail...Today the complex of the Taj Mahal stands almost by itself on the bank of the river Yamuna. Originally, however, it formed part of the urban landscape of Mughal Agra, the core of which consisted of bands of gardens lining the river on both sides,” writes Koch, who was so overawed when she first saw the Taj Mahal three decades ago that she could not dream of adding another word to describe the monument. Over time she realised that despite its fame the Taj Mahal has not been studied much. In the 1990s, together with architect Richard A Barraud, she began a scientific research to document a monograph dedicated to the building, to the entire complex and to its urban context, which is the first of its kind.The Complete Taj Mahal is a detailed and fascinating history of Agra, a riverfront city at the time of Shah Jahan and described by poets as a sweet smelling garden with new blossoms that served as a symbol of the flowering of Hindustan under the just rule of Shah Jahan. The Yamuna, one of the holy rivers of India, formed the artery that bound the different Moghul gardens together, a broad water avenue on which one could move by boat from one residence or tomb to the other.  Agra was a wonder of the age, as much a centre of the arteries of trade both by land and water as a meeting place of saints, sages and scholars from all over Asia, a veritable lodestar for artistic workmanship, literary talent and spiritual worth. The nucleus was formed of gardens lining the river on both sides, while the rest of the city encircled the waterfront to the west.After having experienced moments of grandeur in the past, today, the river’s edge in Agra has been reduced to a site of excrement, garbage and illicit entertainment and gambling. According to Koch, by the dawn of the 20th century the original urban landscape of Mughal Agra was largely forgotten, and absorbed by an ever expanding city. The water level of the Yamuna was reduced by dams built upstream, to draw water for irrigation, and the water that remains today is heavily polluted by untreated sewage and industrial wastes.