There are few spaces around us these days that are more egalitarian perhaps than public gardens. But they are so ubiquitous that we simply overlook how unique gardens are as a public good. Unlike museums or theatres, they are mostly free of charge and open to people of all ages and walks of life. In these natural havens, often in the middle of crowded urban settings, there is something for everyone – friends and families, the fitness conscious, for lovers and for loners. Their universal appeal suggests deep roots and indeed their history goes back surprisingly far and wide.

Daud Ali, Associate Professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the few historians who has examined the history of gardens in ancient India. Ali’s research draws upon an astonishing range of Sanskrit texts produced in Indian royal courts: epigraphs, prescriptive treaties, poems and plays. In these, Ali finds evidence that gardens played a particularly significant role for people living in cities from the Gupta period 5th century CE.

What did these ancient Indians, mostly elites, do in their gardens? One important function the gardens served was as a place to celebrate festivals. Gardens are ideal markers of the changing seasons – the basis of many Indian festivals. The most popular of such events in early India was the vasantotsava or Spring Festival. Spring was the start of the new year: it was associated with everything colourful and newly in bloom. It was also the season linked with love and romance.

Many of the texts that Ali has analysed – such as Kalidasa’s works for instance – suggest that princes, nobles, and courtesans all gathered in gardens to celebrate Kamadeva, the god of love. Aristocrats also used gardens to play games all year round. The texts reveal details that are tantalisingly specific and yet their meaning is lost to us: “eating of pulses and lotus stalks”, “playing with new leaves”, “the game with mango tree tendrils”, “the game where asoka flowers were worn on the head after kicking the tree”, among several others.

The Spring Festival was celebrated in gardens in ancient and early modern times. Credit: Public domain.

Gardens were more than playgrounds for the aristocracy. They held a crucial place in the very conception of paradise in the Indian imagination. This was especially true of Buddhism, a product of the expanding early urban centres of the Indian subcontinent. Gardens of the wealthy classes became the places where itinerant monks often stopped to rest and interact with the lay community. They also had a significant role in the Buddhist celestial domain: Ali’s work shows horticultural images were closely associated in the Buddhist imagination of heavenly happiness.

Not many physical remains of gardens survive from those distant times. One exception is Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, where archaeologists have discovered a number of gardens dating from a period before 1000 CE – these are among the oldest gardens in the world. The Sinhalese king Kashyapa I (477 CE-495 CE) made Sigiriya his capital and had a fortress constructed there. Sigiriya is a spectacular site – the ruins of an ancient city rising 200 meters above the surrounding plains.

Senake Bandaranayake, the archaeologist who led extensive excavations at Sigiriya in the 1980s, reported, “Four clear garden systems can be distinguished at Sigiriya: the water gardens, the boulder gardens, the terrace gardens and the palace gardens on the summit of the rock.” These in turn contained numerous other intricate features like water channels and streams, fountains, moats, elaborate terraces, and islands. “This quartered mandala…plan, constitutes a well-known ancient garden form, of which the Sigiriya version is one of the oldest surviving examples,” he noted.

The Water Garden in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka. Credit: Николай Максимович, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

While ancient and medieval gardens were primarily private, exceptions suggest the idea of public ones was not entirely missing. Phillip B Wagoner, Professor of Art History at Wesleyan University, refers to a type of garden that he terms a “charitable garden”. Wagoner finds an instance of this type of garden in a 16th-century Telugu text, Yayati Caritamu, or “Story of Yayati” based on an episode in the Mahabharata. It was a man named Abd al-Qadir Amin Khan, a noble at the Qutub Shahi (1512-1687) court in the Deccan, who commissioned this biographical poem narrating aspects of his own life.

Amin Khan’s garden contained nearly 30 different varieties of plants. This included fruits and other comestibles that could be distributed to visitors as food. It also had fragrant flowers that would have been useful for making unguents or garlands and medicinal herbs. Another category – newly introduced varieties that included very recent additions to the subcontinent like pineapples and cashews – suggest that such gardens were also sites of experimentation and innovation.

Ancient and early medieval gardens survive for the most part through literature and to a limited extent in paintings and archaeological ruins. On the other hand, the gardens conceived of and commissioned by the Mughals – arguably the most prolific garden-makers in the subcontinent’s history – are dazzlingly real.

Babur’s gardens

It was through gardens, not buildings, that the first Mughal emperor, Zahiruddin Babur (who reigned between 1526 and 1530) set his roots in Hindustan, or northern India. Herat and Samarqand’s intricately laid aristocratic gardens had inspired him profoundly. This is revealed in his own memoir, known as the Baburnama.

The first of the gardens Babur got laid out was on the Jumna riverfront in Agra in 1526. Commissioning a cross-axial four-part garden – what he called chahar bagh (abbreviated charbagh) – in Agra and other places in north India was Babur’s way of regulating what he perceived as chaos in Delhi. “The foremost characteristic of the Mughal Garden is its emphasis on architecture and orderly planning,” writes Eba Koch, a leading expert on Mughal art and architecture at the University of Vienna.

But Babur also initiated what would become some essential features of Mughal-planned gardens: intersecting raised paved walkways, platforms, and pools, terraces on mountain slopes, and various rock-cut design elements. In lieu of a palace, the garden worked as court would – a place where people could visit the emperor and pay their respects. It was also where he could entertain his nobles under tree covers or awnings and tents.

A page from the Baburnama. Credit: Unknown (Indian, Imperial Mughal ), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Soon, neither the makeup of the Mughal nobility nor their gardens would remain exclusively Central Asian. This is evident from one of Babur’s best-preserved gardens, the Lotus Garden or Bagh-i Nilufar at Dholpur, the ruins of which architectural historian Elizabeth Moynihan discovered as part of a wider quest to survey Mughal gardens in the 1970s. The Bagh-i Nilufar is a rock-cut garden carved out of local sandstone. It was a planned garden but it breaks away from Babur’s norm of the extremely orderly four-part organisation. Instead, it is designed as a progression of lotus shaped pools and interconnected lotus designs from bud to bloom. The life of this quintessentially Indian flower formed the garden’s unifying theme.

Dholpur “evolved from a simple encampment to a uniquely Mughal garden complex that brought together central Asian water features with Rajput and probably Gujarati building crafts”, writes James L Westcoat Jr, Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture and Geography at MIT.

The art of Mughal gardens fully blossomed in the years after Babur. Gardens became essential to Mughal city planning by the time Akbar (who reigned from 1556 to 1605) developed Agra as his capital in 1558. Gardens girdled both the banks of the Jumna river in the city. To its west, Akbar’s famous red sandstone fort, Fatehpur Sikri, too was surrounded by gardens and also incorporated smaller recreational ones within.

The wonder of Kashmir

While cities like Agra, Delhi, and Lahore were bursting with gardens, there is perhaps no other place that is as associated with Mughal gardens as Kashmir. To this day, Kashmir’s Mughal gardens contribute to the Valley’s reputation as a place of unmatched beauty. In its original form, Srinagar’s Shalimar Bagh is said to have contained over 4,000 varieties of flowers.

It was the fourth Mughal emperor, Jahangir (whose reign last from 1605 to 1627) – an early man of “science” – who was responsible for these. Jahangir’s interest in the natural world ran deep. His delightful memoir – referred to as the Jahangirnama – is full of descriptions of flowers, trees, and waterbodies of all kinds.

Jahangir was a keen observer of horticultural minutiae; his sheer delight in them is palpable throughout. On a visit to Gujarat in 1618, for instance, he notes: “I went to the Fath Garden to see the roses. One whole bed was in full bloom. Roses do not grow much in this land, and to see so many in one place was not an opportunity to be missed. The anemone bed wasn’t bad. There were also ripe figs. I had the largest fig I picked myself weighed. It came to seven and a half tolas.”

There is perhaps no other Mughal garden however that receives more visitors today than the one around Taj Mahal. The spectacular marble edifice is so arresting that people hardly notice anything else that surrounds it. Shah Jahan (who reigned from 1628 to 1658), who famously built the monument for his wife, was also buried there himself after his death in 1666.

Floral motifs at the Taj Mahal in Agra. Credit: Matthew T Rader,, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Taj Mahal complex’s awe-inspiring layout is the apogee of the idea that gardens were not just valued for royal recreations but as imparters of kingly authority. They were also conceived as representation of the Gardens of Paradise integral to imperial sepulchral complexes. Koch who has written extensively on the Taj Mahal cites Shah Jahan’s principal historian, Abd al-Hamid Lahawri’s words: “the exalted mausoleum, which imitates the gardens of Rizwan [the guardian of Paradise], and which gives an impression of Paradise”.

It was not just the actual garden that was a key element in the Taj Mahal’s paradisical plan. The entire complex in fact was imagined as a paradise mansion. Extraordinary floral designs are carved everywhere on the building – the facades, walls, pillars and dados. Shah Jahan and his architects intended an earthly garden and the ever-blooming flowers of the Paradise Garden in a single place.

There is little doubt that for much of history gardens were meant largely as elite private spaces. It was from around the 17th century onwards that monarchs and aristocrats the world over began to open up their gardens to the public in limited ways. Public gardens as we understand the term today – parks that are developed and maintained through tax payers’ money – are a product of the 19th century.

A wide cultural chasm divides makers of gardens for royals and aristocrats from today’s municipalities. Yet the long history of their creations and their abiding public attraction suggests at least one common ground of inspiration: an impulse to be closer to nature without the dangers of the wild or to escape concrete jungles.

There is another, less practical motivation that these ancient and early modern garden-makers might also agree on if they could exchange notes – that despite their diverse worlds, they all believed that to build a garden was the way to realise a vision of paradise on earth itself.

Aparna Kapadia is a historian of South Asia at Williams College in the US. She is the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.