In the 16th century, the Mughal emperor Akbar is said to have referred to Kashmir as his private garden: during his reign, only the highest ranking courtiers were allowed entry here, causing heartburn among those left behind to swelter in the plains during summer. Akbar’s choice of words for the Valley was no coincidence. Nor is it a coincidence that the Kashmir Valley, a verdant space surrounded on all sides by the Himalayas, is frequently referred to as a paradise – the root of the word paradise is an enclosed garden.
With their refined tastes, the Mughals alchemised the natural advantages of the Valley with their own paradise gardens. Replete with birdsong, level spaces were planted with fruit trees that symbolised life, while the plantation of the Iranian cypress, death. Situated at the base of mountains, these gardens were fed with natural springs or rivulets. The basic design was descending terraces – vivid flower parterres were bisected with water channels and fountains led downwards to a shimmering lake. While the best-known gardens are all located at the foothills of the Zabarwan range, facing the Dal and thronging with tourists in summer, at least two other Srinagar gardens are special in spring time and autumn. The floating gardens on the Dal Lake are more popular for growing vegetables, not flowers.
Springtime unfurls the tulip. A garden of fairly recent vintage, laid out on the ruins of an old Mughal garden, is named after Indira Gandhi, where the variety and size of the flowers is enhanced by the setting. The bulbs are imported from Holland now, but Kashmir has several indigenous wild tulip varieties. They flower between end-March and mid-April. This garden is said to extend tourist season by three weeks, contingent only on how volatile the political atmosphere is.
Kashmiris have a great tradition of picnics and making the most elaborate wickerwork picnic baskets. As soon as last winter’s pherans are folded away, alfresco meals are packed into the baskets, families walk down trellised paths buzzing with bees, or through almond groves frothy with the palest pink blossoms.
Almond blossoms are best viewed at the base of the Hari Parbat Fort, in Badamwari Bagh, which was thickly planted with almond trees by the Dogra ruler Ranbir Singh, in the 19th century. This garden has recently been restored, and in the month of April when the trees begin to flower, this garden is said to surpass the beauty of the better known Shalimar.
“Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar,
Where are you now? Where are you now?
Pale hands, pink tipped like lotus buds that float on the cool waters where we used to dwell.”— 'Kashmiri Song' by Laurence Hope, 1902
The Shalimar Bagh, or garden, was laid out by the emperor Jehangir, who had once said that the Kashmir Valley was worth all of Hindustan. Built for his queen, Nur Jehan, Shalimar occupies the rectangular space at the far end of the Dal Lake. It is the largest of the Mughal gardens and also the most famous one. It was actually maintained by the Dogra maharajahs, unlike other gardens crumbling with neglect after the Mughals left the Valley. The periphery of the garden is marked by giant chinars. The Persian lilac and the many roses are still a huge tourist draw in summers, preceded by the flowering of the cherry trees. The stepping stones across the stream are a delight to use.
The Shalimar has three demarcated areas with entry according to rank: the Diwan-i-Aam is where the emperor would view the assembly, from a black stone throne situated over a waterfall. The two other pavilions are graded terraces, the Diwan-i-Khas, and the Zenana pavilion. The Mughals understood drama, in life, in architecture and in their gardens. The testimony to this is the beautiful black marble pavilion, which is surrounded by the perfume of flowers and the iridescence of a fountain spray – the focal point around which all the colour, and glimmering watery vistas of the garden congregate.
Arguably the most beautiful garden and once an object of Shah Jehan’s envy is the Nishat Bagh, or the Garden of Delight. Its 12 terraces were originally designed to represent the signs of the zodiac. The approach to the garden was by a shikara through the Uunt Kadal, where the waters of the Dal lapped at the boundary of the last terrace. Sadly, the need for a motorable road overrode this poetic approach, which must have been absolutely spectacular, when the lotuses along the waterway are in full bloom, in July.
Commissioned by Asaf Khan, Shah Jehan’s father-in-law, the former refused to gift the garden to the emperor despite his obvious lust for Nishat Bagh. Spurned thus, Shah Jehan was so furious, that he cut off the water supply to the Nishat. The fountains and the water cascades fell silent – but luckily the dispute was resolved before permanent damage occurred.
The waterfalls were designed with carved niches behind the gush of water. Oil lamps would be placed here in the evenings, shimmering through the liquid curtain. Rambling roses were trained down the walls to imitate the flow of water. This attention to detail may be lacking today, but the Nishat is still a wondrous sight. The beauty of the bright summer flower beds of frilled hollyhock and peonies, bright blue anchusa, the scarlet poppies and salvia is unforgettable.
Chashme Shahi or the Garden of the Royal Spring makes up in charm what it lacks in size. It was commissioned by Shah Jehan as a gift for his son, the ill-fated aesthete, Dara Shikoh. Taking advantage of the crystal clear water bubbling out of the spring in copious quantities, it holds up well in comparison to its rivals along the lake. The spring water is channelled to feed respectively, an aqueduct, a waterfall and a large fountain. Exquisite details, like the waterspouts shaped like stone fish, are still functional.
Dara Shikoh developed the last garden, Pari Mahal, in the mid-17th century, adjacent to the Chasme Shahi. He used Pari Mahal as his own abode, it housed a library and was also used as a space devoted to astronomy. With seven terraces, his home has the best view of all of Srinagar’s gardens. In summer, the eye drinks in the pleasures of the lake below and the city which embraces it. The air is redolent with the scent of the magnolia. Black poppies are striking against the grey stone.
There is no other place where colours change as dramatically with the seasons, as they do in Srinagar. Autumn or Harudh’s blazing palette must be enjoyed at the opposite end of the Dal. Naseem Bagh, Kashmir’s oldest Mughal garden still has the most glorious chinar trees, even though many of the pavilions and walls have crumbled. Some of these trees were originally planted by Akbar and his son Shah Jehan. They are glorious in summer, providing cool arbours. In fact, Naseem means cool breeze, appropriate for a site immediately west of the Dal Lake.
The magnificence of Naseem in autumn is beyond compare. The burnished crimson and copper leaves are a mesmerising sight, blazing on branches above and carpeting the ground below. The brilliant colours are tinged with melancholy, when the withered palms of the chinar, at the end of spring and summer herald Kashmir’s hard winter.
Selina Sen’s novel Zoon, set in Kashmir was published recently by Tranquebar. Her non-fiction book Gardening in Urban India was published by DK , Random House.