TRAVEL: A watery world of calm and order

Like all Mogul gardens, the Shalamar in Lahore was inspired by lyrical descriptions of paradise in the Koran
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The Independent Culture
HIDDEN from sight behind high walls, near a seething bazaar on the outskirts of the old Mogul city of Lahore in north Pakistan, is a little piece of paradise. A rather shabby piece of paradise, perhaps, but nevertheless much loved and valued by the people of the Punjabi plains.

Paradise Mogul-style is a perfectly proportioned terraced garden filled with cool stone pavilions, evergreen trees and trickling fountains. The first impression is of space and harmony, water and more water. These canals and cascades, pools and fountains, are a life-giving force in the hot, dusty climate. The sparkle and splash of falling water add movement and sound, breaking up the precision of the geometrically laid-out terraces and serene parterres.

At the centre of the 40-acre walled compound is a large, square reservoir, known in the sub-continent as a "tank", studded with fountains. It is raised above the central terrace, reflecting the surrounding pavilions and trees: a magnet for the families who come on outings, and the crows and parrots wheeling overhead.

Formal gardens along these lines were created throughout the Mogul empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, to provide shaded sanctuaries and accommodation for the peripatetic imperial court. Only a few have survived, notably in Delhi, Agra, and Kashmir. The Shalamar garden in Lahore, based on a lakeside garden of the same name in Kashmir, is the best preserved in the sub-continent's plains.

Unlike the gardens in Delhi and Agra, which are also mausoleums, this one was designed principally for pleasure. Its maintenance has suffered from lack of funds, but nothing can detract from the sheer scale of the place. Its planting has become somewhat mangy, and the sky beyond its walls is obscured by new buildings, but like an oasis in the desert it offers a calm retreat through the long summer months.

Mogul gardens were inspired by the Koran's lyrical description of paradise as a garden of deep, verdant green. According to the Islamic scriptures, those who dwell in paradise live in lofty pavilions, shaded by date palms and pomegranates and cooled by gushing fountains and flowing springs. The dates and pomegranates, if they originally existed in the Shalamar garden, have now been ousted by citrus and mango trees, growing casually in groups rather than in regimented Mogul lines.

The octagonal flowerbeds around the main tank still contain fruit trees in pairs, as specified in the Koran, symbolising the cycle of life. Platoons of cypress, representing eternity, stand symmetrically as they used to beside the canals. Nowadays, in the winter months, ranks of rather incongruous- looking potted chrysanthemums are placed alongside.

Nobody quite knows what may originally have featured in the garden's brick-lined beds - apart from the lilies, tulips, pansies and jasmine pictured in miniature paintings. Today, some of them hold stiff roses reminiscent of the British Raj; others are planted annually with bright items such as marigolds, which flower boldly and briefly during the short spring.

The Koran has the paradise-dwellers reclining on rich carpets and green- cushioned couches, surrounded by overhanging fruit, and comely virgins like rubies and pearls. Not much chance of that in contemporary Pakistan. Today the carpets rolled out for receptions are more likely to be coir matting, and the women in the garden tend to be veiled.

You enter this paradise from the bedlam of Lahore's Baghbanpura bazaar. Leaving behind the racket of the street vendors and rickshaws and bullock carts, you pass through the arched gate of the 350-year-old garden and suddenly you are in a world of peace and order.

Cool, disciplined squares of green known as charbagh are bordered by wide footpaths. Cloistered loggias and domed corner-towers are set into the high perimeter wall. The eye is drawn to the brimming 20ft-wide focal canal which runs down the centre of the top terrace, splashes over scalloped marble and cascades down through two further terraces.

This network of waterways, intersecting at right angles and providing moist breezes throughout the summer, is the distinguishing feature of the paradise garden. It is a concept brought from central Asia by the first Mogul emperor, Babur, in 1526, and used again and again over the two centuries of Mogul rule.

The Shalamar garden impresses because of its dramatic landscaping. The three enormous stepped terraces - a square, a rectangle and another square - have been created from a former river bank. The 15ft drops between them boast ramps for the royal elephants and horses, and steps for the bearers.

Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal in Agra, created the Lahore garden in 1642 so that he and his court could stay there and establish a presence in the area. The top two terraces were designed for the emperor's private use; the lower terrace was for the public. The Mogul court was constantly on the move, maintaining its authority across the empire. When the imperial caravan of dozens of elephants and camels, palanquins and porters, arrived at a new site, the eunuchs and servants would bustle into action, erecting palatial tents and draping the stone pavilions in elaborate silk hangings. The royal retinue would camp there in extravagant style for days and sometimes weeks on end.

You can still see the drapery rings on the open audience halls and sleeping chambers where the emperor held court. The original milk-white marble and pietra dura inlay which faced these buildings was plundered by the Sikhs when they ousted the Moguls in the mid-18th century. The Sikhs carried off the slabs of marble and mosaic tiling to decorate their Golden Temple in nearby Amritsar. In recent years the dilapidated pavilions have been restored in mellow pink brick or plasterwork, periodically whitewashed for special occasions. The pavilion used by the court for watching ceremonial parades is now being rebuilt as a tearoom for visitors.

The upper and lower terraces are divided into four by the central canal, and further sub-divided into 16 by lesser waterways, small tanks of water, and raised paths paved with thin red bricks set on their sides. The middle terrace holds the main tank, which feeds the canals and activates the 400 fountains. Below this is an ingenious three-sided marble facade inset with dozens of arched niches which originally held gold vases of flowers by day and camphorated wax candles by night.

When the court was in residence, the officials and the ladies of the harem would stroll alongside the waters to admire the perfumed shrubs. At night, hundreds of lamps would be lit next to the canals and fountains; the king and his favourites would recline in silken robes on a marble throne suspended over the main tank, from where they could enjoy the musicians and dancing girls and the reflections of the moon.

Moving water was an essential element of the paradise garden, both for aesthetic considerations and for irrigation. In the 17th century a canal was constructed to bring water from the River Ravi, but it comes from wells today.

It is thought that the emperor would enter the garden at the lowest level, and as he progressed upwards to the beating of drums so the fountains would start playing. Terrace by terrace, as the regal procession ascended, the fountains would rise, reflecting the power of the monarch. On the top terrace of the Shalamar garden, in a pavilion where the emperor used to sleep, is the original fount of water bubbling up from the ground in a lotus-shaped marble basin. The symbolism is clear. The emperor was the source of the whole life-giving water system.

In 1711, when the Dutch ambassador was received at the Shalamar garden by Emperor Alam Bahadur Shah, he described the scene: "The place was very large, occupied with fruit trees and high cypress trees at certain distances and causeways laid between. Magnificent imperial pleasure houses, 32 in number, produced a pleasing perspective whereto was added artificial waterfalls playing through the gardens all of which works were daily kept by 128 gardeners."

There are fewer than 28 gardeners today, and two buffaloes haul the lawnmowers. When the Mogul empire collapsed and the Sikhs took over the Punjab, the garden was abandoned. It was then partially restored and the Sikhs filled in some of the archways with painted doors. Later it was leased out as an orchard and its walled enclosure became, periodically, an encampment for invading armies.

Funding is not sufficient today to carry out a thorough restoration of the original planting, or to restore the pavilions and perimeter wall with their marble facing and decorative mosaic tiling. Walls are regularly defaced with graffiti by teenagers on school visits and only a few traces of the original pietra dura remain.

Yet despite its run-down quality it is not difficult to imagine the Shalamar garden in its imperial days. Grand functions are still held there occasionally. Oil lamps light up the canals, music is played on the main tank, and the pavilions are hung with brilliant patchwork shamianas, the descendant of the regal silk hangings.

There should, of course, be restrictions on buildings erected within sight of the garden; the hydraulic system should be overhauled; the original planting should be put back. Despite the dedication of a few enthusiasts, the garden has not been well tended, but its splendour still shines through the shabbiness. It is one of Pakistan's greatest monuments - and, as a little piece of paradise, it deserves the care and attention befitting its glorious Mogul past. !


GETTING TO SHANGHAI: Lupus Travel (01892 533030) offers flights via Frankfurt for pounds 779, June-August. Campus Travel (0171-730 8111) has flights to Shanghai for pounds 699, or a flight to Peking for pounds 359; then take the train to Suzhou.

GETTING TO SUZHOU: The town is on the main Shanghai to Peking railway line.

ORGANISED TOURS: Voyage Jules Verne (0171-723 5066) do a 16-day trip, starting from pounds 1,499.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Chinese National Tourist Office (0171-935 9427).

GETTING TO LAHORE: Allied World Travel (0181-569 5440) has flights via Karachi, from pounds 450. STA Travel (0171-937 9962) also has flights via Karachi, for pounds 420.

ORGANISED TOURS: Abercrombie and Kent (0171-730 9600), Pakistan tour including the Shalamar garden. Prices start at pounds 1,345 for a seven-night stay.