Central & South Asia

Gardens of Delhi

When Shahjahanabad was founded in the 17th century, a canal was built to bring water to the city, enhancing its gardens. Princess Roshanara established her namesake garden with a baradari, where she was later buried. The garden evolved over time, becoming a public pleasure garden and later housing the Roshanara Club in 1922.
Gardens of Delhi

June 29, 2024 03:58 EDT

When Shahjahan founded the new city of Shahjahanabad in the mid-17th century, his prime minister Ali Mardan Khan was given the important task of constructing a canal to bring water to the city. Of course the city itself was built on the bank of the river, which was not only a vital artery for transportation by boat, but also provided water for bathing, washing clothes and other such everyday needs of the population. The imperial builders however wanted water to flow through the streets and gardens of the city. It was not possible to lift water from the lower level of the Yamuna for this purpose. There were wells in the city also, which provided water for drinking and other domestic needs, but they would not be sufficient for this added purpose. A canal therefore was felt to be necessary.

The canal Ali Mardan Khan built was the extension of an older canal built during the 14th century. In its modified form it transported water from the upper reaches of the Yamuna River, some 75 miles upstream, to the new capital. The canal was 25 feet wide and 25 feet deep for much of its course. It was presumably a somewhat narrower, shallower channel by the time it entered the city at its north-west corner, through the Kabul Gate, which no longer stands.

It was soon realised that as it traversed the ground outside on its way to the city, the canal’s water could be used to good effect. One of the first people to lay out a garden next to the canal outside the city wall was the princess Roshanara, Shahjahan’s daughter. Her older sister Jahanara, who was her father’s favourite, had been given a garden inside the city walls, and next to it she had developed a large sarai and a market square known as Chandni Chowk, or ‘Moonlight Square’. Roshanara was less favoured, but nevertheless, like most women of the Mughal royal family, she had independent means and considerable resources. Out of these resources in 1650 she commissioned the garden which is named after her. The garden lay midway between the canal and the highway that stretched all the way from Bengal to the north-western provinces of the Mughal empire and which later came to be known as the Grand Trunk Road. We have little evidence of what the garden would have looked like in Mughal times. It was probably surrounded by a wall, since a brick gateway with traces of coloured tilework on the exterior survives on the eastern side. The wall is now a modern one.

At some distance inside the gateway lies a building. In form it is a large pavilion, or baradari, standing on a platform in the middle of a shallow pool. The pool, which no longer contains water, has a decorative edge. In the middle of the baradari is a small roofless chamber supported on pillars. The pillars are of the style called ‘cypress-bodied’, evoking the cypress tree in their tapered shape. They are covered in a pattern of leaves. The plaster surfaces above the pillars are painted with botanical motifs, among which the sita ashok trees with their bunches of flowers figure prominently. In the centre of the chamber lies a patch of earth which marks Roshanara’s final resting place.

Painted limestone plaster and intricately carved stone jalis are seen at the tomb of Roshanara Begum (1617–1671). Photograph by: Prabhas Roy

The princess had lived through some ups and downs. She grew up in the shadow of her older sister Jahanara, and there is likely to have been some rivalry between the two. Jahanara was not only her father’s favourite, she was also close to her brother Dara Shukoh, who had been nominated the heir apparent by their father. Roshanara was closer to another brother, Aurangzeb, and she actively supported him when he rose up in rebellion against his father and seized the throne. Roshanara was rewarded for her support. When Aurangzeb had his formal coronation in the Red Fort on 5 June 1659, she had been given presents worth five lakhs of rupees, which was a huge sum in those days.

With the accession of Aurangzeb, Roshanara became the head of the palace, a position Jahanara had earlier occupied. Within a few years however she fell out of favour with Aurangzeb, who suspected her of political intrigues. Then in 1666, when Jahanara returned to Delhi and Aurangzeb made her the head of the palace, Roshanara again retreated into the shadows, where she died in 1671. She was buried in this pavilion in the garden she had created.

After Roshanara’s death her garden remained royal the garden was confiscated, along with other royal property, with members of the Mughal royal family using it as a retreat from time to time. As the power of the Mughal emperors declined, particularly in the first half of the 19th century with the coming of the British to Delhi, they did find it difficult to exercise complete control over these royal properties. In 1853 some people went to the extent of building a house in the Roshanara Bagh, driving away the emperor’s guard when he tried to intervene. In 1857, after the revolt had been suppressed, the garden was confiscated, along with other royal property.

Red powderpuff (Calliandra haematocephala) flower in full bloom at Roshnara Bagh. Photograph by: Prabhas Roy

Then in 1874 it was handed over to the city’s Municipal Committee, which turned it into a pleasure garden for public use. The baradari was repaired, and creepers were grown so as to cover its walls. Goldfish were introduced in the pool. The character of the garden at large was altered by the building of motorable roads through it.

A landmark in the history of the garden came in 1922, with the establishment of the Roshanara Club, which was founded, as an official letter of the time put it, ‘to provide for the opportunity of sporting and social intercourse among gentlemen in Delhi irrespective of politics, caste and creed.’

Topiary work enlivens the green lawns of Roshanara Bagh. Photograph by: Prabhas Roy

[Niyogi Books has given Fair Observer permission to publish this excerpt from Gardens of Delhi, Swapna Liddle and Madhulika Liddle, photographed by Prabhas Roy, Niyogi Books, 2024.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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