The Landscape Guide

Babur (1483-1530)

Babur, often described as the founder of the Mughal (Mongal) Empire in India, was also a keen garden-maker, a poet and the author of one of the few autobiographies in the Islamic literary tradition. A new translation of this memoir was published in 1996 as The Baburnama: memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor (Oxford University Press: London and New York, 1996) edited and translated by Wheeler M Thackston. It is of considerable interest to garden historians. Babur lived at the time of the High Renaissance in Italy. His grandson, Akbar (reigned 1556-1605), was also a great garden-maker, as was Shah Jahan (reigned 1627-58) who was Akbar's grandson. The Mughal empire in India lasted 1526-1857.

Babur was born in the province of Fergana on the Jaxartes River, a descendant of Temur Tamerlane and Chaghatay. This province is part of modern Kazakhstan, north of Afganistan and east of the town of Samarkand (which Babur twice conquered and twice lost). He saw himself as Turkish and wrote in a Turkish dialect (Chaghatay). Chaghatay was Genghis Kahn's second son. Genghis Kahn lived from 1162-1227. Though Mongol in origin, Babur 's people adopted the language and the religion (Islam) of the Turks they ruled. Babur would be unlikely to thank historians for describing him as the founder of a 'Mongol' empire. It was a time when many commanders from the Himalayan region were taking control of parts of India, as they had already done in Persia. In Babur's lifetime, Turkish and Mongolian tribes constituted the army while the civilian administrators were  Persian.  After his death, the Persian language came to dominate the Mughul Empire and remained the language of government in India until it was replaced by English.

The greater part of Babur's memoir is taken up with military campaigns, marriages and family histories. But he also finds space to record leisure activities. In the foothills of Kabul be counted 32 unique varieties of tulip (Baburnama p.177). He enjoyed hunting, particularly large and rare beasts:

         Having gotten the camp marching toward the river, I myself went toward Swati, which is also called Kargkhana, to hunt rhinoceros. Several were found, but they did not come out of the thick forest. One with a calf ventured into the open and began to run away. Many arrows were shot at it, but it managed to get itself back into the thicket. Even when fire was set to the forest, it could not be caught. A calf was burned, however, and lay there writhing. It was slaughtered and everybody took a trophy share.(Baburnama p.275)

Babur had a keen appreciation of natural scenery:

       On Thursday we went out to the riverbank as the sun was coming up. That day we ate ma'jun. How strange the fields of flowers appeared under its influence. Nothing but purple flowers were blooming in some places, and only yellow ones in other areas. Sometimes the yellow and the purple blossomed together like gold fleck. We sat on a rise near the camp and just looked at the fields.  Like a painting, on all sides of the hill yellow and purple flowers in regular clumps were arranged in a hexagon shape. On two sides there were somewhat fewer numbers, but as far as the eye could see were fields of blossoms. In the spring there are beautiful flowers in the vicinity of Peshawar. (Baburnama p.285)

Babur made a charbagh in Kabul. A charbagh is a 'four-garden' (or 'quadripartite garden') usually a square divided into four parts by canals.

       In 1508-09, I had constructed a charbagh garden called Bagh-i-Wafa on a rise to the south of the Adianapur fortress. It overlooks the river, which flows between the fortress and the garden. It yields many oranges, citroens and pomegranates. (Baburnama p.173)

Babur had little liking for India. He found it too hot, too flat and not suited to a charbagh. He describes how he made a garden at Agra.

       I always thought one of the chief faults of Hindustan was that there was no running water. Everywhere that was habitable it should be possible to construct waterwheels, create running water, and make planned, geometric spaces. A few days after coming to Agra, I crossed the Jumna with this plan in mind and scouted around for places to build gardens, but everywhere I looked was so unpleasant and desolate that I crossed back in great disgust.  Because the place was so ugly and disagreeable I abandoned my dream of making a charbagh .

Although there was no really suitable place near Agra, there was nothing to do but work with the space we had. The foundation was the large well from which the water for the bathhouse came. Next, the patch of ground with tamarind trees and octagonal pond became the great pool and courtyard. Then came the pool in front of the stone building and the hall. After that came the private garden and its outbuildings, and after that the bathhouse. Thus, in unpleasant and inharmonious India, marvellously regular and geometric gardens were introduced. In every corner were beautiful plots, and in every plot were regularly laid out arrangements of roses and narcissus. (Baburnama p.359)

[There are additional references to gardens on Baburnama pages 83, 86, 174, 198, 403, 405]

The style of garden design established by Babur and his descendents, the Mughal emperors, was maintained until their rule came to an end.


A mid-eighteenth century miniature of a couple sitting on a carpet,
with a garden pool in the foreground.