The Garden Guide

Book: C.M Villiers Stuart Gardens of the Great Mughals
Chapter: Chapter 6 Gardens of the Plains Lahore

Persian carpets and garden design

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The description of the Shalimar given in the Badshah-Namah is long but not very lucid. A better idea of the planting of this and similar gardens can, I think, be gathered from a contemporary work of art, a most remarkable garden carpet which has come to light within recent years. From the workmanship and colouring it is judged to be an Armenian production of the first half of the seventeenth century. The Paradise garden of its design suggests that in all probability it was made in the first instance for the Sefari Palace at Ispahan built by Shah Abbas, Shah Jahans Persian rival. The design is of extreme antiquity. Chosroes I., the Sassanian King of Persia (A.D. 531-579), had a famous carpet called 'Chosroes Spring,' i.e. garden, which was employed to decorate a hall or, more likely, on account of its great size, an open platform, for the carpet is said to have been four hundred and fifty feet long by ninety feet wide. The Arabs conquered Ctesiphon in the year 637. Nothing astonished them more, so their chroniclers relate, than this wonderful carpet. The plan was that of a royal pleasure-ground, or Paradise, representing beds of spring flowers. There was a broad flower-bed border all around. The ground was worked in gold thread, the leaves and flowers in silk, and crystals and precious stones were employed to represent the fruit and the water. The design of this marvellous carpet, devised as far back as the times of the Assyrian Kingdom, prevailed down to the days of Shah Abbas and Shah Jahan. Since then these royal 'Firdus' carpets have nearly all disappeared; only five are now known to exist, and of these only the one illustrated is in any sense perfect. But the Shali-mar Bagh at Lahore remains a concrete example of the Paradise garden from which their design was drawn. Shah Abbass carpet is an oblong, thirty-one feet by twelve feet three inches. The characteristic canals, the special feature of the type, are unequal in length, but their form is only a modification of the older cosmic cross. The central pavilion is very small, little more than a chabutra or fountain basin set in the middle of a large tank. Four birds swim on the pond, a curious mixture of swan and royal peacock; and the water is represented as of a deeper blue than that of the canals, suggesting a greater depth; or else that the reservoir was paved after the Persian fashion with bright blue tiles. The design is further subdivided by narrow watercourses and octagonal pavilions, four on each side, representing the eight pearl pavilions of the Moslem Paradise. Looking at the plan of the Shalimar Bagh, its close resemblance to that of the carpet will be easily seen. In the real garden the terraces with cross canals are square, but the whole design forms an oblong and in each case the central ornament is a tank. Green depressions mark the smaller canals, and eight grass chabutras, four on the upper terrace and four on the lowest level, take the place of the eight pearl pavilions. This old royal carpet illustrates more clearly than anything I have seen the customary method of planting when these gardens were first laid out. It shows the old symbolic avenues of cypress and flowering fruit trees-which same idea was carried out in Plinys Tuscan gardens by his avenues of clipped box obelisks and apple trees planted alternately-with their mystic birds beak to beak in the old traditional fashion, and the tulip border beneath close to the stream. Four large chenar trees are planted at the angles of the pavilions, forming an outer avenue on each side of the main canal, and trees fill the squares at the corners of the central tank. Flower-beds border the smaller watercourses and the intervening squares between the trees are filled with parterres. So without much difficulty we can imagine for ourselves what Shah Jahans great pleasance may have looked like before it was despoiled. [Notes: - the Badshahnama is the history of Shah Jahan (1592-1666) - Shah Abbas (1571-1629) ruled Persia]