The Landscape Guide

Mughal Tomb Gardens

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Tomb building was not a Hindu custom: bodies were cr emated. In the early days of Islam tombs were modest, because all men are equal before God, but they were sometimes placed in outdoor enclosures for protection. The Seljuk Turks and the Timurids adopted Islam as their religion and began building elaborate tombs, probably having brought the idea from Central Asia or China.

In the sixteenth century the Mughals began designing tomb enclosures as gardens. It was an original idea. A central mausoleum replaced the garden pavilion and the chahar bagh layout was formalised into a perfectly symmetrical square plan. Khanserai et al see this as a Persian idea derived from ancient ceramics and give the Balkuwara Palace in Iraq as an early example. There is however no evidence for perfectly square gardens having been made before the Mughal period and a time gap of 1700 years seems excessively long for ‘influence’. This leaves three alternatives for the origin if the square idea (1) it may have come, via mosque courts, from the cloister gardens of Constantinople (2) it may have been inspired by the Buddhist mandala - a circle within a square (3) it may derive from the Islamic belief that paradise, being perfect, must have perfect symmetry. The significant point is the religious character of each of these alternatives. Islamic mausoleum building was begun by Turkic peoples, who could have known the Chinese tomb-building tradition. During their nomadic period the mongol peoples did not build tombs.

Percy Brown categorises Mughal construction as secular or religious, adding that ‘those of a religious nature consist of two kinds only – the mosque and the tomb’. But tomb gardens span his categories. They were places to pray but they were also places of resort for the nobility to sip rose-water sherbet and chilled lemon juice, sitting on rich carpets in the cool of the night. The design of tomb gardens was also part-religious and part-secular. The Koran states that ‘surely those who guard (against evil) shall be in gardens and rivers ’. Shah Jahan’s tomb in the Taj Mahal therefore has the inscription: ‘This is the illumined grave and sacred resting place of the Emperor... may it be sanctified and may Paradise become his abode’. The Taj Mahal is an earthly paradise and the outstanding example of a Mughal garden.

M Khansari, M Reza Moghtader, Minouch Yavari The Persian Garden: Echos of Paradise Washington DC: Mage Publishers 1998 p.14 and p.167. Further, the excavation report states specifically that ‘Herzfeld does not mention any evidence (irrigation systems, garden soil to replace the salinated surface material) to justify a term [garden] that should be applied only to the so-called river garden to the west of the reception hall’ Thomas Leisten Excavation of Samarra Vol 1 2003 Verlag Philipp von Sabern p.88.

Percy Brown Indian Architecture (Islamic Period) Bombay: D B Taraporevala Sons & Co. 1956 p.3

The Qur’an Sura 54:54)

Elizabeth B Moynihan The Moonlight Garden: New discoveries at the Taj Mahal Washington: University of Washington Press 2000 p.31.

Westcoat & Wolschke-Bulmahn Mughal Gardens: Sources, places, representations and prospects (Dumbarton Oaks 1996) p77 identivies Vasant Vihar (Bara Lao ka Gumbad), made in the late 14th century, as an example of a Delhi Sultanate garden - with a mosque, tomb and extensive garden. There are 'many references in Sultanate texts to armies camping on garden grounds'. Furthermore 'The founder of the Sultanate. Qutb al-Din Aybak, had been buried in 1210 in a garden, as was also in a sense Firuz Shah in 1388' (p87). Qutb al-Din Aybak was Turkish.

Ernst J. Grube Architecture of the Islamic World (T&H 1995) discusses the idea that the building of permanent tombs was inspired by the use of a tent to mark a burial site.


Safdar Jang's Tomb Garden, Delhi

Humayun's Tomb Garden, Delhi

Humayun's Tomb Garden, Delhi