His Highness the Aga Khan: “…we are creating together a Mughal-style garden, which echoes the great contributions that Muslims have made to world heritage…”

…we are creating together a Mughal-style garden, which echoes the great contributions that Muslims have made to world heritage… The Mughals built the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb and the gardens around them…
His Highness the Aga Khan
Unveiling of plans for the Aga Khan Garden, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

April 7, 2017

Mughal Empire
Mughal empire at its greatest extent, in the early 18th century. Image: Wikipedia

The Mughals, who reigned the Indian subcontinent (1526 – 1858), built a magnificent empire based on well-founded and enduring institutions, laying the foundations of a dynastic rule which inaugurated one of the most glorious periods in the history of Islam. At their peak, the Mughals ruled over most of South Asia and parts of what is now Afghanistan.

The founder of the dynasty, Muhammad Zahir al-Din Babur (r. 1526-1530), gained control of Kabul, an important stopping place along the trade route between India and Central Asia, and from here he led his campaign to conquer the subcontinent. He established his capital at Agra.

Early in the sixteenth century, Babur laid out several gardens, including the Bagh-e Babur, in and around Kabul. The natural landscape was central to the life of Babur’s court. His wish, recorded in his memoirs (Baburnama) was that he be buried in a modest grave open to the sky. This wish was fulfilled in 1544 when his body was transferred from Agra, where he had first been buried, to one of his favourite gardens in Kabul. Bagh-e Babur, one of the earliest surviving Mughal gardens, was restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Bagh-e-Babur after restoration work by Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Babur was succeeded by his son Humayun, who was overthrown in 1540 but returned to the throne in 1555.

The classic period of Mughal rule began during the time of Akbar (r. 1556 – 1605), who succeeded Humayun. An avid patron of the arts, Emperor Akbar established centres of artistic production for the court, illustrated manuscript studios, a translation academy, and workshops for textiles, carpets, jewellery, and metalwork. He commissioned royal manuscripts that incorporated Persian, Indian, and European elements, creating a distinct Mughal style which was further developed and refined by his successors.

Emperor Akbar’s major project was the construction of his father’s tomb in Delhi, designed according to Timurid (they ruled Persia and parts of modern-day Uzbekistan from 1370–1507 CE) concepts, establishing the cultural identity of the dynasty.

In 1584, Akbar moved his capital to Lahore, where he died and was buried; his mausoleum lies in Bihishtabad (“Abode of Paradise”) outside Agra. He was succeeded by Prince Salim who took the titles of Jahangir (“World Seizer”) and Nur al-Din (“Light of Faith”), continuing the light imagery used so frequently in his father’s metaphors of sovereignty.

The tomb of Humayun, one of the twenty-seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India, was the first of the monumental mausoleums to be built in the country. Begun in 1562, the work on the tomb was completed in 1571. Placing the mausoleum in the centre of a large chahar bagh (Fourfold Garden) was an innovation in design of tombs and gardens, and was unique in the Indian subcontinent. The Humayun Tomb complex was restored and revitalised by Aga Khan Trust for Culture.


Humayun's Tomb
Aerial view of Humayun’s Tomb. Image: Archnet

Humayun’s tomb, influenced by Persian architecture, with its domed chambers of monumental magnificence, came to characterise the splendour of the dynasty and was a model for later Mughal tombs such as the Taj Mahal.

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal. Image: Wikipedia

The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum complex built by Shah Jahan (r. 1628 – 1658) in memory of his wife, Arjumand Banu Begam (d.1631), better known by her title Mumtaz Mahal, or “the exalted one of the palace.” Construction of the complex began shortly after Mumtaz’s death and took eleven years to complete. Built of rubble masonry, the structure is the earliest example of the use of red sandstone and white marble in such great quantities.

The tomb lies within a walled garden, which was laid out according to the chahar bagh plan – divided into four quarters – but with a pool at the central intersection, and a mosque and a guesthouse placed in mirror image on each side of the mausoleum. The Taj Mahal is reflected in the central water channel, enhancing the mystical metaphor of reflection and the veils of reality. Verses from the Qur’an frame the four high portals recalling Paradise and the After-life.

Philippa Vaughan “Decorative Arts” Islam: Art and Architecture Edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius (Konnenman)
Sajida S. Alvi, “Islam in South Asia.” The Muslim Almanac Edited by Azim A. Nanji, Detroit, Gale Research Inc. 1996.

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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