In 1598, Emperor Akbar annexed the Valley of Kashmir to the Mughal Empire. In one fell swoop, the Mughal emperors acquired a summer home. Kashmir in turn, acquired some of its most important heritage sites.
Emperor Akbar’s contribution was limited to the wall around the hill of Hari Parbat, which still stands today, complete with three gateways. His other contribution included Naseem Bagh, the garden of breezes, which sadly has tended to get short shrift besides the other Mughal gardens of the city. This one is nothing more than a grove of giant chinars. It is certainly unique because it does not contain the elements of an Islamic garden: there’s no falling water, no stepped terraces, no flower beds or grassy lawns. Perhaps for this reason, it is never included on tourist itineraries. Now more or less part of the Regional Engineering College grounds, it exists as one man’s fascination with the chinar – that captivating tree that is so much a part of the local landscape.
Akbar’s son, the Emperor Jehangir and his consort, Nur Jehan were much more frequent visitors to Kashmir. It is famously told that when Jehangir was on his death bed and was asked if there was anything he wanted, he replied, “Only Kashmir.” Jehangir and his courtiers visited Kashmir eight times. He spent his time observing nature, commissioning paintings, constructing gardens and, in general, doing things that today’s tourists do. Going for week-long picnics on the River Jhelum with a band of musicians and cooks was one such thing.
Empress Nur Jehan too put her stamp on the architecture of the Valley. Srinagar’s Patthar Masjid was commissioned by her, as was the retaining wall around the spring at Verinag, the source of the River Jhelum. The garden of Achhabal too was set up by her. One surprise is how Mughal architecture took shape in Kashmir. Unlike the buildings that the same emperors commissioned in the plains, those in Kashmir do not have a monumental quality. Quite the contrary, in fact: they seem to merge in with the surroundings with a reticence that is surprising in a dynasty that was known for the grandeur of its architecture.
Shalimar Garden was planned by the royal couple. A series of pavilions whose ceilings were painted with paper mache, gently stepped terraces, an advantageous site: hills at the back, the lake in front, and fruit trees and flower beds – all were designed as an outdoor royal court, with specific areas for the royal couple, the ladies of the court and the courtiers. Srinagar’s other great garden, the Nishat, was commissioned by Nur Jehan’s brother, Asaf Khan. Because of the far steeper terraces, it has a more dramatic setting than Shalimar. In fact, history records that Jehangir came to the same conclusion when he visited Nishat.
Today’s tourist literature tends to lump all Mughal contributions to Kashmir together. However, what is fascinating is to see each emperor’s vision of Kashmir in the light of their individual monuments. Emperor Akbar saw it as a royal duty; thus, when the famine of 1590 took place, he had a wall commissioned so that an army of labourers were assured an income. Emperor Jehangir, on the other hand, saw Kashmir as an enormous garden, and by the Mughal gardens that he commissioned, set about gilding the lily.
His grandson Dara Shikoh, appeared to have inherited his love of the Valley, but saw it from yet another perspective: that of a spiritual home for Sufis. Dara Shikoh’s contributions are Pari Mahal and Mullah Akhund Shah’s mosque on the Hari Parbat hill. The former just about makes it to the list of must-visit gardens in Srinagar, but because of the distance from Cheshmashahi, it closest neighbour, is quite often given the go-by. Seclusion, its towering location up from the Dal and the rest of the city, and the stone structures that formed a sort of outdoor college cum spiritual retreat centre is what Pari Mahal is all about. There are steeply stepped terraces and lawns, and Dara Shikoh was an integral part of the Mughal dynasty, so it would be technically accurate to call Pari Mahal a Mughal garden. However, to do so would be missing the point.
From the vantage point of Pari Mahal, you could probably make out the outlines of the mosque of Akhund Mullah Shah, on the hill of Hari Parbat. It is one of the three Mughal mosques constructed of stone in Srinagar. Like Patthar Masjid, the march of time has been less than kind to it, but something of the magic of the site still remains.
Tourists who are on a whistle-stop of Kashmir, which is to say, the vast majority of them, are rushed through Cheshmashahi, Nishat and Shalimar gardens. Most are so busy organizing photographs of themselves wearing tacky ‘Kashmiri’ costumes that they hardly get a sense of the ethos of the most famous ruling dynasty of the country and the love that they felt for a cool, pleasant outpost of their empire that was comparable with Fergana, the land of their forefathers.