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EXCERPT: Landscape expressions in Islamic culture

July 01, 2012

The following excerpt is taken from the chapter “Gardens of the Deccan”

Gardens of medieval Islam — called Turco-Iranian Hispano-Arab or Mughal — were built in a variety of geo-cultural regions from Spain to India. Some examples of the type in India and Pakistan were surveyed during the days of British Indian archaeology. The built evidence has been re-examined since, generating fresh interest, and showing the need for closer scrutiny.

In the face of this evidence, the tendency to lay stress on the Mughal garden heritage of the subcontinent is justified and inevitable, although it limits the awareness and significance of the garden landscape of pre-Mughal times.

The term Mughal is also somewhat inadequate in describing the range of gardens built in the subcontinent from the 16th to the 18th centuries, including those built in the Deccan. Because both Bijapur and Golconda arose from the Bahmani state (an offshoot of the Delhi Sultanate), garden development in these two states could be viewed as a continuity of Sultanate and pre-Mughal traditions.

Moreover, the Shiite rulers of Bijapur and Golconda were acutely conscious of their cultural ties with Safavid of Iran (rather than with Mughal India), although it might be added that, since Hindu feeling had to be acknowledged, the sanctity of the tank could not be ignored in the glory of blue and green-tiled domes. This is not to say that the Mughal kings rejected their cultural heritage in India.

There is evidence that Babar’s Dholpur garden was watered by the reservoir built by his predecessor, Sikandar Lodhi, by damming up a stream. But the existence of perennial streams in north India enabled the Mughals to engineer canals for irrigation, and the efficient aquifer systems of the Indo-Gangetic Doab relieved them of excessive reliance on surface storage of water, the native practice.

It appears useful to speak of the 16th and 17th gardens of Bijapur and Golconda as Deccani gardens, acknowledging their roots in the soil and distinguishing them from the Mughal gardens of the Indo-Gangetic plains. This distinction is highlighted in a comparison of garden settings in the Doab regions and the Deccan plateau.

As settings for gardens, the ‘mesa-like terrain of Maharashtra’ and ‘the tor-boulder-tank of Telangana’ widely differ from the alluvial expanses of northern India and Pakistan. In Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh, approximately half of irrigation needs are met today through ground water, while the (now extensive) canal system has been a feature of irrigation since Sultanate times.

In Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, on the other hand, wells supply only a fifth of the irrigation water today, and extensive areas of irrigation have depended on surface storage of water, of which some spectacular examples are to be found at Warangal and Bidar, the work of the 11th century (Hindu) Kakatiyan kings of Warangal. The large stepped well (baoli) is noticeable in Karnataka, a well-preserved 17th century example being the Taj Baoli (223 feet to a side) at Bijapur, where arrangements for raising and supplying water south to a series of gardens (the Nau Bagh, or New Garden) were observed by Cousens in the earlier part of the 20th century.

While canals in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are small channels diverted from perennial, streams to irrigate areas in their vicinity, there is some evidence for the construction of extensive underground canals, engineered by afaqis (foreigners, predominantly Iranians). At Bidar, subterranean canals overlie the impermeable trappean bed, a hundred feet or more below the porous laterite crust.

These canals were created by widening natural rifts in the heart of the rock, the operations commencing from the mouth of the spring. As noted by Yazdani, the valleys below these springs provided sites for extensive plantations, and one such site was utilised in making the terraced garden called Farah Bagh, now destroyed, built by the Mughal governor of Bidar in 1671, after Bidar was captured from the Adil Shahs. Yazdani also refers to the masonry channels at Bidar which link the Kakatiyan Kamthana tank with a stone-lined square cistern, 260 feet to a side, a mile away.

The cistern is said to have been in the middle of a garden originally. Bijapur’s ‘subterranean tunnels,’ bringing in water from reservoirs outside the city, were studied in detail by Cousens. The ‘subterranean tunnels’ are said to have doubled as catchment channels.

At Golconda, there is evidence for similar connections between the Durug Tank and the citadel of Golconda via the Qutb Shahi necropolis. In Hyderabad, earthen pipes carried water from the Jalapalli tank to the Char Minar water cistern (hauz); while the Katora Hauz (200 square yards), which supplied drinking water to Golconda’s upper citadel (Bala Hisar), was presumably part of a similar network.

The large gardens of the Deccan were, for the most part, located around water storage tanks. Pleasure gardens also surrounded large, tank-fed hauz, both excavated and constructed, and royal gardens were occasionally built along perennial streams.

As stated in a previous chapter, the Qutb Shahis exploited the terrain for tanks and garden sites, utilising land hollows for water bodies and hills for lofty viewpoints that provided panoramic views of water and greenery. The citadel of Golconda, 350 feet above the ‘vale of the Musi’ and once embowered in greenery and ringed with tanks, was a clear expression of such a concept. So also, seemingly, the two pavilion-crowned hills, west of the citadel, which rise 150 feet above the 16th century Bagh-i-Ibrahim and the adjacent tank, likewise named after Ibrahim, third in the Qutb Shahi line.

Similarly, a garden cluster surrounded the 16th century Husainsagar, while a hill nearby (the Koh-i-Nabat Ghat) was exploited as a natural viewpoint. The summit of this hill is no longer ornamented with the three-storied palace mentioned in texts, but the remains of a garden pavilion, a chaukhandi, could be seen here until recent years, which the Mughals, recalling stories of the hedonistic Qutb Shahis, had named the ‘Stool of Satan.

The present name of the hill, Naubat Pahar, evolved from the Mughal practice of making public announcements (farman) from its summit to the accompaniment of kettle-drums (naubat). Mention has also been made of the Falaknuma and the Jahannuma, as they are now known, which crowned the summits of two hills, dominating a landscape of tanks and gardens.

Scent in the Islamic Garden (HERITAGE) By Ali Akbar Husain Oxford University Press, Karachi ISBN 978-0-19-906278-2 171pp. Rs2,000