People & Society

Shalimar Gardens Lahore: A lost paradise

Published 09 Apr, 2017 01:50am
Shalimar Gardens, Lahore | Photo by Murtaza Ali, White Star
Shalimar Gardens, Lahore | Photo by Murtaza Ali, White Star

Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, a classical example of Mughal culture at its peak, was constructed during the reign of the fifth Mughal emperor Shahjehan. As opposed to its exclusive use by members of the royal family in the 17th century, for the last 150 years this garden has been used by commoners and remains a favourite garden of the locals.

There are no plans available that show the plantation pattern of the 17th-century Mughal gardens but court historians say trees and flowers were planted in Shalimar Gardens on August 31,1641. These included cypresses, chenars, flowers, bushes, fragrant herbs and fruit trees. It appears that the theme of planting trees, shrubs and flowers was considered a part of the oral tradition of the subcontinent of which music is also a part. This may be why court historians are silent on this account. But other records suggest that the Mughal landscape was symbolic. Cypress and flowering fruit trees were generally planted along the main axis of the gardens.

For Mughals, cypress trees represented eternity. Flowering fruit trees such as oranges, lemons, and plums represented renewal — a symbol of youth and life. In this way, the cycle of life was portrayed in the garden. However sometimes climate, soil condition, natural disasters, human vandalism and wars may change the appearance of historic gardens within no time.

In 1761, after a battle was fought between Moinul Mulk, a local ruler of Punjab, and Ahmad Shah, an Afghan invader, this symbolism was lost at Shalimar Gardens. The destruction of landscape was described by Ganda Singh: “The neighbourhood of Lahore was then full of beautiful garden and orchards, reminding them of old grandeur of the capital but they were all cut down for the purpose of entrenchments … and green gardens were converted into dry and dusty lands, studded with trenches all over.”

The British conquered Punjab in 1849. The first curator of ancient monuments appointed by the British was Captain H H Cole. In a report written in 1883–1884, he informs: “The ground of [Shalimar Garden] although Government property are at present let out on lease for the cultivation of fruit, the consequence being that the upper and lower plots are too thickly planted and cared without regard to arboriculture.”

Photo by Murtaza Ali, White Star
Photo by Murtaza Ali, White Star

In 1922, a hundred trees from the garden’s lowest terrace were removed. About the same time, a rose garden was introduced in the middle terrace. Varieties of roses were imported from England and were planted after removing mango trees. Trees introduced in Shalimar Gardens in the 19th century were removed from time to time, but the major chunk was removed in 2006 by the PHA (Parks and Horticulture Authority) on the instructions of the Punjab archaeology department. The rose garden, introduced during the early half of the 20th century, was also cleared in the same year and ordinary grass was planted in the squares.

Historical gardens evolve over time, and later-period interventions are generally considered an important aspect in their overall development. But what if these later-period interventions destroy the aesthetic unity of the garden, like in the case of Shalimar Gardens, where the original landscape remained until 1761 and has since been followed by haphazard plantation?

Article 15 of the Florence Charter, adopted by the International Committee for Historic Gardens in 1982, states: “No restoration work and above all, no reconstruction work on an historic garden shall be undertaken without thorough prior research to ensure that such work is scientifically executed and which will involve everything from excavation to the assembling of records relating to the garden in question and to similar gardens. Before any practical work starts, a project must be prepared on the basis of said research and must be submitted to a group of experts for joint examination and approval.” In the case of Shalimar Gardens, which was given World Heritage status on October 30, 1981, this charter has been disregarded altogether.

It is important to conserve and restore this unique garden in its true form, respecting landscape and architecture according to the intention or the concept of the builder. But due to recent conservation attempts, the authenticity of the garden has been lost. Severe damage has already been done through thoughtless restoration, which focuses on rebuilding parts of the garden with new materials using modern designs, instead of conserving the original structure by keeping the interference to a minimum and using materials that match well with the original structure.

On December 3, 2011, an official steering committee (for the conservation of Shalimar Gardens) comprising eminent technocrats and citizens of Lahore met for the approval of work plans for 2011–2012. The outcome of the meeting is not known as the minutes have not been circulated so far. Looking at the past performance of the steering committee, however, there is not much hope. It is very likely that the policy of making a brand new Shalimar Gardens will continue.

This article was originally published in the Herald's January 2012 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a co-author of an award winning book titled, 'Shalimar Gardens Lahore - Landscape Form and Meaning'.