This is a story about gardens at the Taj Mahal, and the man who made them uniquely British. This photograph taken in 1874 shows something you don’t see in contemporary pictures. Very tall trees.
The Taj Mahal wasn’t just a mausoleum for Mumtaz Mahal. It was a Mausoleum and Gardens, equally important parts of a whole. Designers laid out Charbagh Gardens, a style that envisioned the gardens of Paradise. Such gardens were filled with fragrant flowers, voluptuous fruits and exotic birds. There were four rivers: one of water; one of milk; one of honey, and one of wine.
Gardens at the Taj Mahal covered an area 984 feet by 984 feet. Each smaller garden within the Charbagh was divided into sixteen flowerbeds for a total of sixty-four beds. The garden held four hundred plants. These included Cyprus trees symbolizing death and fruit trees representing life. Favored Mughal fruit trees were mango, lemon, and pomegranate. Sweet smelling hibiscus and jasmine plants perfumed the air.
As the foliage grew, it masked the monument, which revealed itself slowly to visitors.
As time passed, both the monument and the gardens fell into disarray. The approach, as described by Lord Curzon, was one of “dusty wastes and squalid bazaars.”
The first British effort to restore the Taj Mahal was undertaken by Lord Minto, Governor General (1807-1813). He raised funds by selling the garden’s produce and later attached the revenue from villages attached to the Taj Mahal. But any gains were short-lived.
In the late nineteenth century, British visitors enjoyed picnicking on the grounds. When lunch was finished, they sauntered over to the monument with the chisels and dug out the precious stones and minerals that still remained. The mosque flanking the Taj Mahal and a guesthouse were rented out as honeymoon cottages. Fashionable society attended balls with music by a military band arranged on the platform.
Such pastimes stopped when Lord Curzon became Viceroy of India. Curzon was said to be an arrogant man. A parody of his days at Oxford depicted the young scion introducing himself: “My name is George Nathaniel Curzon, I am a most superior person.”
Nevertheless, Lord Curzon cared deeply about Indian monumental architecture, particularly the Taj Mahal which he visited annually. He believed the massive buildings testified to India’s ancient status and the British role as their guardian and preserver. In short, Curzon was on a civilizing mission. He was the first restorer to look at the gardens, and he was horrified.
Lord Curzon ordered the trees removed. In common with most British in India, he believed gardens should be flat and formal, paving the way to the monument. Gardens provided vistas, not texture. The flowers had to go too. Simple grass accented the waterways.
At the dedication of the restored Taj Mahal in 1909 Lord Curzon waxed poetic on his accomplishment. There was now a beautiful park, “and the group of mosques and tombs, the arcaded streets and grassy courts that precede the main building are once more as nearly as possible what they were when completed by the masons of Shah Jehan.” Lord Curzon might be forgiven if he thought the gardens even better than those of the Shah Jehan.
Lord Curzon personally funded parts of the Restoration. “Since I came to India we have spent upon repairs at Agra alone of sum of £40,000. Every rupee has been an offering of reverence to the past and a gift of recovered beauty of the future.”
In particular, Lord Curzon personally donated two chandeliers. When the Jats of Bharatapur invaded Agra in the eighteenth century, they took two chandeliers, one silver and one agate, from above the royal cenotaphs. Lord Curzon took it upon himself to procure replacements.
On his way home, Lord Curzon stopped in Cairo to procure a properly Saracenic lamp to hang in the tomb chamber. The bronze lamp, modeled after one that once hung from Sultan Baibars II’s mosque, is inlaid with gold and silver. Inscribed in a script that matched that of the original calligraphers, the engraving proclaims “Presented to the Tomb of Mumtaz Mahal by Lord Curzon, Viceroy 1906.”
The second chandelier, weighing one hundred thirty-two pounds, was placed in the Royal Gate, the entrance through which tourists pass into the grounds. Last August, the chandelier fell. No one was injured.
Featured Image: Photo of Taj Mahal taken by Francis Frith in 1874. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.
Francis Frith (1822-1898) was a successful commercial photographer who noted that armchair travelers would purchase photographs taken away from the European tourist routes.
BBC. Taj Mahal Chandelier Crash Investigation Ordered. Aug 22, 2015. Here.
“Garden’s in Agra’s Taj Mahal still feel British.”Economic Times. Here.
“When Taj was Green.” The Pioneer. May 26, 2013. Here.
Eugenia W. Herbert. Flora’s Empire: British Gardens in India. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2011.
Annabel Lopez. “Taj Mahal’s history of repair and restoration.” July 3, 2007. Here.
Rajaram Panda. Taj Mahal. New Delhi: Mittal Publication. N.D.
Sandra Wagner-Wright is the author of Two Coins: A Biographical Novel and Rama's Labyrinth. Both books are available in digital and print editions at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and Kobo. Rama’s Labyrinth and Two Coins are available as audiobooks.
Sandra blogs weekly about topics related to her travels, writing life, and the incongruities of life in general.