The Taj Mahal is one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions, but the alabaster mausoleum on the banks of the Yamuna River isn’t the only wonder of Agra. During the Mughal rule, the bank opposite the newly constructed Taj was full of blooming plants, marble pavilions, and ornate walls that made it a refuge for royalty and nobility, alike.
While the original 44 gardens and structures that once populated the space have mostly eroded, fallen into disrepair or been torn down, Washington Post’s garden columnist Adrian Higgins writes that they still occupy prime real estate in garden lore: “I think this is … because they come the closest to fulfilling the ambitions of all gardeners, to create a version of heaven on Earth,” he writes.
Now, a slice of that beauty is returning. The World Monuments Fund (WMF) and the Archaeological Survey of India have officially opened up two of the most well-known gardens following an extensive four-year restoration process. According to the WMF’s blog, the agencies rescued the Mehtab Bagh (the "Moonlight Garden") and the Garden of the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah.
It was no easy feat. While the original gardens were believed to be irrigated from nearby Yamuna in the 17th century, Annabel Lopez, project coordinator says that option is no longer feasible. “[T]he polluted trickle that we are left with today is more harmful than good,” she points out. The nearby sewer line wasn’t able to provide the site with enough water, either. Finally, engineers designed a solution: a water treatment system that pulls from the site's groundwater to irrigate it, Nancy Kenney at The Art Newspaper reports.
Watering the gardens was one thing, reviving them was a whole other task. The gardens were originally designed in the Charbagh style, meaning they are separated into four equal quadrants with walkways and water features dividing them. But the layout of the gardens was destroyed after many of the gardens were transformed into grass lawns. The agencies worked with students from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design to identify the plant species that once populated the gardens. While it will take some time for the plants and trees reintroduced to the gardens to fully mature, already the fragrant plants like jasmine, oleandoer, and hibiscus as well as cedar and pomegranate trees, are flourishing.
According to a video on the project, noble families built the gardens along a three-mile continuous stretch of riverfront beginning in the reign of Babur, the first Mughal emperor, who ruled the area between 1526 and 1530. Agra remained the capital of the empire until 1648 when it was transferred to Delhi, and in the intervening century noble families expanded the gardens, which were an important place to socialize and conduct business.
“They represent an important moment in Mughal history and present an important opportunity today to invigorate an asset for the community that can provide a welcoming green space, a tourism destination,” Interim CEO of WMF Lisa Ackerman tells Evan Nicole Brown at Atlas Obscura.
After the fall of the Mughal Empire, the gardens went into decline. The British subsequently destroyed many of the pavilions and remaining structures in the 1800s to establish a clear military line of sight of the river. Urban expansion and manufacturing have since turned the once majestic riverbank into a highly polluted no-man’s land.
The opening of the gardens might be a hopeful sign of things to come for Agra, which the World Health Organization lists as one of the world's most polluted cities. Last summer, the Indian Supreme court issued an order to restore the Taj Mahal, t00. Aside from efforts to scrub the Taj itself clean, that plan includes building a new dam to help restore the flow of water to the river, shutting off some of the 52 discharge pipes pouring waste into the water and improving local sewage treatment plants.