Green spaces of Delhi: A journey from past to present


Delhi, a union territory and the capital of India, has been the capital of numerous rulers over centuries. Every northern kingdom chose Delhi as its capital city. From Indraprastha and Hastinapur during the Mahabharat to Qila Rai Pithora, Tughlakabad, Feroz Shah Kotla, Shahjahanabad - all were magnificent cities from which the rulers administered their kingdom. Shahjahanabad was possibly the foremost perfect city, as assumed in the phraseology of contemporary city planning. To some extent, Lutyens’ New Delhi made a continuity with Shahjahanabad. Delhi has a geo-strategic location on the map of India. The landlocked city is bordered by Haryana on three sides and Uttar Pradesh on its east. It has close proximity to the Himalayas in the north and the Thar desert in the west. It has rich soil along the Yamuna flood plains. The Delhi Ridge is an extension of the Aravalli Range, that extends in the west, northwest and northeast parts of the city. Delhi is characterised by a humid sub-tropical climate and hot semi-arid climate. The extreme temperatures vary between 45°C in summers to as low as 2°C in winters. Delhi receives heavy monsoon rainfall during July- August as the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal branches of moisture-laden winds collide and meet above the Northern plains.

The early period

The Purana Qila, one of the oldest forts in the city, is generally assumed to be the place of the prehistoric city of Indraprastha as mentioned in the Mahabharata. It is mentioned that before the construction of Indraprastha city, the land was covered with dense vegetation and known as the forest of Khandwaprastha. Lord Indra asked the consecrated planner Vishwakarma to construct a city after cutting the forest. Although the new city is referred to as a shining example of magnificence, it also destroyed the beautiful life of Khandwaprastha. The city has since then added many pages on destroying and planting of green spaces. Indraprastha was also recognised as Indapatta, Indarattha, etc., and is cited as a town in the Jatakas (stories about the early life of Gautama Buddha, according to Buddhist literature). Some stories in the Jataka mention royal gardens in the city. Indraprastha continued as a district (pratigana) in an inscription dated AD 1328, and as a village, Indarpat, which existed inside the Purana Qila until recently.

Mughal green spaces

The history of Delhi has many chapters on planned development of green spaces too. The city experiences a hot-and-humid climate for a large part of the year. The Muslim invaders, who came from either cold mountainous regions or hot-and-dry deserts, found Delhi’s climate rather unfavourable as they settled down. This significantly influenced the construction of buildings that they built in the country. When Babar arrived in India, he was unhappy to see that there were no gardens. The square of Madrese Mader-e Shah at Isfahan is full of gardens and springs. The Mughal aristocracy felt the absence of a rejuvenating environment in a culturally different country; therefore, they contributed significantly to the history of green spaces of North India.

The history of Mughal green spaces of Delhi begins with the construction of Shahjahanabad (now known as Old Delhi) by Emperor Shah Jahan. He shifted his capital from Agra to Delhi in a period of 10 years, from 1638 to 1648. According to Dutt (1983), the main structure of the Shahjahanabad City consisted of four parts:

(i) The Red Fort complex was used for the habitation of the king, his wives and mistress. It was also used as his court. The complex included widespread lawns and inland waterways with fountains. River Yamuna was flowing at the eastern side of the fort. The river and the widespread barren area between the city and the river gave this complex a natural protection against an attack by outsiders.

The Mughal city Shahjahanabad was constructed between 1639 and 1648. The main palace of the city was perceived as a garden. The scheme of the fortress palace, now known as the Red Fort, is based on the great Muthammanbaghdadi. It has a rectangle shape with chamfered corners. The porches and halls for the king and zanana position on a balcony (kursi) strung through a canal, which flowed along the riverbank. In the anterior of every Iram-like porch (nashi- man) was a garden of seamless freshness and pleasantness, and in this way, the whole ground from one end to another looked like a paradise. In the planning of each specific complex, the principle of a waterfront garden was applied. This scheme was used for the whole riverfront.

The main canal of the palace of Shahjahanabad, the Nahr-iBihisht, flowed as the water of life through the band formed by the riverfront terraces and connected to all riverfront buildings. Its outlets provided water to the individual gardens. At the same time, the riverfront terrace provided the terrace component (kursi) for each garden unit (baghcha). The historians of Shah Jahan named the four riverfront gardens. The Bagh-i Hayat Bakhsh was the northern-most. In the centre was the Imtiyaz or Rang Mahal, the main zanana building with its small garden described as baghcha-i-dawatkhana. Then came the pavilion of Jahanara (Nashiman-iBegam Sahib) with its baghcha, which had an octagonal hawi in its centre. At the southern end of the riverfront ‘was the baghcha between the Nashiman-iBegam Sahib and the southern tower (burj)’. There is ‘another garden (bagh) full of fruit trees’ immediately to the west of the Hayat Bakhsh (later called Mahtabi Garden). It had a building of red stone called Lai Mahal in the centre, which shows that the centrally planned garden continued to be used in the interior of the palace. There was a small garden to its north and another garden (bustan) called Bagh-I- Angur (Grape Garden), covering the area to the north of this garden group. Thus, the gardens considered worth mentioning in the official description of the palace covered a great part of its area. According to the earliest preserved maps dating the 18th and 19th centuries, there were several more gardens, particularly in the zanana quarters, which Shah Jahan’s historians do not mention. The largest and most outstanding of the palace gardens was the Bagh-i Hayat Bakhsh, which occupied the northeast corner of the palace complex. It was of gigantic size for a Mughal palace garden and represented a great innovation, not in its form but in how its formal aspects were used to express the symbolic position of the garden in the palace. The garden was not fully preserved. Today, only the two eastern garden quadrants survive. Originally, there were three buildings on the terrace, a larger structure in the middle flanked by pavilions with ban- gla roofs. This implies that the garden was modelled on the zanana gardens of Agra and Lahore. Only one structure remains today of the characteristic tripartite riverfront group, namely the northern bangla built adjoining the Shah Burj. The structure and its lost companion piece are not readily recognisable as the characteristic bangla component of the group, because they were planned on a larger scale and arranged differently than their forerunners in Agra and Lahore, with their longer sides towards the central pavilion and their shorter sides towards the river. The surviving northern bangla was also brought so close to the Shah Burj that it was no longer a free-standing pavilion but actually becoming a vestibule for the tower. In its new context, the bangla pavilion retained the characteristic configuration of an open hall with a curved roof, flanked by two hujras (small closed rooms), to which was added a portico with large baluster columns and another bangla vault inside (represented on the facade by a curved-up cornice). Therefore, the pavilion had two parallel bangla vaults inside. The roof group on the outside preserved the main elements of the original bangla pavilion, that is, the single upturned oblong roof, flanked by two pyramidal roofs with curved profiles. In this case, these roof elements were more loosely grouped (Ebba Koch Muqarnas, 1997: 143-165).

  • (ii) Opposite to the Red Fort was the Jama Masjid, built by using pink sandstone and marbles, for the Friday prayers of the aristocracies and common citizens. A large green area separated it from the Fort.
  • (iii) A huge boundary wall, built of granite and other stones, had within it a military base for the defence of the city. It was cut at various locations by gates, ways from which led to the various portions of the city. The city was surrounded by extensive greens on all sides, which had a beneficial effect on its environment and also provided spaces for cultural and recreational activities of the citizens.
  • (iv) Chandni Chowk, the main street, is a broad lane which goes west to east for about one mile. It was planned to be used not only for normal movement of the inhabitants but also for demonstrations and marches. It also had an artificially built canal with fountains, which was not much deep. Shoppers and other pedestrians never faced the problem of heat and cold because of the covered shopping colonnades on both sides of the street (Nath, 1993).

Historical accounts indicate that Delhi had a dense green cover during that time. The opulent green was visible in gardens for which the city was famous. These included Roshanara Garden (situated near the fringes of Shahjahanabad), the Tal Katora gardens adjacent to the village Rakabganj and near the Southern Ridge. These were planned and planted between 1650 and 1710. These large gardens also included an Alshikarghar (hunting lodge) for Nasir-ud-Din Muhammad Shah (r. 1719—1748). Most of these green spaces developed a semi-circle, starting from the Yamuna in the north of Shahjahanabad to the southwest on the Southern Ridge

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