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The Networks of Paradise

Jan Haenraets Discusses the History and Preservation of Mughal Gardens

Jan Haenraets, a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in fall 2016, is a landscape architect and preservation specialist. In addition to serving as Head of Gardens and Designed Landscapes of the National Trust for Scotland, he was recently appointed as a professor at the Preservation Studies Program at Boston University. Previously he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT.

Much of Haenraets’s academic research has focused on the Mughal gardens in Kashmir. At Dumbarton Oaks, he has been examining the wider context and significance of the valley-wide network of the gardens, a substructure that, he contends, has largely been ignored in past studies. Haenraet’s research has often abetted his work advising conservation and preservation projects.

Brief Q&A with Jan Haenraets

In your talk you described a “network” that has been lost and forgotten, which goes against traditional conceptions of the Mughal gardens. What are some other common conceptions about the gardens that you’ve encountered in your work?

So, with the idea of the network, I’m basically trying to correct history, because a lot of scholars have strong preconceptions about gardens as single, or singular, things. People think they stand on their own, and though a city might have a lot of gardens, we don’t know how they’re connected to each other. In some cases we might have an idea, but in Kashmir, where a lot of my work is focused, we don’t really know. That’s why I’m fascinated by the bigger picture; there’s almost a need to rewrite the history of the Mughal gardens in the whole subcontinent.

That was the focus of my lecture, but there are of course things I didn’t speak about, like the link to paradise. If we look at any book on Islamic gardens and their tradition, there’s a strong reference to the representation of paradise. Many of these gardens are in desert areas, or very arid dry regions, and so if you have within that region a secluded little island, walled and irrigated, with some green lush vegetation, that becomes a kind of paradise.

In the case of Kashmir, the interesting thing is that when you arrive in the valley, because it’s so fertile, it’s almost as if you’re already in a paradise. Why would you need a garden? So it’s a little ironic with Kashmir.

In the history books, when people write about Islamic gardens, the standard idea is of a rectangular garden with a cross axis—the tomb garden is a typical example—with a design that very much looks inward. You look inward to the central tomb which stands above the rivers, and it’s all very symbolic.

But when you look at Kashmir, this conception doesn’t necessarily apply, because they don’t often strictly implement the charbagh [quadrilateral garden layout] anymore, because of the topography of the region. Instead they start stretching it and working with it, and the garden becomes a platform from which you look outward, into the paradise around you, and the landscape outside.

 

You’re actually involved with the preservation of some Mughal gardens. How has your research into these lost networks affected your preservation work? Has it facilitated it, impeded it?

Well, it has made it more difficult in a sense. I should say, I started working in Kashmir by assisting INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, which has chapters throughout India. I started helping the Kashmir chapter, and they were doing some conservation work for the government, which runs the well-known sites. So they have these walled-off, well-known sites which they can ticket for about ten rupees or so; it’s very accessible to the common man.

The local chapter was focusing on some of these famous sites, employing architects on some of the key structures, and then around that the department of floriculture did its floriculture-flowery thing, which, I should say, is very European and bright, like British planting beds. And so that’s their focus, and when I was asked to assist with some of the famous sites, to give them some ideas about what they should do in the wider garden, they didn’t even realize how big that garden was. They’d asked me to give some input about what should be planted in the garden, and I complicated that, I said, “We can’t just answer that question without understanding more.” So in that sense it makes conservation more complicated, because we don’t have a few gardens, we have so many more, a network.

That’s why I’d like to tell this story in book form, to capture the bigger picture, because I think it needs to be understood and reintroduced into the traditional history and understanding of the Mughal gardens. I think right now a lot of preservationists don’t have the expertise to deal with the network of gardens, and there’s also a fairly corrupt system which allows the demolition of even protected areas. So what will really happen with the gardens? I can’t say. But it’s a typical argument, that if we don’t understand the issue we’ll never be able to solve it.

I hope at some point there will be a certain recognition, that conservation will become less complicated—I mean, if you look at some of the sites I discussed, today, there are local people just growing vegetables there, and they have an orchard on the side. And I think they’re the most charming ones.

Of course there are issues with things falling apart, the building not being maintained, but in some way it’s still a form of low-key preservation, while with the famous sites they’re overdoing it, they’re turning these sites into tourist attractions. They’re developing things, they’re destroying things, they’re polishing these buildings up in a way that they never would have looked, so that history is unreadable. Dereliction, after all, is a very beautiful layer of history, which is interesting to preserve as well. If you’ve had three hundred years of dereliction or slow decline, why would we need to erase that?

It might be wishful thinking, but I would like conservationists to understand the significance of this network of sites and to try to retain that in a simpler way. They shouldn’t feel forced to turn everything into a tourist attraction, or subject it to museumification and beautification with all these flowers and so on. They’re spending so much time implanting little floral arrangements, cutting the lawns and so on—there’s no need, they never would have gotten on like that in the past. It would have been wild flowers or something much simpler. And I guess, in that sense, my research could make conservation a little easier.

 

Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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