The most common form of the Mughal garden is the ‘charbagh’, so named because it consisted of a four-sided garden, with two streams of water running perpendicular to each other. Supposedly a representation of Paradise, this garden concept was originally Persian and made its way to India with Babar, when he began to rule in Agra.
Charbaghs took different forms. For example, some (like the gardens at Humayun’s Tomb or the Taj Mahal) became the settings for mausoleums.
Others, like the Mughal gardens in Srinagar (especially Shalimar and Nishat), the Pinjore Gardens, or the Shalimar Bagh in Delhi, were designed to function as pleasure resorts for the royal family or nobility. Laying out gardens was also a form of philanthropy, since the more public gardens provided pleasant retreats for the populace.
Charbaghs laid out by the royal family or the wealthiest aristocrats were often vast gardens, with successive terraces on which pavilions or decorative platforms were built.
There would be fountains in the water channels, and chutes known as ‘chaadars’. A chute is a sloping slab of stone, carved into ripples: water flowing down this would form pretty sheets.
Often, instead of a chute, there would be a sheer drop from one terrace to another; in this case, the wall behind the miniature waterfall would be carved into ornate niches. At the Hayat Baksh Bagh in Delhi’s Lal Qila (known in Mughal times as the Qila Mubarak), the niches in the pavilions would be filled with vases of flowers during the day, and with lit lamps during the night, adding to the beauty of the water flowing in front.
Contrary to what most Mughal gardens today appear to be, the original Mughal garden did not consist of large expanses of lawns. Instead, it was typically crowded with trees (the Hayat Baksh Bagh is said to have had an overhead canopy so thick it almost blotted out the sun during the day).
Most of the trees in gardens (with exceptions like the cypress in garden tombs, or the chinar in Kashmir) were fruit trees. The fruit would, of course, be consumed by the family of whoever had laid out the garden; more importantly, it was harvested and sold. Other ‘cash crops’ were also often grown in gardens—for instance, pandanus (‘kewra’) and musk mallow (a relative of okra or ‘bhindi’; it has a fragrance similar to that of musk but was much cheaper, naturally). The Shalimar Bagh in Delhi is one of the gardens where fruit trees (such as ‘ber’ and guava) still grow; similarly, sapodillas (‘chikoos’) are cultivated at the Pinjore gardens.