Mention the name Shalimar Bagh, and most Indians are likely to immediately think of the beautiful terraced Mughal gardens in Srinagar (Pakistanis would probably think of the Mughal gardens of the same name in Lahore). But ask a resident of Delhi what Shalimar Bagh in Delhi means to them, and the answer is likely to be that it’s a large neighbourhood in West Delhi.
True. But how many people, even those living in the aforementioned Shalimar Bagh, know that the Delhi Development Authority’s ‘district park’ in Shalimar Bagh is actually a 17th century Mughal garden? And not just any old Mughal garden, but one of the few extant examples of a Mughal garden that retains several of its original features? And, as if that wasn’t enough, a garden with a great deal of historic significance—because this is where Aurangzeb was crowned in 1658.
Shalimar Bagh (‘shalimar’ means ‘strong’ or ‘beautiful’) was laid out sometime in the early or mid-1650s, though under whose aegis is not quite clear. Some believe that Shahjahan himself had the gardens laid out; other sources suggest that one of his wives, Akbarabadi Begum, was responsible.
The typical Mughal garden (not the version one usually sees these days, with spreading lawns and the occasional tree) did have flowerbeds and parterres, but it was dominated by trees. Especially fruit trees, which could provide fruit not just for the consumption of the family that owned the garden, but also for sale if in surplus. Descriptions of Mughal gardens from the 17th century mention gardens so thick with trees that their canopies blocked out most of the sunlight and made the garden cool and shady even in the hottest of summers.
Shalimar Bagh is much like that. Even though parts of it have been ‘modernised’ by the addition of dustbins and a children’s play area, there are still large sections devoted to fruit trees, among them ber and guava trees.
At the far end of the garden (where relatively few of the regular visitors go) is the area that would have been occupied by the Mughal imperial family when it came here on short pleasure trips of a couple of days. This section is similar to the terraced gardens of Kashmir or Pinjore: a water channel leads from one terrace to another (in Shalimar Bagh, these have become so shallow over time as to hardly seem like separate levels of ground).
At each level (as in the other gardens mentioned), there are small pavilions, with the topmost pavilion being a large ‘dalaan’, with fluted columns supporting an arched façade with rooms on either side.
Traces of plaster painted with floral motifs can still be seen on the walls here.
Shalimar Bagh, since it lay well away from the Red Fort and Shahjahanabad, was a relatively ‘safe’ place for Aurangzeb to proclaim himself Emperor when he overthrew Shahjahan in 1658. Over the centuries, the garden came under the control of the Marathas (who grew powerful during the later Mughal period) and finally fell into the hands of the British. British Residents in Delhi, such as David Ochterlony and Thomas Metcalfe, made Shalimar Bagh a part of their private estates in Delhi and cluttered the gardens with gazebos and other colonial structures, some of which survive to this day.