Mehtab Bagh – The Moonlit Garden – Agra

Mehtab Bagh – The Moonlit Garden – Agra

There were once eleven Mughal gardens that lined the Yamuna river on the stretch between Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal in Agra, Mehtab Bagh is the last of that chain. The garden was probably in existence long before the Taj Mahal was even conceived of, most scholars are now of the opinion that it was originally developed by Babur (d.1530), Shah Jahan’s great-great-grandfather.

Today people flock to Mehtab Bagh in the late afternoon not to actually see the garden at all, but in order to view something else that lies directly opposite the it across the Yamuna river – the Taj Mahal. It’s the go-to location if you’re keen to capture that late afternoon golden light being cast upon the Taj. Ironically just before you get to the prime photography moment (at sunset or just afterwards), the garden closes and you’re ushered rapidly to the gate.

I was fully aware of all of this prior to visiting Mehtab Bagh, but nonetheless I couldn’t resist paying it a visit and making my own contribution to the millions of identical photographs that have been taken from here. Conditions were not great either, the lack of clouds in the sky made the photographs far less dramatic than I was hoping for. However, I shall post them here so everyone can see what great potential it has as a location for photographing this wonderful and iconic monument, and provide a little detail on the history of this place.

It is well documented that Babur struggled to cope with the hot, dry and dusty climate during the long summers he spent in Agra. Many of the riverside gardens that line the Yamuna river can be attributed to him, and Mehtab Bagh is considered to be another example.

In later years the garden is thought to have come into the possession of Raja Man Singh Kachhawa (1550-1614) of Amer (Rajasthan). It is at this time that Babur’s former garden may have been planted with night-blooming fragrant flowers that gleamed in the moonlight, perhaps a nostalgic throwback to the moonlit gardens of his desert homeland. Raja Man Singh’s association with this area is further solidified by the name of a nearby village, Kachhpura.

By the time the Taj Mahal was being built, Mehtab Bagh was in imperial ownership. It was most likely requisitioned by Shah Jahan at the same time as the land on which the Taj now stands. The garden’s close relationship with the Taj is acknowledged in some early plans where it is shown as part of the overall complex, but in later maps it seems to have been abandoned, in all probability due to flooding. We know from a later report on the condition of the Taj by Aurangzeb to his father in 1652 that the site had already seriously flooded at least once.

 An 18th century bird’s eye view of the Taj Mahal complex with Mehtab Bagh at the top beyond the river Yamuna. Note that some artistic license has been applied, as the course of the river does bend north to the right of the garden to provide such perfect symmetry.

Unlike other Mughal tombs, the Taj Mahal is curiously positioned at the end rather than the middle of a garden. This has led to suggestions that the river behind the mausoleum should be seen as the east-west axis of the gardens, and that another building was planned to be built on the opposite bank with a connecting bridge. This would then have echoed the Mughal tradition of symmetry and placing tombs at the heart of a much larger formal garden.

This theory has extended further, with suggestions that Shah Jahan had plans to build his own replica of the Taj Mahal on the opposite bank out of black marble – the Black Taj. As we will see shortly, this is probably not the case at all.

Due to the earlier neglect, Mehtab Bagh was only excavated in the 1990s. The discipline of Archaeology has dramatically changed over the last 100 years, with modern techniques applied we can now learn a lot more about the contexts that are being excavated, especially in the area of soil sciences.

Although the ground was too wet for pollen to have survived, the charred remains of six plant species were discovered in Mughal contexts (levels), of which only one could have been imported by them. The remainder were of plants that had been cultivated in pre-Mughal times and thought to be well adapted for use in gardens used at night.

The garden today has unfortunately been replanted without much consultation with researchers, so it’s a far cry from how it would have appeared in the past. The ASI moved quickly to develop the area as a green belt providing a buffer zone surrounding the Taj Mahal, and fast growing shrubs were planted to help stabilize the area. Care was however taken to ensure the planting was not too dense, which would have obscured views of the Taj. Plans to restore Mehtab Bagh back to a semi-authentic Mughal garden are in progress following further studies.

The structural remains unearthed from the excavations in the 1990s were not monumental, but very interesting nonetheless. 90,000 cubic meters of earth were excavated in the seventeen hectare site to level the ground, and as the sand was removed the broad outlines of the original garden, which followed the pattern of other riverside gardens, was revealed. Today you can see some of the original decorative features which have been consolidated but not reconstructed. It’s as if the archaeologists have packed away their mattocks, trowels and brushes and departed just a few hours earlier.

A wall ran along the riverfront with octagonal towers at each end. In the center of this stretch of wall was an octagonal terrace containing a large octagonal pool with twenty-four fountains. Behind this was a pavilion, and a lower pool which water cascaded in to. Below the terrace areas was a rectangular garden divided into quadrants with a pool at the center.

At the north end of the garden was a gate, with pavilions on each of the other sides in order to maintain symmetry. In the south-west corner of the site traces of a complex irrigation system were also discovered. Interestingly the central octagonal pool would have perfectly reflected an image of the Taj Mahal if viewed from the adjacent pavilion, which further contributes to the theory that this garden was used at night.

Whilst the myth of Shah Jahan planning to build a replica of the Taj Mahal in black marble is a seductive story, the extensive excavations at Mehtab Bagh were unable to uncover a shed of evidence of even the foundations of such a structure. It seems highly likely that early reports by travelers of building work happening on the opposite side of the Yamuna river to the Taj were merely observing workman constructing these water channels and garden pavilions.

Mehtab Bagh is the ideal place to visit in the late afternoon to capture those textbook shots of the Taj Mahal towards sunset. The added bonus is that it never seems to get too crowded, with a long stretch of river frontage providing ample room for everyone to capture those iconic memories.

I was more than happy to make my own personal contribution to the millions of photographs that have already been taken from Mehtab Bagh, and it probably won’t be the last time either.


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