Scent in an Islamic Garden

‘Scent is the food of the soul, and the soul is the vehicle of the faculties of man.’ –Hadith attributed to the Prophet of Islam

One has heard of literary history, social history, to some extent even economic history culled from literary sources but seldom a horticultural study based on literary texts. Ali Akbar Husain, an architect and a teacher of architectural studies undertakes this novel venture. The result is a delightful pot pourrie of disciplines: history, architecture, landscaping, poetry, horticulture and, given the context, Islam. Scent in an Islamic Garden: A Study of Literary Sources in Persian and Urdu is a remarkable book for another reason, too. It focuses scholarly attention on a largely neglected part of Islamic India: the Deccan.

Scent in an Islamic Garden

William Dalrymple, writing the Introduction to the book, rightly notes:

‘By any standard, anywhere in the world, the Deccani civilisation that reached its most remarkable flowering in sixteenth century Hyderabad was rich and remarkable. Yet it remains astonishingly little studied. So dominant are the Mughals in the historical memory of India, that the different Deccani sultanates have been almost completely forgotten outside a small group of specialists and scholars. Almost all visitors to India visit the Taj Mahal and learn about Shah Jahan, but few visit Bijapur, Bidar, or even Golconda, and fewer still read of the no less remarkable doings of Adil Shahi and Qutb Shahi sultans.’

In setting out to correct an old wrong, Ali Akbar Husain not merely brings to life the architecture, culture and contribution of the Deccani sultans but also places before us the significance of the garden in the current of Islamic thought. An earthly analogue for the life in paradise that awaits the Momin, the garden is a recurring image in the Holy Quran. The Paradisal Garden, the promised abode of the true believer, known by different names such as Iram, Firdaus, Jannah, is none other than the primordial garden that Man lost through sin but whose image is recoverable from the anima mundi. Descriptions of fair maidens, immortal youths, gushing fountains of cool waters, trees laden with fruit, gentle hills beneath which rivers flow – evoke not only images of plenitude and freedom from want but also of shade and rest and reward.

Over time, these images acquired near-mythic proportions and found reflection in different art forms in different parts of the Islamic world. The gated gardens of Cordova and Moorish Spain, the funerary gardens centred round a tomb or mausoleum of the Mughals, the classic formalism of the chaar bagh (the four waterways representing milk, honey, wine and water) and the intricately-worked pavilions and fountains of Andalusia – each has sought to replicate an imagined space, each has introduced local elements be it in the choice of plants or the demands of topography and landscaping.

In the crucible of the Deccan, we find a strange experiment taking place. An intermingling of Hindu elements with Islamic motifs, an admixture of Hindu art with Islamic architecture, an overlay of a Persian mizaj over an intrinsically Indian design sensibility combined to create an exuberant Indo-Islamic atelier. The forts, tombs, palaces and pavilions dotted across Hyderabad, Golconda, Bijapur, Bidar, etc. bear ample testimony to this synergistic flowering. And the gardens surrounding this built heritage were splendid examples of private and public spaces. Since most of these gardens have disappeared in the maw of urbanisation, what remains are references to them in Persian and Urdu literary sources. Husain’s perusal of Deccani masnawis to extract nuggets of information is, therefore, a singular contribution.

The choice of plants, trees, shrubs and herbiage – both indigenous and naturalised – as also the medicinal and aromatic properties of each are spelt out in detail. Flowering trees like kesu, amaltas, kadamb, nagkesar; fruit-bearing ones such as jamun, mango, amla, banana, kathal, shahtoot as well as pomegranate, citron, orange, lime, shaddock, fig, grape, phalsa; scented flowers such as rose, tuberose, chandni, mogra, chameli vie for space in these scented Islamic gardens of the Deccan with medicinal plants such as kafur, sandal, firanjmushk, etc. Two major seventeenth-century Deccani masnawis, Mulla Nasrati’s Gulshan-e-Ishq and Abdul Dehalvi’s Ibrahim Nama, further the analogy between the garden and the world. The fragrance from these scented gardens lingers in lines such as these:

Nazr ke rang dene kun har yek gul rang ka kasa
Muatr mann ke karne kun kali har huqqa parmal ka
(To brighten the eye, each (flower) was a cup colourful
To perfume the heart, each bud was a box of parmal fragrance)

Also read:
1. Ebba Koch, The Complete Taj Mahal and the Riverfront Gardens of Agra, London: Thames and Hudson 2006.
2. D. F. Ruggles, Islamic Gardens and Landscapes, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007
3. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, London: Heinemann

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This review first appeared in The Herald, Karachi, July 2012. Jalil blogs at http://hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com

About Rakhshanda Jalil

Rakhshanda Jalil is the media and cultural coordinator at Jamia Millia Islamia. Her latest book is 'Invisible City: Hidden Monuments'.
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