Babar conquered Delhi, but his heart lay in Kabul. In this city, nestled in the Hindu Kush, he first gave vent to one of his major pastimes — gardens. “Where the trees blossom, no place in the world can equal it,” he wrote.
Not surprisingly before his death, Babar had expressed the desire “to lie under the open Kabul sky”. He died in India in 1530. His remains, however, were brought to Afghanistan 10 years later and reburied in a simple grave in his favourite terraced garden, full of fruits and flowering trees, extending from a rugged hill down to the banks of the Kabul river.
Since it is believed that Babar had died after taking upon himself a fatal fever afflicting his son Humayun, his austere Islamic grave soon became a place of pilgrimage. Successive Mughal emperors, followed by Afghan kings, erected new structures around the royal grave — a decorated marble lattice enclosure, a pearl-white marble mosque, a caravanserai, and a royal harem known as the Queens’ Palace. Finally, in the 1970s, a Communist mayor added a municipal swimming pool in the middle of the 26-acre garden.
In 1993, not long after the Communists were ousted by the US-backed Mujahedin, the Bagh-e-Babar, as the mausoleum garden has come to be known, was on the frontline in the bloody, relentless fighting between rival Afghan warlords. The garden was devastated, the trees chopped for firewood, and the various structures looted and ruined.
From being the pride of Kabul, the historic garden became a symbol of the city’s ruination.
Although they are orthodox Islamists who disapprove of shrines, the Taliban did no further damage to Babar’s garden after they seized Kabul three years later. In fact, they tried to make it less desolate by planting chinar trees in the garden, however indiscriminately. It was only after the ouster of the Taliban regime in November 2001 that a professional, $5 million project was launched under the auspices of the Agha Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) to restore the garden and its structures.
Symbol of New Kabul
Kabul, however, was aghast when the Babar garden project was initiated barely six months after the Taliban left. The city was in ruins, and a majority of the population lived in abject misery, without proper shelter, food or work. Do the new rulers really want to plant roses when the citizens are demanding bread, people asked.
“There was a lot of scepticism in the beginning,” says Ratish Nanda, the noted conservation architect from Delhi, who is the AKTC consultant for the project. “It was a huge challenge, and we succeeded primarily due to the personal interest of the Aga Khan.”
Five years after the restoration started, the work is almost complete, and the garden has become a symbol of a regenerated Kabul, attracting thousands of visitors. “For a while we thought we had lost everything, but now we feel a bit of history has been recovered,” says a recent visitor, Dari school-teacher Farida Durrani.
Under Nanda’s expert supervision, the Great Mughal’s grave has been lovingly restored, with its original marble plaque proclaiming: ‘Paradise is forever Emperor Babar’s abode’. The grave is enclosed once again within a magnificent lattice screen enclosure, carved by Indian craftsmen using pearl white Makrana marble.
The central cascading marble water channel, so typical of a Mughal garden, has been reconstructed. The pavilion and the exquisite little mosque have been restored, and the swimming pool has been relocated outside the garden’s fortress-like perimeter wall.
And with well-known Delhi landscape architect Mohammed Shaheer as the consultant, the two dozen varieties of trees and plants mentioned in the Baburnama have been planted again, including chinar, arghawan, almond, walnut, apricot, pomegranate, peach, mulberry, black cherry, fig, Russian olive, and the fragrant ‘watani’ Afghan rose.
Work on the Queens’ Palace and the caravanserai (which will be used as a visitors’ centre) is going on, and the entire complex will be formally inaugurated later this year.“For me, the best part of the project has been the involvement of young Afghan architects,” points out Nanda.
Hamid Abdul Hameed enumerates all that he and other young architects learned while working on the project. “First, we learned to speak English,” he says. “Then we learned how to study and document historic structures, how to restore and conserve, how to use material, how to organise work, how to teach masons, and how to revive ancient building techniques such as lime plaster, sun-dried brick arches, and dry-stone construction.”
More than 150 people from the once impoverished neighbourhood have also found employment in the ongoing project.
From being emblematic of all that had gone wrong over the last 25 years, Babar’s rehabilitated garden has become symbolic of the joint Afghan-international effort to reconstruct a war-ravaged land.
Dark clouds loom
The chinar trees are hardly 10-foot high when dark clouds have again begun to form over Afghanistan.
“I was very happy the first four years (after the ouster of the Taliban), but now everyone is uncertain and afraid,” says Hameed. “The resurgence of the Taliban over the last one year, the renewed fighting in the south, and the suicide bombings has certainly got everybody worried,” he adds.Even as the first flush of spring puts a green gloss on the pomegranate trees after an unusually harsh winter, the mood in Babur’s favourite city seems to have turned dark and pessimistic.
“Many people who returned to the country want to leave once again,” says the Dari teacher, Durrani. “Even I would want to leave right now.”
Bagh-e-Babar has, of course, seen it all happen in the past.