India is best known for its historic Mughal gardens, the most famous of which is the Taj Mahal garden. Some significant original Mughal gardens have been preserved and are fascinating places to visit for their exquisite beauty. The best examples are found in northern India, including Delhi, Agra, and Kashmir Valley. In north-western India, Maharajahs created garden throughout Rajasthan, their lushness contrasting with their desert surroundings, typical of the Persian paradise garden style.
Gardens to see and visit in India include those surrounding palaces, tombs and temples, the quirky rock garden of Chandigarh, and then many pleasant public parks. Indians have a great reverence for mature trees, and you can see many fine specimens throughout India's busy cities.
Garden Travel Guide to India
Getting to India and getting around while you’re there
Arriving from overseas by plane to New Delhi or Mumbai is usually the starting point for touring north and north-western India. After that, traveling by train is a good option for experienced and physically mobile travelers. Others will find a car and driver an easier, comfortable and quite affordable alternative, especially for groups of two to four. A car and driver is also a good option for areas the train system doesn’t extend to.
India is a large country and distances traveled can be long and arduous. It requires stamina and patience but the rewards are well worth it. Beware that travelling times can be much, much slower than the distance on the map suggests and visitors used to European or American average travelling speeds on roads or rail will have to adjust their plans for this.
A combination of plane, train, and car might sometimes be the answer to getting where you want to go.
While rail is extensive in India it does not yet reach the northern states of Kashmir and Jammu. There are some air connections or coach travel form Udhampur near Chandigarh.
There are over 20 official languages, but Hindi is the most widely spoken in the northern areas. English is classified as an official language, and is widely spoken and used for signage, particularly at tourist destinations.
Although the Tropic of Cancer passes through the middle of India, nearly the whole country is considered to be tropical. This happens because of two influential geographic features in the north. The Himalayan Mountains in the north are a barrier to the cold winds from the centre of Asian continent and keep India warmer than it would normally expect at this latitude and the Thar Desert in the northwest is important in creating the on shore winds which bring monsoon rains from the south west which provide much of India’s rainfall.
Rainfall in most areas south of the Himalayas is monsoon driven and will start in May and usually finish around September or a little later in the north. Unusually the four official seasons in India have summer (April to June) immediately following winter (January to March). The rest of the year is monsoon season and post-monsoon season
Geographers name 7 different climatic regions but it can be simplified to four. They are:
The tropical wet and tropical savanna – These have similar temperatures but the savannah has a pronounced dry season. The savannah (or tropical wet-dry as it is now properly known) covers much of the southern half of India from the west coast to the Ganges delta. Typical winter daily temperatures range from about 14C to 25C in January but only three months later the range is likely to be 25C to 35C. In the more southerly areas daytime temperatures have been known to reach 50C. The western coastal fringe known as the Malabar Coast is tropical wet. It has similar temperatures but will have up to 4 times the annual rainfall, virtually all still falling in the monsoon season.
The north western areas are a mainly arid and semi-arid climate. This covers an area from Punjab in the north to Rajasthan and includes the much drier Thar desert in the west bordering Pakistan. There is also an area of tropical dry climate in the centre of the country south of the Tropic of Cancer. This is caused by the Western Ghats mountain chain shielding the area from the rain of the monsoon.
The semi-arid areas are hotter in summer than the savannah to the east and south but colder in winter. Jaipur in eastern Rajasthan has a summer daily range of about 27 to 40 and a winter daily range of about 8 to 23. Being semi-arid it has even less rainfall than the savannah areas with about 600mm a year. At the edge of the Thar desert, Jaisalmer receives has about 200mm a year.
Subtropical humid – Most of northeast India and much of north India are called subtropical humid climate. It means hot summers but cold (for India) and very dry winters. The summers bring the monsoons and sometimes tropical cyclones. In the far north the climate is driven by the Himalayas and can range from nearly tropical to tundra above the snow line. The northern slopes in the shade can have very different temperatures to the sunny southern slopes. Even the summer temperatures rarely reach 20C and night time is cool. Winter is of course cold with snow at higher altitudes.
Rainfall in this area is also very variable because of big local altitude changes. In the far north in an area called the trans-Himalayan belt, there is an arid, desolate and cold wasteland.
India’s Garden Styles
Typical Mughal gardens in India are tomb gardens styled on the Persian charbagh layout of four quadrants separated by paths or canals. They have a rectilinear structure and feature pools, fountains, canals, and walls. The tomb is not normally central in the garden, but located towards the north; the Taj Mahal garden is a perfect example.
In Kashmir, however, Mughal gardens were built for pleasure. These were influenced by the mountainous natural landscape that lead to terracing of the slopes as seen at Nishat Bagh, and the Mughal rulers’ appreciation of plants and flowers.
Best time to visit India’s gardens
Because of the heat of summer, and the humidity and rain of the monsoon, the most comfortable touring season is usually from October the December in most of the country. Although crowds will often be higher, the relief from the extremes of climate see most tourists travelling in this time. In the far north Himalayan areas travel in the winter is often not advised. Here travel is usually more comfortable in the summer months of March to June.
India Topography and Natural Vegetation
The topography, vegetation and climate are all related and the vegetation follows the same distribution as climate with the areas of extremes in climate also home to the most different vegetation types. In the north this is driven largely by the presence of the Himalayas and the Thar desert and in the south west by the Western Ghats range and the coastal strip between this range and the south western coast which is exposed to the monsoon.
It is natural that on a peninsular home to over a billion people there will have been a significant change to the natural vegetation for cropping, herding and urban development but there are still tracts of the original forests in most areas. The original vegetation over much of India was a tropical deciduous forest which loses leaves for a short period during summer. These were of either a dry deciduous or a moist deciduous type.
Outside the tropical deciduous forest in more extreme climate areas there are three other main vegetation types. In the far west around the Thar desert the natural vegetation is sparse dry desert. Trees are stunted and sparse and include cactus, reunjha and khejra.
The far north Kashmir and Himalayan areas are alpine. These regions are above 3600m and have smaller trees like silver fir, juniper birch in alpine grasslands. At higher altitude there is even tundra and cold desert.
Along the south west coast in Kerala State and in some Himalayan valleys of north east India there are still large tracts of tropical moist evergreen rainforest. These forests include ebony, mahogany and rosewood and trees can be 60m high.
Gardens and parks to see and visit in India that are regularly open with admission charge
Gardens to see and visit north of Delhi: Kashmir and Chandigargh
Nishat Bagh, near Srinigar, Kashmir. Known as the ‘Garden of Joy’ translated from Urdu, this Mughal beauty lies on the shore of Lake Dal at the bottom of the mountains between Srinigar and Shalimar. The sloping terrain lent itself to the construction of 12 steep terraces, with a wide central canal that runs the length of the garden, cascading towards the lake. Its features are more dramatic than most other Mughal gardens which tend to be subtle by comparison.
Shalimar Bagh, Srinigar, Kashmir. Shalimar Bagh is the largest of the Mughal gardens in Kashmir and, like Nishat Bagh, is also on the bank of Lake Dal. Built by Emperor Jahangir for his Queen, it was extended during Shah Jahan’s reign and was so loved by him and his wife Nur Jahan that they made it their imperial summer residence. The rectangular layout has a central axis channel that runs through three terraces, flowing towards the lake.
Rock Garden, Chandigargh. Also known as Nek Chand’s Rock after its creator, this is a unique sculpture garden made from home and industrial recycled items. Nek Chand began the garden in 1957, secretly collecting materials and taking them to a forest gorge near Sukhna Lake. At the time it was illegal to use the land, but he kept it a secret for 18 years. By that time the garden had become a series of courtyards nestled amonst the trees, filled with hundreds of sculptural dancers, musicians and animals. With the help of public opinion it was inaugurated as a public space in 1976.
Gardens to see and visit in Delhi: Old and New
Humayun’s Tomb Garden, New Delhi. Humayun’s Tomb garden is a UNESCO World Heritage Site by Yamuna River in New Delhi. The tomb, of red sandstone and white marble, sits in the centre of the 30 acre garden which is laid out in four quadrants divided by paved footpaths and two bisecting water channels. Each square is further divided by walkways and water channels to form 36 squares, a design that later became typical in Mughal gardens. The garden is enclosed by walls on three sides, with the fourth originally being bordered by the river which has since shifted course.
Restoration work was completed in 2003, with lawns replanted, the watercourse system overhauled to create free flowing channels and fountains, and extensive planting of neem, mango, lemon, jasmine and hibiscus.
Red Fort, Old Delhi. Constructed by Shah Jahan in 1648, The Red Fort (or Shajahanabad) was the residence of the Mughal Emperor of India for almost 200 years. Built of red sandstone the fortified walls enclose palace buldings of white marble.
Styled on a paradise garden there are courts with colonnades, arcades, gateways and various pavillions, those for the emperor situated on terraces along a canal by the former river bank where there were individual gardens with their own names. The Bagh-e Hayar Bakhsh was the largest of these gardens, with a waterfront terrace and water channels. Much of it survives, but the site generally is neglected and the watercourses not operational.
Mughal Garden at Rashtrapati Bhawan (President’s House), Delhi. This was formerly the Viceroy’s House designed by Edwin Lutyens. It is the most extensive and most significant twentieth century interpretation of a traditional Mughal garden. The ornament was inspired by India but the design also has an echo of an English Arts and Crafts garden.
Garden of the Five Senses – a flower extravaganza in Saidul Ajaib village on the south side of Delhi, with formal gardens, food court and a flower show each February. Winding paths, mature trees, ponds.
Gardens to see and visit in Uttar Pradesh: Agra and nearby
Taj Mahal Garden, Agra. Sir Banister Fletcher put it well in his History of Architecture: ‘The Mausoleum of the Taj Mahal at Agra stands in a formally laid-out walled garden entered through a pavilion on the main axis. The tomb, raised on a terrace and first seen reflected in the central canal, is entirely sheathed in marble, but the mosque and counter-mosque on the transverse axis are built in red sandstone. The four minarets, set symmetrically about the tomb, are scaled down to heighten the effect of the dominant, slightly bulbous dome. The mosques, built only to balance the composition are set sufficiently far away to do no more than frame the mausoleum. In essence, the whole riverside platform is a mosque courtyard with a tomb at its centre. The great entrance gate with its domed central chamber, set at the end of the long watercourse, would in any other setting be monumental in its own right.’ It is the most perfect chahar bagh plan in existence. Edward Lear wrote: This perfect and most lovely building infinitely surpassed all I had expected, principally on account of its size, and its colour. It is quite impossible to imagine a more beautiful or wonderful sightï¾… What a garden!… the great centre of the picture being ever the vast glittering ivory-white Taj Mahal, and the accompaniment and contrast of the dark green of the cypresses, with the rich yellow green trees of all sorts! And then the effect of the innumerable flights of bright green parrots flitting across like live emeralds’ [See Villiers Stuart Mughal Gardens chapter on the Taj Mahal]
Mahtab Bagh (Moonlight Garden). The Moonlight Garden was an extension of the Taj Mahal garden on the other side of the river. In 1652 Aurangzeb wrote to his father telling of a visit to ‘the blessed tomb’ and commenting that ‘the Mahtab Garden was completely inundated and has lost its charm, but soon it will regain its verdancy. The octagonal pool and the pavilion around it are in splendid condition.’ The Mahtab Bagh was lost under the mud but re-excavated in the 1990s. Originally, the garden was planted with fragrant flowers and used in the cool of the night as a place from which to view the Taj Mahal reflected in the octagonal pool and in the river. [See Villiers Stuart Mughal Gardens on Mahtab Bagh]
Akbar’s Tomb Garden at Sikandra, Agra. Akbar was a powerful emperor with a keen interest in the arts. His tomb is set in a walled garden which contains a herd of deer and tame langur monkeys. The garden is well proportioned and contains many trees. It would be better still if the the water features were operational. [See Villiers-Stuart Mughal Gardens on Sikandra]
Ram Bagh, Agra. Babur describes the layout of a garden in Agra. Its site has not been definitely identified but is thought to be that of the much changed Ram Bagh in Agra. This would make it the oldest surviving Moghul garden. Agra developed as the main capital of the Mughal Empire and it was a city in which gardens lined both banks of the River Jamna. The present design of the Ram Bagh was by Jahangir’s wife, Nur Jahan. The main buildings were placed on a terrace by the river, not in the middle of the char bagh. [See comment by Villiers-Stuart in Mughal Gardens]
Agra Fort. Akbar’s fort was positioned by the River Jamna, as though it were a garden. The two ladies palaces (zenana) called the Jahangiri Mahal and Akbari Mahal have paved internal courts rather than planted gardens. The Jahangiri Mahal has a a water channel connecting with an octagonal pool. The Anguri Bagh was rebuilt by Shah Jahan by 1637 and has raised walks leading to a platform for a central pavilion. The plan of Arga was typical of Islamic cities: a citadel on the edge of a fortified enclosure (which could be used to grow food in times of siege) adjoining a walled town. At Agra the fortified enclosure is now used by the army and is not accessible to the public.
Fatehpur Sikri (City of Victory). The city was built by the Emperor Akbar between 1570 and 1586. It was the capital of the Mughal Empire for 10 years but was abandonned. Most of the courtyards were paved. The Zenana Garden is northwest of Sunahra Makan (Miriam’s House) and was designed as a charbagh with straight walks and shallow water channels. The pond was excavated in 1891 but is not maintained. The Diwan-I-Aam (Hall of Public Audience) is enclosed by colonnades and has a large open area and walkways which divide the space into six plots (chamans) of unequal size.
Gardens to see and visit in Rajasthan
Amber Palace, Jaipur. The palace, built in red sandstone and white marble, is Amber fort complex. The fort on a hill overlooking the lake, is entered through the Dil-e-Aaram Garden. A flight of stairs leads to the Diwan-E-Am (Hall of Public Audience). There are fine gardens in the lake below the fort.
Balsamand Palace Garden, Jodhpur. Balsamand is a Rajput summer palace, built for the Maharajas of Marwar. Balsamand Lake dates from the 13th century. The water palace stands on the embankment of the dam. A well maintained garden lies in the valley east of the lake with a marble cascade descending from the lake to the garden. There is a small but fine old baoli (stepwell) near the garden entrance.
Mandore Gardens, Jodhpur. Mandore was capital city of Marwar state before Jodhpur. The ruined fort and palace survive on the hilltop and the gardens below have become a public park with fountains and the cenotaphs of Jodhpur’s maharajas – who presumably continued to use the gardens after moving to the Meherangarh in Jodhpur. The Hall of Heroes, with 15 figures carved out of living rock, is beside the baoli, where the path from the fort reaches Mandore Gardens.
Meherangarh Fort, Jodhpur. Though it has internal courts and some greenspace, the fort does not have space one would normally describe as gardens. The hilltop location is too exposed and too short of water. But from the ramparts of the fort one has an excellent view of the ‘blue city’s’ roof tops and small domestic courts. Amongst the reasons for painting so many of the houses lilac blue were its association with the priestly caste (Brahmins) and its reputation for discouraging mosquitos. The palace is planned on a comparable basis to the town’s private havelis – with deep courtyards to provide shade and high level terraces (often roofs) for use in the evening and night.
Ranakpur Jain Temple Garden, Ranakpur. The Jain temples at Ranakpur are within an enclosure which has been treated as a garden. The complex is also of interest to gardeners on account of the 600 year-old Sacred Tree in the main temple courtyard. Jain temples are renowned for the sensitivity with which they are designed in relation to the surrounding landscape. Jainism does not include a belief in a supreme being or creator: it sees the natural world as governed by laws based on the interplay of attributes (gunas) of the substances (dravyas) which comprise the cosmos. Jainism teaches that nature is Interdependendent – so that if one does not care for nature one does not care for oneself. This principle is represented by the visual harmony between the Ranakpur temples and their setting.
Kumbhalgarh Fort. A 36 km wall was built to protect a complex which includes a palace, temples, stepwells and farms. The fort is at an elevation of 1100m in the Aravalli mountains. The highest peak within the enclosure is occupied by the castle-palace. As with castle gardens in Europe, its small courtyards and gardens were designed as outdoor living space for mothers and children. The male recreations were hunting and fighting.
Udaipur City Palace, Udaipur. The city and palace were founded by Udai Singh, an ally of Shah Jahan, in 1567. An artificial lake, Lake Pichola, a palace and islands became part of a stupendous landscape composition. There are hunting lodges on the hills and gardens on the islands. Jag Nivas island is now the Lake Palace Hotel, made famous in the James Bond film Octopussy. Jag Mandir island has a garden with three towered pavilions arranged round a pool with fanciful shaped sides. The Saheliyon-ki Bari has an internal court with a square pool and a chhatri which is a fountain. The Khas Odi hunting lodge has a cage for wild animals. Within the palace are enclosed courts. The Amar Vilas at the top of the palace has a garden with trees and plants growing round a square pool. The Badi Mahal, has a garden with a square marble bath used by the royal family.
Jagmandir Island, Udaipur. Jagmandir Island in Lake Pichola is named after Maharana Jagat Singh (1628-52) who made a number of additions to it. The future Emperor Shah Jahan of Mughal dynasty, took refuge on the island in 1623. The north part of the island is a courtyard garden enclosed by a summer palace and a cloister-type arcade. It contains a fountain pool and various chhatris. The southern part of the island is more horticultural, with trees, lawns and flowers. The views of Lake Pichola are excellent and garden tourists may be reminded of Isola Bella in Italy.
Sahelion-Ki-Bari, Udaipur. The Garden of the Maids of Honour was designed as a peaceful retreat outside the old city of Udaipur. The garden is said to have been made for the 48 girls Maharana Sangram Singh II (1710-1734) received as part of his dowry. Having been damaged by a breach of the Fateh Sagar dam in the late nineteenth century, the gardens were re-built. Their central feature is a beautiful courtyard with a central tank. It has a white marble chhatri fountain in the centre and black marble chhatris at the corners. Outside this courtyard are fountains, pools, lawns, flowers and trees. Many of the fountains are in brightly coloured cast iron. They were made in England and would not be out of place in an English seaside resort. The large circular fountain pool is ornamented with marble elephants and fountains. It is a well-maintained and attractive garden, interesting to garden historians as an example of the Mixed Style, which Humphry Repton would have admired. The nineteenth century was a time when English gardens incorporated Indian features and Indian gardens used English features.
Padmini’s Garden, Chittorgarh. Padmini’s Palace and Garden were designed in relation to a reservoir tank. There is a pavilion overlooking the water and a pavilion set in the water. The gardens are well maintained but have a much more European character than they are likely to have had when the Mewar family established a summer palace here in the fourteenth century. In legend, Padmini sat in the lake pavilion so that her reflection could be seen in a mirror. Ala-ud-din Khilji fell in love with the vision and assulted the fortress in order to possess her. The palace, gardens and lake pavilion as they stand today were largely shaped by Maharana Sajjan Singh (1874-1884).
Bundi Palace Garden. Bundi was the capital city of a princely state during the Rajput era. It has a large fort overlooking a narrow valley and an old town. Bundi Palace, towering above the bazaar, is famous for its murals. The Chitra Shala, named after its paintings (chitra) of processions and mythological subjects opens onto a garden with a central pool, charbagh and seating on four sides. The garden shown in the paintings now belongs to the government and is maintained in a municipal style. The palace remains in private ownership and has several large courts. Once thronged with life, they are now vacant and a little sad. Rudyard Kipling wrote that ‘To give on paper any adequate idea of the Boondi-ki-Mahal is impossible. Jeypore Palace may be called the Versailles of India; Udaipur’s House of State is dwarfed by the hills round it and the spread of the Pichola lake; Jodhpur’s House of Strife, grey towers on red rode, is the work of genius; but the Palace of Boondi, even in broad daylight, is such a Palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams the work of goblins more than the work of men. It is built into and out of the hill side, in gigantic terraces, and domi- nates the whole of the city. But a detailed de- scription of it were useless. Owing to the dip of the valley in which the city stands, it can only be well seen from one place, the main road of the city ; and from that point seems like an avalanche of masonry ready to rush down and whelm the gorge. Like all the other Palaces of Rajputana, it is the work of many hands, and the present Raja has thrown out a bastion of no small size on one of the lower levels, which has been four or five years in the building.
Sukh Mahal, Bundi. The Sukh Mahal is built on the dam wall of a lake and is now used as a museum. It is a beautiful place, with a fascination resulting from its sometime use by Rudyard Kipling when writing Kim, Kipling was an imperialist with a great love of India. His novel ’embodies a panoramic celebration of India, presenting as it does, a magnificent picture of its landscapes, both urban and rural, and a fascinating array of native characters who, for the most part, are warm, generous and tolerant.’ (Ian Mackean). The Sukh Mahal is placed between two worlds. It has woods to the rear and behind these woods the romantic old town of Bundi with its famous baolis (including the Raniji-ki-Baoli and the Nawal Sagar). But the Sukh Mahal (pleasure palace) looks north over the lake. It is a relatively cool location with a marble chair from which to enjoy a view of the lake, chhatris, woods and hills. Kim was brought up in an old town and found himself as a spy in the hills of north-west India.
Jaipur City Palace. After using Amber as their capital for eight centuries, the Maharajas decided to build a city on the plain (Jaipuir) and a palace in the city. They were started in 1727. The palace is built round a series of garden courts, the Jai Nivas, with the Chandra Mahal looking out on a long garden with a central waterway.The city plan was based on a theoretically symmetrical grid (itself based on a mandala) but had to be adapted to fit the irregularities of the chosen site. A keen astronomer, Maharaja Jai Singh had a giant observatory built in the grounds of his palace. It is known as the Jantar Mantar and contains the world’s largest sundial.
Kanak Bagh, Jaipur. The garden is part of a temple complex which contains the temples of Govind Deoji and Natawarji and a garden known as the Kanak Bagh. It is a well-maintained chahar bagh with fountains, pools, lush planting and a view of the Lake Palace.
Deeg (or Dig) Palace Gardens. Deeg was the home of India’s Jat rulers. Badan Singh was proclaimed ruler in 1722 and made the Purana Mahal (old palace). Surajmal built additional palaces (Nand Bhawan, Gopal Bhawa, Sawan, Bhadon ) around a water garden with walkways, flowerbeds, trees, shrubs, and some 500 fountains fed by a vast tank. The Sawan and Bhadon palaces are designed to resemble barges
Gardens and parks to see and visit in India that are regularly open with free admission
Lodi Garden (or Lodhi Gardens), Delhi. Lodi Gardens are one of the pleasantest green spaces in Delhi – with some labelled trees to help visitors from overseas become familiar with the Indian flora. The area was used as a burial for Delhi’s (pre-Mughal) Sayyid and Lodi rulers. Mohammad Shar’s tomb (1450) can be seen as a predecessor for architecture of Humayun’s tomb and Sikander Lodi’s tomb (1571) is set within a walled enclosure and clearly related to Humayun’s tomb garden. The domed mausoleums appear to have been sited in an open landscape, rather as the Ancient Greeks placed temples. The building of monumental tombs runs against the principles of Islam and it is probable that Delhi’s Turkish Sultans brought the idea from Persia to India. Lodi Gardens are therefore a good place to reflect on the origins of Mughal garden design. By the nineteenth century the tombs were occupied by squatters. After the land passed into the ownership of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) the squatters were moved, with some acrimony, and the land was treated as a public park. Possibly because the tombs have a formal kinship to Palladian temples, this treatment seems visually appropriate – at least to European eyes.
India Garden Festivals, Garden Shows and Events
• Delhi Garden Festival, Garden of the Five Senses, New Delhi – flower show, theme garden, plant displays and sales, workshops, children’s activities – late February
• Kashmir Tulip Garden, Srinagar – 1 million bulbs over 20 acres, open during peak tulip bloom time, typically from early April
• Mao Gate Flower Festival, Kohima, Manipur – village flower festival in a commercial flower-growing district – early April
• Empress Garden and Flower Show, Empress Botanical Garden, Pune (150km south-east of Mumbai) – also called ‘Buds ‘N’ Blooms’ – late January.
• Ahmedabad Flower Show, Gujarat (western India), early January. Held along the redeveloped Sabarmati Riverfront Park. Very colourful bedding displays, water gardens, topiary animals and art, nursery.
Checking in to our Fort Cochin Hotel, the friendly staff invited us to relax in the garden while waiting for our room. We didn’t need an invitation – I was already out there craning my neck to see what caused the dappling in the courtyard. It was an enormous mango tree, and as I looked up something caught my eye. There was someone sitting on a branch, a very long way up.