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Re-Envisioning the Mughal Riverfront Gardens of Agra: A Way Forward

Months of research and documentation have just concluded at the two sites, Mehtab Bagh and I’timad-ud-Daulah,that make up the Mughal Riverfront Gardens of Agra project, a joint collaborative initiative between the Archaeological Survey of India and World Monuments Fund. Both sites offer extraordinary opportunities in the fields of art conservation, historic garden restoration, hydrology, and community engagement, in addition to the regular building conservation work that is being proposed.

Mehtab Bagh, conceived and laid out as an extension to the Taj Mahal complex across the river Yamuna, is indeed inseparable from the Taj. The uniqueness of Mehtab Bagh lies in its design and location, particularly the alignment of the octagonal pool at the southern edge of an Islamic walled garden. The reflection of the white marble mausoleum in the waters of the pool must have created a sublime moment of a different nature, perhaps as "magical" as viewing the Taj when standing in front of it. The Mughal Tomb Garden of I’timad-ud-Daulah, built in the early seventeenth century, is one of the earliest surviving tomb gardens and an important landmark on the riverfront in Agra. It is a repository of Mughal architecture with extensive use of marble instead of red sandstone, Persian influences in the form of realistic portrayal of floral plants, a shift from stone carvings to wall paintings, and extensive use of stone inlay work in marble on the external surfaces.

A two-day international consultative workshop, "Re-envisioning the Mughal Riverfront Gardens of Agra—a way forward," was organized by World Monuments Fund at Agra on 30 and 31 October 2014. International experts Dr. Ebba Koch, a Mughal art historian, Dr. James Wescoat, a Mughal waterworks expert, and Werner Schmid, an art conservator, had a preview of the conservation proposals that would ultimately emerge. For the World Monuments Fund team and the Archaeological Survey of India it was an excellent opportunity to engage with the experts and get feedback on the proposals before they were finalized.

The first day was devoted to the site visits at Itimad-ud-Daulah and Mehtab Bagh. Intensive research, documentation, analysis, and interpretation of the archival research and archaeological findings at site, undertaken over the last few months, was presented by the consultants on the second day. Itimad-ud-Daulah is a model project for historic garden restoration where hydraulics play a vital role. The urban context is also challenging, as it is located on a busy highway and abuts a dense settlement. There is also the potential of reinstating the riverfront setting. Mehtab Bagh has, in complete contrast, emerged as a largely archaeological site with its own challenges of interpretation and perhaps very minimal intervention or restoration.