One of the most important historic features of the city of Agra is the gardens that line the banks of the Yamuna River. Sanctuaries of respite from the city’s heat and sites of veneration to honor the deceased, the gardens were created over a period of more than 100 years. The Taj Mahal, across the Yamuna River from the gardens, is thus part of a larger cultural context that represents an important example of Mughal landscape traditions. The extensive written and pictorial historical record shows that from the time of Emperor Babur (r. 1526–30) through the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1627–58) the riverfront was densely covered by walled enclosures, buildings, pavilions, and lush gardens. Today, more than 40 Mughal gardens survive in ranging states of conservation, all having been significantly changed over time. Four are under the management of the Archaeological Survey of India. These gardens may not be as well known to travelers as the Taj Mahal, but they are open to the public and represent an extraordinary ensemble of Mughal heritage, as well as providing recreational spaces in a bustling urban environment.
Restoring the garden's original form
The surviving gardens now face challenges of urban development, pollution, traffic congestion, and lack of visitor amenities. Highways and bridges built close by represent both a negative visual impact and an important new opportunity, since they make the gardens on the eastern side of the river, opposite the Taj Mahal, more readily accessible than they have been in the past. World Monuments Fund, in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India, launched a program in 2014 to restore these gardens to their original form, re-activate their water features, and present them in an improved state to the public. Over the next three years, WMF will focus on two of the most important of these gardens: Mehtab Bagh (the “Moonlight Garden”) and the Garden of the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah. In 2017, the conservation of major features of the garden, including new plantings to better evoke the historic Mughal landscape, was completed at I’timad-ud-Daulah. Students from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design joined the program by conducting studios in Agra in 2014 and 2015 and engaging in an analysis of the urban fabric that surround the gardens to provide holistic solutions for the sites within their urban context. Key objectives of the project are community involvement and sustainable management of the sites, and WMF is encouraging the participation of non-governmental organizations working on social equity, environmental, and urban planning issues in Agra.
Improvement of historic and public green spaces
In addition to the improved state of conservation, this project has significantly enhanced visitor services at the gardens through the creation of a visitor center in the forecourt of the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah. The restored gardens provide local residents and visitors from both India and abroad with an opportunity to learn more about the history of these magnificent Mughal gardens, as well as simply offering an open green space in the midst of the congested city of Agra.
In January, 2019, WMF and the Archaeological Survey of India celebrated the completion of the conservation project during an inauguration ceremony at the garden of the Tomb of I'timad-ud-Daulah alongside project supporters.