Heaven is a Garden
Heaven is a Garden. Why so, I ask myself? The answer lies in looking through antiquity, where this connection can be traced back to the commencement of humankind, the time when Adam and Eve were trapped in the Garden of Eden. This association of the celestial place as a garden can also be dated to religious texts like the Quran and The Bible, which clearly describe the gardens of Heaven. The correlation dives so deep that the English word for paradise is derived from ‘pairideza’, meaning an enclosure of a park. The extent of this connection will be explored firstly by discussing Islam’s philosophy on nature and ecology, and then how is the Char Bagh prevalent in Mughal era gardens help to solidify the notion of the garden as an earthly paradise.
Islam’s Philosophy of Garden
A garden is a spatial experience of man with nature. This relationship is a sacred one, such that it is said that man has biological and physiological aspects to be derived from nature itself. Islamic philosophy suggests a similar connection of the celestial being found in the garden. Humans are the Ashraful Makhloqat, the most superior beings, and hence according to Tawhid, the oneness of Allah, the Creator of all things. It is a misconception of our human ego that nature and ecology must bow down to humankind due to our superiority; the notion that ecology is made to serve and facilitate human needs. However, Allah has made humans the guardians of nature’s glory because it is created by Him, a reflection of God’s glory, power. God has created all the beings and species on this planet, but as magnificent as His creation is, it is merely a reflection of His sacredness, and hence teaches us that all the worldly creatures must bow down to Him only. It is important to note that ‘a duality between God and the creatures, renders all created equal and alike. At the same time, however, none of the created are sacred except in their relationship to God and in fulfilling the purpose of God’s creation. All creatures must live in interdependence to each other, but always dependent on Him’.
Persian poets have composed to evoke the spirit of heaven as an earthly paradise through symbolic imagery through poetry. Gardens hold a sacredness, an earthly paradise, perhaps which is why we refer to Gardens of Heaven.
Paradise is a Garden
Paradise can be conceived as the perfect garden. Due to this notion, we see the Mughal’s build garden spaces that are characterized by luxury and grandeur. The most common form of garden typology in the Mughal period is the Char Bagh. The Char Bagh refers to the four gardens in an orthogonal layout laid out on an axial pathway that intersects at the garden center. The Char Bagh has khayabans along which streams of water flow. The water of the canals and fountains drops over marble in the middle of the terrace which has a large Hauz (water tank) with a seating platform in the center.
The number four in Islam and the universe holds is of paramount importance. One of the reasons is that it corresponds to the four sacred elements; earth, water, fire, air which are all “signs of god’s power”. We can infer that the Char Bagh in itself symbolizes the mighty willpower of Allah. “As the earth is alive, and we are living through it”, perhaps the earthly paradise lies where God’s glory can be harnessed the most, and the Char Bagh is a representation of that.
In addition, it also corresponds to the cardinal points and the four corners of the earth. Pir Zia Inayat Khan writes in Spiritual Ecology, yogis and Sufi’s meditate in correspondence to the four elements to bring microcosm and macrocosm into harmony.
The number four is often divided into eight. The octagon is said to represent the Heavens, and square the earth, hence the Char Bagh being a prelude to heaven itself. Good gardens are compared to Paradise, a place where the bounty of ‘The One’ can be seen, His power and Magnificence appreciated. But most importantly gardens are meant to be a place of reflection, contemplation and to ponder about the purpose of his creation which is to safeguard the universe by making it the best place to live. In these places, one must think of Allah and reminisce of him.
In addition, water acts as an important element in the Char Bagh. In the Taj Mahal, we see the water stream that runs from four directions onto the center of the plan signifying the four cardinal directions placed in a square, symbolizing the profane that flows into one single point, the sacred. The center axis is only meant for the celestial, hence showing the Greatness of God through the elements that he has created. The mahal is located on a north-south axis on the axis mundi, the axis on which the earth rotates.
The garden is the closest space humans can call heaven on earth, even a celestial space. This earthly paradise is mentioned in the Quran which describes heaven to be a beautiful garden with all the luxuries including four fountains, perhaps the primal reason for the prevalent Char Bagh design that is used in Mughal gardens. However, the Char Bagh symbolizes the celestial, the glory of what we cannot see, but somehow still manages to capture it through the rustling of trees, the waft of air, the ripple of water.
“The universe is united and one with its Divine Principle not substantially but in essence. And because it is thus united every particle in the universe reflects the Divine Beauty.” (Nasr, 2010)
- Barnhill, D. and Gottlieb, R., 2014. Deep Ecology and World Religions. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Khan, Z, (2013). “Persian and Indian Visions of Living Earth ,” in Spiritual Ecology, ed. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee ,Point Reyes, California : The Golden Sufi Center.
- Nasr, S., 2010. Islamic life and thought. Abingdon [England]: Routledge.
- Lehrman, J., 1980. Earthly Paradise: Garden and Courtyard in Islam