Internationally renowned conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah spearheads Shalimar Garden’s conservation – Greater Kashmir

Srinagar: When Abha Narain Lambah, an internationally renowned conservation architect, was a child she used to relish home cooked delicacies with her family in famous Mughal Gardens of Kashmir.
As fate would have it, over four decades later, Abha, winner of global prestigious awards, is spearheading an initiative to restore the glory of Shalimar, one of the famous Mughal Gardens of Kashmir.
She was instrumental in preparation of a dossier to enlist prominent tourist spots of Kashmir like Mughal Gardens on the UNESCO World Heritage sites.
“My earliest memories are of family picnics to the Mughal Gardens when we would spread Dastarkhans on the clover lawns of Nishat and Shalimar and eat home-cooked meals of Rajma, Haak, and Roganjosh,” she says.
Her grandfather, Prem Nath Kohli, was Conservator Forests in Jammu and Kashmir in 1930s and then Manager Estates for Maharaja Hari Singh.
He was Kashmir’s pioneering botanist, who sent botanical samples to Kew Gardens and spent his lifetime documenting and promoting Kashmir’s indigenous flora.
“My childhood memories revolve around his garden in Karan Nagar and trips to his botanical nurseries in Peer Bagh and Humhama,” Abha recounts.
“My mother belongs to Kashmir, was born in Baramulla, and grew up in Srinagar, studying and then teaching at Government College for Women. My earliest childhood memories are of my grandfather’s home in Srinagar and so Kashmir is indelibly imprinted on my mind, my heart,” Abha says. “Kashmir is blessed with greatest natural beauty.”
She says: “My grandmother Pushpa Kohli who was the pioneer of floriculture in Kashmir and first member of inter-flora began the flower company in 1928 – P Kohli and Co that exported even tulips to Holland.”
On whether she feels an emotional bond while carrying restoration of these gardens as her family has a strong association with Kashmir, Abha says, “Yes, for me and my family, Kashmir is an emotion, more than a place. Especially for a family of plant lovers, from childhood our dinner table conversations would be around plants and we would even as children be asked to identify plants by their botanical names. Restoring these gardens are truly special for me on a personal level.”
She says: “To come back after decades to work on these very gardens and restore the historic Mughal Gardens is for me a dream come true, full of nostalgia and childhood memories.”
On May 28, 2022, the Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha laid the foundation stone for conservation of Shalimar Garden.
Jammu and Kashmir government in collaboration with JSW Foundation, is making efforts to restore the glorious heritage of J&K— to give a fillip to tourism in the region.
Abha believes that in spite of the structural issues, concerns with encroachment and later additions, the Mughal Gardens of Kashmir remain the finest specimens of royal gardens in the world.
She says that the six gardens of Shalimar, Nishat, Cheshma Shahi, Pari Mahal, Achabal and Verinag mark the acme of garden building, representing the great garden culture of Mughal Kashmir.
“While other pleasure gardens of the Mughals were abandoned, destroyed, lost or transformed over time, these imperial gardens represent the most outstanding ensemble of extant pleasure gardens, remaining in continued use for 400 years,” Abha says.
She says together these represent the apex of development of Mughal Gardens that revolutionised the source and deployment of water and where the Chahar Bagh emerged out of its walled enclosure to embrace the paradisiacal landscape of Kashmir.
“Since Babur’s conquest of Hindustan in 1526, Mughal Gardens had relied on wells, resulting in the restrained use of water. Fed by mountain springs, streams and nehars, the Kashmir gardens transformed Mughal hydrology. They celebrated the abundance of water with theatrical displays of reflective pools, floating pavilions, gushing fountains, abshars, chadars, and chini khanas with lamps glittering behind water cascades. The gardens of the Nominated Property epitomize the mastery of Mughal gardeners and engineers and innovations in irrigation, hydrology, horticulture, grafting and design that informed later gardens,” Abha says. “Built in the first half of the 17th century, they are the standard bearers that influenced and inspired gardens across the realm and beyond. The gardens of Kashmir elevated Mughal Gardens to a stage where they were no longer subservient to buildings. Neither backdrop or foreground, nor adjuncts to tombs or palaces, they were center-stage, serving as ephemeral courts and cultural spaces of empire.”
She says that Kashmir’s Sufi traditions and Mughal patronage fostered a syncretic culture of poetry staged in the Mughal Gardens.
“Descriptive verses and garden metaphors constitute a body of masnavis in Persian, Kashmiri and Urdu. This living culture of poetry and place-making finds expression in folk songs, Hindi films and contemporary music,” Abha says. “With seasonal changes witnessed through the hues of chinars and almond blossoms, the transient, ever-changing quality of the gardens is a unique attribute, celebrated through festivals traditional such as Navreh and Baisakhi – Kashmir’s Hindu and Sikh communities. As people flock to celebrate spring in the gardens, the Nominated Property stands unique in its unbroken continuum of use as cultural spaces over a period of four centuries.”
She says her concerns range from structural stabilisation of some pavilions in Shalimar Garden that are very fragile and on the verge of structural failure to issues concerning the damage to the painted ceilings.
“Insensitive past repairs that have over-painted historic surfaces or plastered these in cement,” Abha rues. Emperor Jahangir built Shalimar Bagh for his wife Noor Jahan in 1619
Abha is also addressing the issue of authenticity of material and finishes and undertaking research into the historic botanical species, which were subsequently replaced.
How challenging is it to restore the stone fountain, painted ceiling, artwork, and unique hydrology system of the garden?
“This is of course a primary challenge. Our team has undertaken detailed research into various aspects of these gardens, from a historical, architectural, conservation and landscape perspective. The art conservators have been painstakingly working on the painted surfaces and our engineering experts have been engaging with local artisans as well as the officials of the Archaeology and Floriculture department,” she says. “Kashmir is blessed with a wealth of great craftsmanship. We are engaging local artisans, conservators and craftsmen as well as sourcing local materials, lime, wood and even collecting birch bark that was traditionally used as a waterproofing layer in the wooden roofs.”
Abha says that the action plan for restoration of Mughal Gardens is multi-pronged and has emerged through a consultative process across many discussions and meetings with local stakeholders, experts and government departments.
“One aspect is to carefully restore the built elements of the gardens, the pavilions, structures, walls, gateways and the other is to address the landscape elements such as the water systems, the pathways, horticulture, plants. Over and above this is the concern for the larger setting of these gardens, which requires consolidated work between various agencies and the stakeholders as well as ensuring the visitor management of the site and long term sustainability,” she says.
Abha has a Masters in Architectural Conservation from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi with over two decades of experience in the field.
She has been awarded the Sanskriti Award, Eisenhower Fellowship, the Attingham Trust Fellowship, and Charles Wallace Fellowship and has been nominated by Arc Vision as among the Top 20 Women Architects Globally in 2016.
Abha has been a consultant to ICCROM, UNITAR, World Monuments Fund, Global Heritage Fund, and Archaeological Survey of India and has served on the heritage committees of both Delhi and Mumbai. “For me to work on Ajanta Caves, World Heritage Site and Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya would be one of the most iconic Buddhist sites to have worked on. It is followed by the restoration of the 15th Century Maitreya Temple in Basgo Ladakh and the present work my team is doing at Sarnath to nominate it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” she says. “I have been fortunate to have worked with Russia’s oldest museum Kunstkamera and been Jury Chair Spatial Design for the ADC awards New York, the oldest design awards as well as being on the Jury of the UNESCO Asia Pacific Awards.”
Abha Narain Lambah Associates is the largest architectural conservation consultancy in India and has won 10 UNESCO Asia Pacific Awards for Heritage Conservation. Abha has authored and edited a range of books including ‘Punjab: Land of the Five Rivers’,  ‘Architecture of the Indian Sultanates’, ‘Custodians of India’s Heritage: 150 years of the Archaeological Survey of India’ and ‘Shekhawati: Land of the Merchant Princes’ for MARG.
“I would only say that Kashmir is truly unique as a landscape as it has been blessed with the greatest natural beauty. It has been hailed as paradise on earth and it is incumbent on all Kashmiris to strive to keep it peaceful and paradisiacal,” she says.
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