In Search of Peace in Babur’s Garden: The Mughal emperor lies in Kabul

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A couple of months ago, Saad Mohseni, an Afghan-Australian and the CEO of a media company, posted a breathtakingly beautiful photograph of a Kabul sunset with the “TV Hill” in the foreground on Twitter. The Asamayi mountain range in the western part of Kabul is called due to the large TV masts and antennae on its summit.

I was in the Afghan capital last year and Mohseni’s photograph revived my memories of the fortnight I spent in Kabul. So, I shared a picture of the TV Hill that I had taken from my room. The only difference was that my TV Hill was white with snow and taken from a weird angle, while his was well-framed and shorn of any snow.

Flicking through the phone gallery, I was tempted to share another photograph. This was a view of Kabul through an arch window in Bagh-e-Babur. Rain-bearing clouds snuggled the snow-clad mountain ranges afar. Leading into it was a terraced garden and a city peppered with rooftops, and a few skyscrapers. It was a fascinating view. On this side of the arch window lay Babur. Though Babur was initially buried in Agra in 1530, he was finally interred in Kabul a few years later. The first Mughal king had expressed his desire to “lie under the open skies of Kabul”.

A trip to Kabul is incomplete without a visit to the Bagh-e-Babur, I was told. I am not much of a “garden” person, but looking back, I daresay, it would have been a huge mistake had I skipped it. Babur was rightly obsessed about this being his final resting place. So I went, accompanied by a Spaniard, a Kiwi, and an Afghan. The garden on the slopes of Kuh-e-Sherdarwaza, in the old city of Kabul, is laid out in a series of 15-step terraces. Bagh-e-Babur is fortified with tall ochre walls, and the entry to the garden is through a caravanserai or inn. It now houses handicraft shops; and a lot of security. The garden lies beyond the courtyard of the caravanserai.

The step-terraces led into the Kuh-e-Sherdarwaza. Babur lay on the 14th step-terrace. Surrounded by latticed screens, the tomb is housed within four walls, with arch windows overlooking Shah Jahan’s mosque. A bouquet placed on the tomb, in reverence, and a few slabs of stones (from the original architecture) lay around, in remembrance. The 16th century garden had been through earthquakes, vandalism, and countless wars before being fully restored in 2011.

The path leading to the tomb is lined with cherry trees; it was March, so they were yet to bloom but shades of pink were beginning to show. Historically, it is said to have had a whole range of trees — walnut, apricot, mulberry, quince and, of course, cherry.

There was a slight chill in the air, and the sun showed up only occasionally. The garden was abuzz with people and yet, despite all the excitement, it seemed like an island of tranquillity. There were picnicking families, groups of boys and men lying on mats, women and girls in head-scarfs posing and pouting for selfies, and young couples cosying up as much as they could dare to. Children and men hovered over a few carrom boards, concentrating hard to pocket the queen while others waited patiently for their turn.

A group of young boys looked excited about their new buy — an SLR camera. We heard one rattling the famous Sholay dialogue: “Kitne aadmi thhe?”, I was tempted to reply, “Do sarkar”. I smiled instead, they beamed back. As if to sum up this little coquetry, one of them shouted, “Ab tera kya hoga Samba?”. A few steps later, music from a faraway speaker drew closer. It was familiar. A group of picnickers was dancing to the Amitabh Bachchan song Arrey deewano, mujhe pehchano. The Spaniard looked at me and said, “You guys are popular.” The Afghan confirmed, “We love India.”

The garden is a safe haven, far removed from a bloody attack lurking round the corner. In the last one year, the attacks, in Kabul and throughout the country, have become so much more regular and so much more violent — suicide bombers, truck bombs, terrorist attacks on hospitals, military academies, embassies, TV stations, journalists, and cricket matches. Just a few days ago, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Kabul airport, killing 14 and injuring nearly 60.

Afghanistan, like all beautiful countries, is cursed. It deserves a respite. I hope to go back for another assignment — fingers crossed — but until then, to keep the Kabul of March 2017 alive in me, I regularly check its weather on my phone’s app, email my Afghan colleagues once in a while, flick through the phone photos, and wait for Saad Mohseni’s next post on my timeline.

Savvy Soumya Misra is a former journalist who works in the development sector.

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