iii. In Persian Literature
Bāḡ appears both as an object of description and as the prime source of nature imagery in Persian literature. As a poetic image, bāḡ stands for order and beauty, and the link between man and nature. In modern poetry it can be a locus for social criticism. It is also a source of book titles and musical modes (e.g., čahār-bāḡ). Under the influence of mystical thought, bāḡ becomes a symbol of Paradise. Finally, bāḡ as conventionalized in literature summarizes the Persian attitude toward nature.
Actual gardens are frequently mentioned in literature, and the building of a new garden is often the occasion for a poem celebrating the event. Descriptions of gardens, however, are so conventionalized that they are non-distinctive, the only specific detail being the date of the event expressed in a chronogram (mādda-ye tārīḵ). Gardens are the setting for parties and revelry, seasonal celebrations such as Nowrūz and Mehragān, festivities connected with the end of Ramażān, or any other public or private occasion. They are also thought of as places of private retreat, and as examples of royal pomp and magnificence.
Although gardens are always described in conventional terms, many of the specific flowers and trees common to them on the Iranian plateau and the Indian subcontinent are found in the poetry about gardens. Certain other physical features, such as the surrounding wall, are hardly ever mentioned. The pattern for this sort of description was set by the Ghaznavid poets Farroḵī and Manūčehrī, and continued to the twentieth century. In spring the garden was at its most beautiful, and the spring flowers and indeed the garden as a whole quickly became images for all that is beautiful, especially the poet’s beloved. From here it was only a short step to personifying the garden, and making possible rich clusters of images, such as Farroḵī’s (Dīvān, ed. Dabīrsīāqī, Tehran, 1335 Š./1956-57, p. 11) of spring drinking wine from the cup (the blooming red rose) held by the garden (the leaves of the čenār, plane tree, are likened to human hands), or Manūčehrī’s mythic narrative of two lovers, the cloud and the garden (Dīvān, ed. Dabīrsīāqī, Tehran, 1338 Š./1959-60, pp. 188-90).
Persian poets never hesitated to mix images of paganism with images of Islam. The profusion of colorful flowers and the glittering surface of the watercourses were often likened to jewels, and this image was extended by the Ghaznavid poets to make the garden into an idol temple, an idea reinforced, no doubt, by Sultan Maḥmūd’s expeditions to India in search of treasure. Farroḵī, celebrating spring, says “The garden became an idol temple and the rose bush, the idol; the rose-worshipping shaman [i.e., the nightingale] was drinking wine” (op. cit., p. 307).
More complex however, are the images of the garden as Paradise. It is likely that the form of Persian gardens was influenced by descriptions of the archetypical garden of Paradise in the Koran, which stress its green color, shade, fruits, fountains of running water, and cool pavilions where the inhabitants may drink a wine that does not intoxicate. A qaṣīda by Moʿezzī praising a royal garden and probably dedicated to the Saljuq Malekšāh, contains many of the features of the garden of Paradise: the king like the sun and his throne raised to the seventh heaven, the presence of Reżwān, fruit trees, streams of water, and houris (Dīvān, ed. ʿA. Eqbāl, Tehran, 1318 Š./1939-40, p. 315). The idea of an earthly Paradise captured the imagination of Persian poets, and the image was so powerful that it appears as late as the nineteenth century in a qaṣīda of the Qajar poet Fatḥ-ʿAlī Khan Ṣabā, and the great nineteenth-century garden in Shiraz was called Bāḡ-e Eram, after the earthly rival of Paradise.
From the image of the garden as an earthly Paradise, mystical poets and prose writers extended it to symbolize Paradise itself. Again the Koranic passages provided the model, and features of the actual garden such as the watercourses and cypress trees corresponded to the divine archetype. The cypress tree, for example, is likened to the Ṭūbā, and then, in a line from Ḥāfeẓ, associated with his beloved: “You think about the Ṭūbā tree and I about my beloved’s stature; everyone thinks according to his aspiration” (Dīvān, ed. M. M. Qazvīnī and Q. Ḡanī, Tehran, 1330 Š./1951-52, p. 40). The beloved was frequently described as one of the houris who were promised to the faithful for their enjoyment. In this regard, the 7th/13th-century mystic Rūzbehān Baqlī “draws our attention to the alleged prophetic tradition that one should find spiritual recreation by looking at three things: water, greenery, and a lovely face” (A. Schimmel, 1976, p. 23). For Jalāl-al-Dīn Rūmī, the garden becomes a symbol of divine beauty which both displays and conceals the eternal beauty of the archetypal gardener, God. The mystical lover and his divine beloved are like a rose and its thorn. When the lover becomes one with the beloved, the rose becomes one with the thorn and all duality is resolved.
In modern poetry, the garden continues to be a prominent image, but now it often appears in contexts of social criticism as well as of love. In 1932 Abu’l-Qāsem Lāhūtī wrote a poem entitled “Bāḡbān” (The gardener) in which he compares Stalin to a wise gardener who knows best what to prune in the garden and what to encourage. More recently, Forūḡ Farroḵzād in “Del-am barā-ye bāḡča mīsūzad” (My heart bleeds for the garden) used a withered and dying garden at the back of her house as a symbol of Iranian culture and society in her time. She remembers the garden as flourishing when she was a child, and now that she is an adult she finds that people are filled with self-concern but nobody cares for the garden. In a different vein, in her poem “Fatḥ-e bāḡ” (The victory of the garden) is a joyful love poem set in a garden, using garden imagery to express her feelings.
The garden is not always an image of happiness and beauty, however. In classical poetry, autumn in the garden was a time of sadness and nostalgia, when cold winds take the place of warm breezes and black and white are the predominant colors (crows and snow). A modern poet has used the garden as the central image in a poem consoling a friend on the death of his child: “Ḵadīv my friend, truly death’s hand is fickle. It always plucks the rose and never sees the thorns and twigs. Instead of the brush and thorns, it carries the rose from the garden: what a sinister gardener, what a fearful pruning” (M. Aḵawān Ṯāleṯ, “al-Salām yā sayyednā al-Ḵadīv,” Negīn 9, no. 99, 1352 Š./1973-74, p. 10).
As conceptualized in literature, the garden comes to symbolize man’s relation to nature in Persian culture. The garden’s life cycle parallels that of man: Each has its youth and spring and its autumn and decline. However, the stylized, idealized idea of the garden presented in poetry represents a stark contrast with what lies outside the garden wall: the desert. Hot, dry, dangerous, and inhospitable, the desert is always a threat to life, and the wall serves to keep the desert out as it keeps the garden in. Within the wall, nature is controlled and made to serve the purposes of man: The chaos and danger of nature outside are changed to order and security. In this small Paradise man, not nature, is dominant, and nature can be enjoyed on man’s terms.
C.-H. de Fouchécour, La description de la nature dans la poésie lyrique persane du XIe siècle, Paris, 1969.
William Hanaway, “Paradise on Earth: The Terrestrial Garden in Persian Literature”, in The Islamic Garden, ed. R. Ettinghausen, Washington, D.C., 1976, pp. 43-67.
Annemarie Schimmel, “The Celestial Garden in Islam,” ibid., pp. 11-39.
D. N. Wilber, Persian Gardens and Garden Pavilions, Rutland, Vermont, 1962.
(W. L. Hanaway)
Originally Published: December 15, 1988
Last Updated: August 22, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 3, pp. 395-396