Mehtab Bagh is a charbagh complex. Char translates as 4, bagh translates as garden. Thus, it is a four compartment garden design. This classic style of Mughal garden lies within a perfect square shape. When it was originally built, it is thought that the garden exhibited walkways, reflecting pools with fountains, and shaded pavilions nestled within trees, fragrant flowers and native shrubbery.
The Mehtab Bagh garden was the last of eleven Mughal-built gardens along the Yamuna opposite the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort; the first being Ram Bagh. It is mentioned that this garden was built by Emperor Babur (d. 1530). It is also noted that Emperor Shah Jahan had identified a site from the crescent-shaped, grass-covered floodplain across the Yamuna River as an ideal location for viewing the Taj Mahal. It was then created as "a moonlit pleasure garden called Mehtab Bagh." White plaster walkways, airy pavilions, pools and fountains were also created as part of the garden, with fruit trees and narcissus. The garden was designed as an integral part of the Taj Mahal complex in the riverfront terrace pattern. Its width was identical to that of the rest of the Taj Mahal. Legends attributed to the travelogue of the 17th century French traveler Jean Baptiste Tavernier mention Shah Jahan's wish to build a Black Taj Mahal for himself, as a twin to the Taj Mahal; however, this could not be achieved as he was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb. This myth had been further fueled in 1871 by a British archaeologist, A.C.L. Carlleyle, who, while discovering the remnants of an old pond at the site had mistaken it for the foundation of the fabled structure. Thus, Carlleyle became the first researcher to notice structural remains at the site, albeit blackened by moss and lichen. Mehtab Bagh was later owned by Raja Man Singh Kacchawa of Amber, who also owned the land around the Taj Mahal
Frequent floods and villagers extracting building materials nearly ruined the garden. Remaining structures within the garden were in a ruinous state. By the 1990s, the garden's existence was almost forgotten and it had degraded to little more than an enormous mound of sand, covered with wild vegetation and alluvial silt.
Inscriptions on the site of Mehtab Bagh mention that it adjoins other gardens to the west; these are called "Chahar Bagh Padshahi" and "Second Chahar Bagh Padshahi". A compound wall surrounded the garden; it was made of brick, lime plaster, and red sandstone cladding. Measuring about 289 metres (948 ft) in length, the river wall is partially intact. Built on platforms, there were domed towers of red sandstone in an octagonal shape, which may have stood at the corners. A 2-2.5 metres (6 ft 7 in-8 ft 2 in) wide pathway made of brick edged the western boundary of the grounds, covering the remains of the boundary wall to the west. Near the entrance is a small Dalit shrine on the riverside. Of the four sandstone towers, which marked the corners of the garden, only the one on the southeast remains. A large octagonal pond on the southern periphery reflects the image of the Mausoleum. There is a small central tank on the eastern side. Water channels enrich the landscape and there are baradaris on the east and west. There is a gate at the northern wall. The foundations of two structures remain immediately north and south of the large pond, which were probably garden pavilions. From the northern structure a stepped waterfall would have fed the pool. The garden to the north has the typical square, cross-axial plan with a square pool in its centre. To the west, an aqueduct fed the garden. Other structures which are not in keeping with the original landscape plan include nurseries owned by private individuals, a temple in place of a gazebo, and an odd statue of B. R. Ambedkar holding the Constitution of India in the courtyard, and relics of a water supply network to the park.
Restoration of the Mehtab Bagh began after the ASI survey, setting new standards for Mughal garden research. This included a surface survey, historical documentation, paleobotanical assessment, archaeological excavation techniques, and requirements coordination with the Ministries of Culture, Tourism, and Planning. Restoration began in the 1990s, aided by the Americans, during which barbed-wire fencing was added to the Mehtab Bagh site. The garden's original ambiance was restored as ASI insisted on having plants that the Mughals had used in their gardens. Though the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) had suggested planting 25 pollution-mitigating plant species every 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) in the proposed renovation of the garden, this was opposed by the ASI. The Supreme Court intervened in the matter in favour of ASI who wanted the garden to only have plants that the Mughals used in their gardens.
A common list of plants was suggested. ASI landscape artists meticulously planned the replanting of trees, plants and herbage to match the original Mughal gardens, replicating the riverside gardens brought to India from Central Asia in Shalimar Bagh in Kashmir. Some 81 plants adopted in Mughal horticulture were planted, including guava, maulshri, Nerium, hibiscus, citrus fruit plants, neem, bauhinia, ashoka and jamun. The herbage was planted in such a way that tall trees follow the short ones, then shrubs, and lastly flowering plants. Some of these plants produce bright-coloured flowers that shine in the moonlight. The park has been reconstructed to its original grandeur and has now become a very good location to view the Taj Mahal.
Archaeological excavations in the Mehtab Bagh site have been described as "setting new archaeological standards for Mughal garden research", using paleobotanical and excavations techniques. Excavations to the extent of 90,000 cubic metres of earth, were carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), in 1994. The excavations unearthed a large octagonal tank with 25 fountains, and a garden, divided into four compartments. Mumtaz Mahal's tomb was found to be situated halfway between the Taj Mahal complex's main entrance and the ends of the Mehtab Bagh site. This is corroborated by a letter from Aurangzeb addressed to Shah Jahan in which he referred to the condition of the garden after the flood event in 1652 AD.
When to visit
There is no time limit to how long visitors may stay within the garden. And there are no posted rules on allowable items such as eatables or drinks. Come early for sunrise shots of the Taj Mahal, stay for a picnic, and watch the afternoon set before capturing a sunset photo.
A visit to the Taj Mahal is greatly enhanced by a stop at Mehtab Bagh if possible. Tourists can reach the site by tuk tuk or local taxi, however it is much easier and more comfortable by car and driver service. It is not for the faint of heart as the ride from Taj Mahal of Agra Fort to Mehtab Bagh involves crossing the city of Agra on roads that are notoriously lousy, riddled by traffic jams, blaring horns, and narrow crossings.
Most tourists visit Agra during the cooler winter months of October through March. Mornings are typically begun by strong fog in the early hours which can shroud the majestic architecture of the Taj Mahal. Starting at Mehtab Bagh is an excellent way to capture the sun breaking through the clouds before the haze of the afternoon has a chance to set. Add in a stop at Itmad-ud-Daulah and Chini-Ka-Rauza, and you’ll feel as though the effort to reach this side of Agra was doubly worthwhile.
Visitors to Mehtab Bagh won’t find many other tourists. A few domestic travelers wander through the meticulously maintained paths as gardeners and various workers trim, plant, water, and tend to the sprawling vegetation. Newly rebuilt fountains are sometimes switched on giving just a hint of how glorious the original mughal garden must have been.
Young lovers can be spotted under the shade of a tree or mulling through the various flower lined lanes. Beautiful birds and other small wildlife roam freely among the dark green hue of ground cover.
Don’t expect a grand entrance on the scale of say Agra Fort or the Taj Mahal. The entrance to Mehtab Bagh is reserved and understated. A simple ticket booth sits within a barbed wire fence extending along the garden walls. Limited street parking is found nearby. A few touts sit near the entrance selling the usual Indian trinkets: bangles, hand paint blocks, miniature Taj Mahal sculptures, etc. And last but not least, camel rides can be taken up and down the road running parallel to the garden for a fee.