The meaning of ‘Shalimar’

Anna Suvorova in her book Lahore: Topophilia of Space and Place has succeeded in unravelling the origin of the word.


Khaled Ahmed January 25, 2012

Lahoris must have wondered what Shalimar means when they visit the Shalimar Gardens. At times they call it Shalamar, perhaps leaning on the Hindi connection of shala meaning ‘home’. No one can guess what ‘mar’ then means. But the name is synonymous today with a garden of great beauty.

Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built the Shalimar Gardens in 1641. Aurangzeb stopped there, in particular in 1658, when chasing his brother Dara Shikoh, who had fled to Multan from Lahore. Russian scholar Anna Suvorova in her book Lahore: Topophilia of Space and Place (OUP 2011) has succeeded in unravelling the origin of the word Shalimar. She writes:

“The name of Lahore’s main garden, Shalimar or Shalamar, remains a mystery. It is usually translated as ‘abode of light’ or ‘moonlight’, without any grammatical or lexical explanations. Several Mughal gardens bear the name Shalimar: like the one built by Jahangir for Empress Nur Jahan, near Srinagar in Kashmir. It is situated on four terraces, the uppermost of which was intended for the women of the harem and was the least visible from outside. Irrigated by mighty cascades and numerous fountains and planted with trees that changed colour in spring and autumn, this garden was one of the most beautiful sights of the Indian Subcontinent” (p.91).

She finds any exploration of Turkic origins of the name irrelevant and discovers that an Arabic name could have been at the root of the name: “The most correct etymology is Arabic or, more precisely, Arabic-Persian. This etymology has been proposed by, among others, the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopaedic Dictionary, which derives the garden’s name from the Arabic expression shah al-‘imarat (Master of Buildings)”.

It should be kept in mind that the word ‘imarat’ (building) was historically used for park architecture and gardens in general. Muslim sources often refer to gardens as structures (imarat). Still, the word structure can hardly be applied to a diamond, if we accept the version that the garden was named after a diamond. However, the other proposed Persian prototype of the gardens sho’la-i mah ‘moonlight’ — could well apply to a diamond, although one could ask why the commonly accepted word mah (‘moon’) turned into mar. In any case, no matter what Shalimar means, it most likely has Arabic-Persian roots.

So it was shah al-imarat which got twisted into Shalimar in the mouth of the common man. But there is additional information supplied by Suvorova.

In fact, the garden was not named Shalimar initially. Built between July 1641 and October 1642, the garden had several names, according to contemporary chroniclers Abdul Hamid Lahori and Muhammad Saleh Kanbuh: the uppermost of the three terraces was called Farahbakhsh, (‘Garden of Delight’), while the middle and lower terraces were called Faizbakhsh (‘Garden of Bounty’).

It is not known when or why the Garden began to be called Shalimar (after Jahangir’s garden in Kashmir). In historical works, the name Shalimar began to be applied to the Lahore garden in the first quarter of the 18th century, in Khafi Khan’s chronicle Extraction from the Core (Muntakhab al-lubab), i.e., during the reign of Bahadur Shah I (Aurangzeb’s son) (p.93).

PS: One problem with Arabic was that its word for garden was rowza applied to tombs in India. The plural of rowza/rowdha is ‘ryadh’, which is also the name of the capital of Saudi Arabia. Most tombs are located in a leafy garden; hence the name. When you learn music you practise in a secluded corner which could be a garden; therefore, practising music is called riaz. Since mathematics requires constant practice it is also called riazi. Shalimar simply could not be called Rowza.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 26th, 2012. 

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COMMENTS (25)

Homa | 8 years ago | Reply | Recommend

@the author: you and a couple of other writers are the only reasons i periodically visit this otherwise uninteresting newspaper. Apart from the readers' comments, there very little that is worth reading in this newspaper and also since my comments are often censored or excluded, i have even less of an incentive to frequent this website lately. However, in this mass of banal articles, your write-ups are a redeeming exception -- i just wanted to let you know. I want to say to you that you will be doing a great service to all of humanity if your articles are translated into urdu/other pak languages for the readership of the vernacular press. It is the vernacular citizenry of pakistan that needs to hear your wise messages very urgently. Please do something to make sure you get publsihed in the urdu newspapers of pakistan.

kaalchakra | 8 years ago | Reply | Recommend

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IMO, the appraoch of Islamic rulers toward native religions was a little complex. It reflected, of course, Islam's approach itself, ranging from destruction to domination depending upon time, place, and political expediency. Some religous places of native people were pulled down and turned to rubble, and looted, some were remodeled (latter mostly under sufistic shenanigans), some just left alone, and some remained simply beyond Islamic reach - the continuing to survive even today. As far as Islamic rulers were concerned, the early years (upto 12th-13th century) were mostly of destruction, later years (after 12th century), of mostly domination.

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