The meaning of ‘Shalimar’

Published: January 25, 2012
The writer is Director at the South Asian Media School in Lahore

The writer is Director at the South Asian Media School in Lahore [email protected]

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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Reader Comments (25)

  • asdf
    Jan 25, 2012 - 11:22PM

    Acc to Wikipedia:
    Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in Agra from 1632-1653.
    Shah Jehan built the Jama Masjid in Delhi from 1644-1658.
    And according to you, Shah Jeahn built the Shalimar Gardens in Kashmir in 1641.

    What an amazing emperor who was busy building three different and such large scale projects in three different cities at the same times! Dig deeper my friend.
    Here is a start.′ async defer=’defer


  • Falcon
    Jan 25, 2012 - 11:24PM

    Now this is an interesting piece of information. I would have never figured it out.


  • Abid Saleem
    Jan 25, 2012 - 11:33PM

    beautiful piece…makes my day..khalid Sahib


  • Balma
    Jan 25, 2012 - 11:38PM

    If instead of building shalimars and rawzas, these Mughals had built any universities and colleges for science and maths, it would have been a different story today! Instead of a bhooka-nangaa Pakistan (and Hindustan) we would have a much advanced society in the sub-continent.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Jan 26, 2012 - 1:52AM

    Balma u think its mughals fault no my friend its our fault we still Hindu muslim but Hindustanis and all the madnes of war and helping the Raj to get there feet in india we are chaploose and we were chumchay of invaders we are Mir Jaffars and Mir sadiqs…


  • Mohammad Taqi
    Jan 26, 2012 - 2:20AM

    Khaled sahib,
    Interesting as always. But ruling out Riyaz/Riyadh/Rawza seems arbitrary. Not many Arab gardens could be cited that were called Imarat. Arbaic (as well as Persian & Urdu) books that usually have garden as part of their name are never called say Imarat-ul-uloom . Hadeeqa-tul-Uloom, Bostaan e Khayal and so on where Hadeeqa(Arabic) and Bostaan(Persian/Arabic) could be cited.
    An area in the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah is called Riaz-ul-Jannah where riaz/riyadh specifically refers to garden.
    Also why could maar be from maah and not mehr (sun).



  • Dr A K Khan
    Jan 26, 2012 - 9:10AM

    Shah Jahan caused a minor famine by diverting food to the laborers who built the Taj Mahal. His love of Mumtaz obviously did not extend to the common people. But then again he was of Uzbek-Mongol ancestry and who were well known for their genocidal impulses towards alien races.


  • asdf
    Jan 26, 2012 - 11:53AM

    @Dr A K Khan

    Read my message above. It’s entirely possible that every single building (including taj mahal, redfort, shalimar, qutub minar, jama masjid, the famous dome shaped masjid in bangladesh) in north india/pakistan/afghanistan pre-existed the islamic era and later rulers just remodeled them. Check out the history of hagia sofia in istanbul and apply it everywhere in the subcontinent. This is a tall claim but entirely plausible and needs to be researched in an unbiased fashion.


  • ghjk
    Jan 26, 2012 - 12:49PM

    @asdf: Wikipedia? Wow!!


  • Vicram Singh
    Jan 26, 2012 - 1:15PM

    @asdf: ” … It’s entirely possible that every single building (including taj mahal, redfort, shalimar, qutub minar, jama masjid, the famous dome shaped masjid in bangladesh) in north india/pakistan/afghanistan pre-existed the islamic era and later rulers just remodeled them. … “

    It is ok to use the word “temples” to refer to those pre-Islamic “buildings”.


  • O.B Server
    Jan 26, 2012 - 3:00PM


    The author does not claim that Shah Jahan built Shalimar in Kashmir. It was Jahangir who built it for Empress Nur Jahan.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Jan 26, 2012 - 7:01PM

    some time wikipidia is full of balonies i dont know who fixed it hahaha


  • Cynical
    Jan 26, 2012 - 9:32PM

    @Vikram Singh

    Are you guys serious? Appreciate a few links.


  • Nagpuri
    Jan 26, 2012 - 9:43PM

    @ Ali Tanoli. This is first time i’m agreeing with you, which i thought would never happen. And this is first time you went to root cause. All the conversions and slavery of all invaders is because of our geography but also history of parochialism and close mindedness. We never thought we can learn from other and never adjusted to invaders who were from different culture and have completely different ethos.

    We lacked solid character and self respect/identity/ego/ghairat, like Japanese, we are ready to kill our own to be in the good books and better slaves of our masters. Always be on the side of power. Will worship anyone who has power. We go all out to be great slaves, ready to their bidding as they throw few shackles, piece of land.

    We are all lotas, will always be flexible to be at the service in power, no limit to that. We will change our party, religion, marry our sisters to them, no bottom. We should change our name to loataistan.


  • kaalchakra
    Jan 26, 2012 - 9:54PM


    If it is a tall claim then why do you make it? Do you believe in it?

    I have no doubt in my mind that Muslims destroyed and practically wiped out the temples (to the extent politically possible for them) in the entire region extending up to North India. But that is far from the statement you made.

    BTW, unbiased researchers do not spend their time investigating tall claims – claims that do not seem prima-facie true.


  • kaalchakra
    Jan 26, 2012 - 10:08PM


    Muslim rulers in India paid considerable attention to sufis, Islamic preachers, madrassas and such. Often they were politically allied. There is no indication that they had any interest in any knowledge other than Islamic and military (leaving aside some oddities like dara shikoh, who was not a ruler, in any case, or Akbar who created his own religion and could not be called a Muslim by stretch of imagination.)


  • Ali Tanoli
    Jan 27, 2012 - 2:32AM

    I Agreed sir its not too late yet i think if we understad. japan example is the best one .. u know
    i laughed some time when ever i read it that Mr Jinnah, Sir Agha khan and others were discussing the national language for pakistan and most of them were dont know Urdu…
    persian or Arabic.


  • asdf
    Jan 27, 2012 - 5:48AM

    Nothing was destroyed or wiped out. Only remodelled. The enmity was with the native religions, idols and not with the architecture or the buildings which probably existed in the subcontinent. From the Islamic rulers perspectives, they were bringing the “true” religion, were a civilizing force and were not barbaric destroyers, hence the remodeling HAD to happen, and i dont thnk any destruction happened. (my theory)

    read up the taj mahal controversy on the web, you already know babri masjid controversy. use mathematical induction and think outside the box.


  • asdf
    Jan 27, 2012 - 5:58AM

    @O.B Server

    Yes you are correct. Replace Lahore with Kashmir in my first message.


  • Dr A K Khan
    Jan 27, 2012 - 7:29AM

    Yes I have actually visited Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. By the way you can still see graffiti left by the Vikings. I think the dome of Hagia Sofia was inspired the Parthenon in Rome . I also suspect the dome of the Taj Mahal uses building techniques that date back to the ancient Romans. This is just my theory because the building technology to my untrained eyes look so similar.


  • Dr A K Khan
    Jan 27, 2012 - 8:11AM


    Another thing it was British who introduced universities again in India. There was no institution remotely comparable to them in Mughal times. The Mughals destroyed the Indian universities in their invasions. Remember they were simple nomads from the central asian steppes – what do you expect from them.

    In British times, it was the Hindus who were teachers and professors in the schools and universities. By the way the teachers of our Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam were Hindus.


  • Malatesh
    Jan 27, 2012 - 9:24AM

    We Know TAJ MAHAL as symbol of love. But the other lesser known facts are
    1.Mumtaz was Shahjahan’s 4th wife, out of his 7 wives.
    2.Shahjahan Killed Mumthaz’s Husband to marry her.
    3.Mumtaz died in her 14th delivery.
    4.He then Married Mumtaz’s sister.
    Question Arises where the Hell is LOVE?


  • Arijit Sharma
    Jan 28, 2012 - 1:04PM

    @Dr A K Khan: … and to add to your comments, it was a particular Turkish/Muslim ruler of Bengal who laid The Nalanda University to waste.


  • kaalchakra
    Jan 28, 2012 - 2:21PM


    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.


  • Homa
    Jan 28, 2012 - 9:44PM

    @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.


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