[In Dholpur] we stopped on the top of a dam where a new garden was being made. The next morning I stayed to inspect the places that had been ordered. They had not yet raised the face of the scalloped pool I had ordered out of the solid rock, so I ordered more than a thousand stonecutters to come and cut down the base of the pool so that the water could be put in and the edges leveled. Late that afternoon they got the face of the pool loose and filled it with water. Then they got to work leveling and smoothing the edges by means of the water. This time I ordered another cistern to be hewn of solid rock, with a small pool inside, also to be cut from solid rock. (Baburnama, ff. 344–344b)

It is remarkable that the central terrace at the Lotus Garden has survived. Its design, a progression of lotus pools carved into the rock (fig. 1), develops a single floral theme, the Life of the Lotus, that is reinforced by the size and placement of the pools. In the first pool, tight lotus buds and crisp foliation decorate a small hexagon (fig. 2); the water overflows into the narrow channel that carries it to Babur’s ten-by-ten octagonal pool—a full lotus blossom. From there, the water streams down a double water chute into a smaller octagon, where the separating petals represent a fading lotus flower. The intricate geometry is impressive, the execution flawless, and the concept wonderful.

Unintended Consequences and Unfulfilled Hopes

India Magazine (fig. 3) and several newspapers published positive articles about the Lotus Garden, and there was substantial public interest. However, following the next state election, the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took over Rajasthan’s government, the district collector was reassigned, and his plan to restore the garden died.

Mughal Ruins. Where Babur Sowed the Seed. A few kilometres from Dholpur, an hour's drive from Agra, a recent discovery might well throw new light on Babur's contribution to landscaping. So far, the Ram Bagh in Agra was his only important legacy to India. MRs Pat Moynihan, wife of former American ambassador to India, arrived at the village of Jhor after a careful study of Babur's memoirs, the Babur Nama, in which the Mughal Emperor describes an octagonal pool meant to be filled with wine. Knowing the Emperor's taste for alcohol and his passion for gardens, it is not surprising that he combined the two. Perhaps after defeating Sultan Ibrahim at Panipat (1526) thereby bringing an end to the reign of the Dehli Sultans and establishing the Mughal Empire in India, Babur wanted to settle down in Dholpur. In Fact, Dholpur, situated on teh banks of Chambal river, was then regarded as a strategic point, so much so that a century later, in 1658, Dara marched to Dholpur in order to prevent his two brothers, Aurangzeb and Murad, from crossing the river. But legend has it that Babur was discouraged from settling down at Dholpur by a saint who thought the place unsuitable. Or maybe the aridity of the land at Jhor village was a more practical reason for abandoning the site. Apart from a few trees near the well, the land around what was once Babur's favourite garden is barren and inhospitable.
3. India Today article about the author’s role in unearthing the Lotus Garden. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

The residents were very poor, and I took soap and medical supplies to them whenever I visited. I had a very good meeting at UNICEF in Delhi to discuss the increasing number of Jhor children suffering from hookworm and schistosomiasis who needed care and prevention. I hoped that UNICEF would help. I’d seen how their simple pumps could transform rural communities. The director was very encouraging, and I was told a field worker would follow up. Two years later, I was told the departure of the director and a reduction in field workers meant no personnel were available to undertake the project. It was distressing to see attempts to help the people of Jhor fail.

In 1982, my son John, my friend Eileen Blumenthal (fig. 4), and I spent a week at the garden, clearing and measuring additional sections of the main terrace. There was a new district collector, an ambitious man with terrible judgment and a reputation for being corrupt. Apparently he had approved the construction of a cinder-block housing development—hundreds of identical houses—directly opposite the Lotus Garden in the barren desert. Not a drop of water, not a tree; they were like ovens. Electricity was connected to the development from a new line that crossed the catchment area at Sikandar’s dam, but it was not made available to residents of Jhor.

Hari Singh Rajoria, the author, Eileen Blumenthal, and Niranjan Rajoria.
4. Hari Singh Rajoria, the author, Eileen Blumenthal, and Niranjan Rajoria. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

I visited again in 1995 when I was co-chair of an Indo-US panel on the Agra area. Following the meeting, my friends Milo C. Beach, former Freer|Sackler director, and designer and curator Rajeev Sethi, and I drove down to the Lotus Garden and were appalled. Because of the cinder-block development along the main road, rumors had circulated, expectations had been raised, and dozens of unemployed men and their families had gone to Jhor. But the Lotus Garden had never been declared a protected site, and there were hundreds of people living around it. The nalawas dry; the fields were not producing food because huts had been built on them. Trash was everywhere. Employment was very limited; the people were very poor and seemed angry. What had been a lovely, poor but somehow sustainable village had been destroyed. It was totally degraded and very depressing.

Documenting the Garden

Whenever I went to the Lotus Garden, I informed the US Embassy in New Delhi and the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC. This was necessary because of my husband’s position. To my relief, my interest in the site has never been questioned or been a source of conflict. However, the village of Jhor has long been victim to political maneuvering. When Babur defeated the Rajput confederation in 1527, this area—i.e., from the foothills of the Aravali Hills to the Chambal River—was referred to as Mewat. The formerly Hindu rulers, who converted to Islam, controlled it, ruling from Tijara.

Babur described a confusing and frustrating situation:

… The province of Mewat was near Delhi, with a total income of about three or four crores. Hasan Khan of Mewat and his forefathers had been ruling Mewat independently for a century or two, giving only halfhearted allegiance to the sultans of Delhi. The sultans of India, unable to consolidate the area further because of the vast extent of their territory, or for lack of opportunity or because the terrain in Mewat was mountainous, left them alone under nominal suzerainty. (Baburnama, f. 325)

5. Maura singing at a gathering in Jhor. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

During the weeks in which we documented the garden, Maura, who is fluent in Hindi and knew Bollywood songs, entertained many of the women by drawing their portraits and painting scenes of the village as she sang (fig. 5). The women entertained her in turn with stories as they posed or watched. When Shahzadi, the oldest, toughest woman in Jhor, bragged she owned her house, the women laughed. She claimed her ancestors were zamindars for the Mughals. Angrily insisting she could prove it, she went into her hut and emerged with a worn school notebook. Between the pages she had inserted old parchment pages with multiple signatures and stamped with seals. No one in the village knew about them, including her son, who had just retired from a job at the Dholpur Palace. Shahzadi would not part with them, but now there was a chance they’d be taken from her.

The two women who taught the village school—a rickety table set up on the central terrace twice a week—were at Jhor that day. I arranged to photograph the documents and asked the teachers and Niranjan Rajoria to serve as witnesses to the event. We all gathered around; photos were taken of everyone, with Shahzadi holding the documents. Maura went into town, bought a metal box, and wrapped the documents in silk; we locked them in the box and gave Shahzadi the box and key. It was all very public and solemn. She took the box inside her hut, and no one saw them again, including the dacoits who frightened Jhor with a midnight raid the following week. We learned they made regular raids every six weeks. We’d supplied the men who helped us with brooms and shovels, which didn’t interest the robbers, so they left the villagers alone and disappeared on their scooters.

6. Fragments of a firman issued by Emperor Aurangzeb. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

When I returned to Washington, DC, I asked a Persian expert at the Library of Congress to use the photos to translate the documents, and we learned they were tax receipts. Did the villagers own the land? That would explain the tax documents. I’d given copies of the photographs to Dr. Siddiqi, who had been transferred from Agra to Delhi. He very kindly translated the names and the documents, but I didn’t hear that until the following year. There were fragments of a firman issued by Emperor Aurangzeb (fig. 6) in his twelfth regnal year (1670), granting fifty bighas of land to the grandson of Shaykh Muhammad Ghawth of Gwalior, a famous Sufi saint. Other documents confirmed that earlier emperors had granted property to the saint’s family that included “land, tank, and gardens at Jhor and Muhammadur.” Perhaps that meant the Lotus Garden.

Dr. Siddiqi said the firman had been officially verified by eight seals associated with revenue officials and a list of witnesses. We had a partial explanation. I guess that was enough to prevent the government from designating the Lotus Garden a protected site—because it may have been private property. I’ve never heard an official explanation.

In 2012, my friend Minakshi Jain, an architect and conservator who teaches in Ahmedabad, asked the ASI in Delhi for my report and the surveyor’s drawings of the Lotus Garden, but they could not be found. Later the staff said they did not have them. I had personally taken a set of photographs and documents to the office in Delhi. In the spring of 2012 I sent a duplicate set of the twelve drawings to Professor Jain, because I wanted someone in India who understood the garden to have them. Professor Jain went to the Lotus Garden, and one of her students cleaned the large lotus pool, filled it with water, and took a photo of it brimming with clean water. The walls are even, as Babur had insisted. It was the first time I’d ever seen it filled with water, thanks to Professor Jain.

The Natural Order of Things

On Thursday the eleventh of the month [December 24, 1528] the stone well, the twenty-six waterspouts, the stone columns, and the water channels carved out of solid rock were ready, and at the third watch of this day water began to be drawn from the well. The stonemasons, carpenters, and all the laborers working in Dholpur were rewarded like the masters and laborers in Agra. As a precaution against having any bad odor created from the well water, it was ordered that the waterwheels should be run and water drawn continuously for fifteen days and nights. (Baburnama, ff. 353b–354)

This is Babur’s most puzzling entry about the Lotus Garden. Some consider it to be a reference to fountains, but I thought it might be an aqueduct; this was confirmed when I saw the arches. This is the only known Mughal aqueduct. On-site investigation proved that no series of fountains could have existed in the gravity-fed water system. The only arable land in the seared landscape surrounding the sandstone outcrop are sediment beds produced by ancient dams that form a fertile crescent next to the rock where Babur’s buildings were located. From a well in those fields, the aqueduct ran 82.7 meters to a distribution pool on the rock. The twenty-six rock pillars were the arched stone piers (fig. 7) that supported the water channel. The spouts were the carved openings at either end of the stone basins above each arch. The water spouted down onto the planting beds.

The arches of the Lotus Garden aqueduct.
7. The arches of the Lotus Garden aqueduct. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

The Baburnama confirms that water was the major element in Babur’s gardens. Imbued with the mystical Muslim attachment to water, he used it with exceptional skill. He was unusually observant and appreciative of nature, but in his gardens he imposed his own order—straightening streams or enclosing springs. He saw many fountains in Samarkand, but in his gardens Babur preferred falling water; he built cascades, not fountains. In his aqueduct he moved water in a straight line across a flat plane to fill his rock-cut pools, but he also provided cascades to irrigate the garden. Though utilitarian in purpose, the aqueduct was also a decorative feature of the garden.

Next: The Lotus Garden: Part 3 »