Spring 1973: Following Mrs. Villiers-Stuart

1. The capital city of Chandigarh designed by Le Corbusier. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection

Life is extemporaneous, and one learns to take advantage of unexpected opportunities—ready or not. I intended to explore old Mughal gardens by following Constance Villiers-Stuart, author of Gardens of the Great Mughals, in a historical progression. I did not expect to start with the last large pleasure garden created during the reign of the Great Mughals. However, in India I quickly learned to make the most of the moment.

In the spring of 1973, my husband, Pat, the recently appointed US ambassador to India, was invited to visit Chandigarh, the shared capital of two North Indian states, the Punjab and Haryana. The city was conceived at India’s independence in 1947 by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who described it as “an expression of India’s faith in the future.” It was designed by Le Corbusier, the modernist architect and urban designer. Pat was particularly knowledgeable about architecture, an interest we shared, and looked forward to seeing Chandigarh (fig. 1). He invited me along on what sounded like a fascinating trip. We would travel northwest 153 miles on the Grand Trunk Road (GTR), which we were told was a fast, direct route.

It was a white-knuckle, bite-your-lip, keep-your-eyes-shut-tight, and hold-your-breath trip that lasted for hours! When you looked straight ahead, you were speeding toward an overloaded, painted monster truck streaking at you, its marigold garlands flapping. If you ducked and turned aside, there was a similar truck, off the road, knocked on its side, engine steaming, its load scattered. Today, in modern India, the GTR is a divided highway and the trucks are not as dangerous or as colorfully decorated. In 1973 it was a single-lane road and a game of chicken all the way. We were relieved when we arrived in Chandigarh—alive.

Elizabeth Moynihan meeting with Dr. M.S. Randhawa and another gentleman around a table.
2. Elizabeth Moynihan with Dr. M. S. Randhawa in Chandigarh. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

Our visit had been arranged by Dr. M. S. Randhawa (fig. 2), a multitalented, energetic man who had worked closely with Corbusier and Maxwell Fry in the 1950s on the planning and construction of the city and was one of its first residents. Chandigarh was an experiment, an entirely new planned city, at the edge of the great North Indian Plain on the wooded lower slopes of the Sivalik Hills. Noted for the architecture of its government center, Chandigarh was planned as a garden city featuring an enormous rose garden, planted in a naturalistic pattern, following a stream that curved through the city. I had recently learned that it was in these foothills of the western Himalayas that Babur prepared for his decisive 1526 battle at Panipat, where he defeated the Lodi Sultan of Delhi (Ibrahim Lodi). When we met, I was thrilled to learn that Dr. Randhawa was an enthusiastic admirer of the Baburnama and was writing a book (published in 1983) on the miniature paintings in the volume held by the National Museum of India. On our arrival, he took us on a tour of Corbusier’s government buildings before Pat’s scheduled meeting with local and regional officials. He told me how, on first seeing the Baburnama in 1970, he recognized, as a naturalist, the importance of the paintings to the study of biology in India, separate from the text’s value as an historical source. He set out to see as many of the original sixteenth-century paintings as possible. When he traveled to a conference in Moscow, he stopped to see folios from the Baburnama at the State Museum of Oriental Art and made similar visits to the British Museum and the V&A.

Dr. Randhawa led us across Corbusier’s vast, empty plaza, and the setting provided a striking contrast to his remarks praising Babur as the “first natural history scientist to make accurate observations of the flora and fauna of India.” I found the stark setting of the government center alien but was attracted to the layout of clustered residential zones with open spaces and the rose garden.

Clouds of Butterflies

Following our tour, Dr. Randahawa announced a surprise: a car was waiting to take me to Pinjore while he took Pat to meet scientists working on the green revolution, a USAID term for new technology in farming. It referred to high-yield hybrid grains developed in the 1960s that had been in use in India for only a few years. Pat was excited about his meeting, and I was excited about my trip to the garden. Mrs. Stuart had spent several days at Pinjore, a visit she described at length in her book.

Since my arrival in India, I’d seen only one Mughal garden, the first large Mughal tomb garden ever createdHumayun’s tomb, built in Delhi in 1573 by the emperor Akbar, Babur’s grandson. Now I was about to see the last large Mughal pleasure garden, built one hundred years later by Fidai Khan during the reign of his foster brother Aurangzeb (reigned 1658–1707).

From Chandigarh, it is only twenty miles and one thousand feet straight up the Sivalik to Pinjore, and not nearly as perilous as the GTR. In Mrs. Stuart’s time, this was the route to Simla, the summer capital of the British Raj. The road turns west in Chandigarh and rises to seven thousand feet over the next sixty miles to Simla.

The vista is wonderful. Pinjore lies at the top of a lush valley (fig. 3) with mountains rising behind it. The high valley faces southwest, allowing the garden to take advantage of the multiple springs on the slopes above the nearby ancient Brahmin village of Panchpura. This spectacularly beautiful area is believed to be the setting of the final scenes in the epic poem the Mahabharata, one of the world’s great legends, still celebrated annually in India. Panch, meaning five, refers to the five Pandava brothers, the heroes of the epic, who spent eleven years in exile in the lovely forests crowning the Sivalik Hills.

3. Lush flora surrounds Pinjore. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

There are almost three hundred springs on this hillside; some holy springs in the village are still surrounded by ancient stonework with Sanskrit inscriptions. From these hillside sources, the water flows in clay pipes underground, then through sediment tanks, to emerge gushing out of a massive stone bowl set in a long, shallow pool just inside the garden’s entrance gate. This bowl is meant to suggest a spring bubbling up to feed the cascades and water channels throughout the extensive garden. The water channels had been repaired, but sadly the retiling had a municipal-works look rather than a Mughal appearance. The high, crenellated walls seemed to hold back the thickly wooded borders beyond them, as if they were protecting the open terraces from encroachment by the greenery.

Mrs. Stuart made her first visit to Pinjore in “the closing days of a brilliant Indian October.” She was enchanted to be alone amid clouds of butterflies hovering over the wild tangle of bright flowers. She noted that “most of them were golden brown like their favorite flowers, the marigolds”; the prettiest was a large, pale-blue butterfly with delicate black veined wings.

The Goiter Stratagem

Fidai Khan, who created the garden, was one of the few people Emperor Aurangzeb trusted. He was given the responsibility of constructing the emperor’s beautiful Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, the largest on the subcontinent when it was completed in 1674. During the 1658–59 war of succession between Shah Jahan’s sons, Aurangzeb, the winner, seized the throne and imprisoned his father; he then defeated his brothers. Shah Jahan had favored his more aesthetic son Dara Shikoh, who had planned to build an elegant tomb in Lahore to honor his spiritual guide. After Aurangzeb defeated and killed Dara, Fidai Khan, acting for the new emperor, immediately appropriated all the rare and costly materials Dara had accumulated and used them for the Badshahi Mosque. Fidai Khan was made governor of the area and, given Pinjore’s proximity to Lahore, it is probable that he created the garden as his personal retreat while he oversaw the construction of the mosque.

Mrs. Stuart related an amusing and well-known anecdote about how Fidai Khan was outwitted and forced to abandon Pinjore. During his reign, Aurangzeb, an orthodox Muslim, revived the jizya, a tax on non-Muslims, and local Brahmins feared Fidai Khan would expand his holdings and ruin their livelihood. They craftily found Sivalik residents with goiters to staff Pinjore, including the women who served the zenana. When the afflicted servants told Fidai Khan’s women the local water had caused their goiters, the zenana panicked and refused to stay, forcing Fidai Khan to leave. Within a few years Aurengzeb left Lahore, moving south to focus on his endless war in the Deccan; his faithful foster brother may have followed him. Whatever his fate, Fidai Khan apparently never returned to Pinjore.

In the eighteenth century, the garden was abandoned, and in 1793 part of the walled outer enclosure was dismantled to make room for a road. The garden became wildly overgrown until it was taken over by the Sikh rulers of Patiala State in the nineteenth century. Local storytellers claim the entire central terrace was once planted with red roses to produce attar for the maharaja. In its current twenty-first-century incarnation, it has become a popular public park called Yadavindra Gardens, named for the popular maharaja of Patiala State who ruled at the time of India’s independence. It is also used as a setting for historical Bollywood films.

Precious Squares of Emerald Green

Later, in a conversation with Dr. K. L. Chadha, a horticulturist expert on Indian gardens, I learned Pinjore had important advantages—good soil and access to reliable irrigation—so it was not dependent on the summer monsoon or at risk to damage from dust storms. This made it the ideal place to establish a large terraced garden. Dr. Chadha said that at that time (1973) Pinjore consisted of approximately fifty acres, of which almost twenty acres were fruit orchards restored in the twentieth century by Maharaja Yadavindra Singh (1913–1974), who had a passionate interest in horticulture. In the mild climate of Pinjore, he tried many exotic fruits; however, the most successful groves were his twenty varieties of mango. This led to varietal trials on new subtropical fruit during a period when Pinjore was designated a fruit research station by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. The garden also functioned as a nursery during the development of Chandigarh, supplying ornamental plants as well as fruit trees for the landscaping of the new city.

4. View of Pinjore Garden from the upper terraces. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

Unlike the hillside Mughal gardens in Kashmir—where you approach across the water, enter lakeside, and rise to the upper terraces—in Pinjore, you enter on the highest terrace then descend through six expansive, open terraces. On the highest terrace, the Shish Mahal, a narrow residence built at the change in level, faces the Rang Mahal at the end of the second terrace, where its high chambers overlook the third terrace, and the Jal Mahal, a small, square structure set in a pool that appears to be curtained by fountains (fig. 4). At each change in level, the watercourse creates a misty sheet of water as it cascades down in front of rows of earthen oil lamps set in niches carved in the wall (figs. 5, 6). Called chini khana, this device was a great favorite of the Mughals and was used in almost every great Mughal garden. At night when the small lamps are lit, the shimmering effect in the streaming water is truly magical. Throughout the entire garden the water channel with its single line of shallow fountains was flanked by broad paved paths and wide planting beds edged with low clipped hedges.

5. A cascade of water flows down into the terraced garden. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

From the upper story of the Rang Mahal overlooking the cascades and the watercourses running through the terraces of Pinjore, you can appreciate the huge scale preferred by Fidai Khan. Mrs. Stuart spent her time here painting watercolors by day and sleeping away the night in the delicately plastered and painted chambers of the zenana. Her rooms overlooked the purdah garden on the second level, which still measured 100 yards wide by 160 yards deep, the same as the first terrace when I saw it. The terraces gradually grow deeper as you descend to the enormous lowest terrace—280 yards wide by 350 yards deep.

Mrs. Stuart was disappointed by the British desire to have “mown grass everywhere, instead of having a little laid down quite formally, and keeping that little perfect, like some square of precious emerald green carpet, such as the ‘grass plots all covered with clover’ in which the Emperor Babar took so great a delight.” Sensibly and courageously, she consistently criticized the imposition of mown greenswards in India as inappropriate to the climate and the culture.

6. Chini khana, niches with rows of oil lamps overlooking the water. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

In the enormous lower garden, which had gone wild, she found what she thought would please Babur: “narcissus, those sweet scented flowers which Babur loved and planted in his new gardens at Agra, together with roses.… His orange trees, too, of the Garden of Fidelity [Bagh-i-Wafa —with which he was so pleased—here they were and citron trees, their boughs bending with their load of pale yellow fruit.”

In describing the change in levels at Pinjore, Mrs. Stuart commented on the steps found in Mughal gardens in general: “The Mughal garden stairways are nearly all re-entrant and wind up through the thickness of the terrace walls—a wise plan obviously for hot countries; but even in the open the steps are steep and clumsy, their only ornament being the favorite leaf pattern cut on the upper edge of each rise, and in more modern work even this decoration is absent.”

7. Cyrus Jhabvala, dean of the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi and a friend of the author’s. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

When I mentioned Mrs. Stuart’s comment to my friend and teacher Cyrus Jhabvala (fig. 7), he explained that historically Indian stonemasons used steps to maintain the appearance of a straight line.Expanding on Mrs. Stuart’s observation, I would add that it is characteristic of Mughal architecture not to treat stairs as a design feature. The Buland Darwaza at Fatehpur Sikri is one of the few examples in which a stairway is integral to the design of the structure.

Symbolism is important in all Mughal gardens, and in Pinjore the terraces represented the planets. Water dominated the garden; when I saw it, the fountains were overflowing. The avenues of cypress trees were gone, but tall palms flanked the water channel on the entrance terrace, and there were groves of fruit trees against the outer walls on the lower terraces amid a tangle of brush. However, there were almost no flowers, no roses at all, and so no clouds of the butterflies like those that charmed Mrs. Stuart.

On that day in 1973, I was practically the only visitor. Pinjore was almost empty except for one distant gardener far below on the lowest terrace, sweeping the lawn as a flock of bright green parrots circled above him, then dipped back to the Jal Mahal and its spraying fountains. The only sound was the rushing water. It cast a spell, perhaps because it came from sacred springs; the atmosphere had a timeless quality. I wished I had a copy of the Mahabarata with me. As the sun set and I walked to the gate, the intense scent of Cestrum nocturnum swept over the path—queen of the night, my favorite.