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The Moonlight Garden Reveals New Discoveries at the Taj Mahal

Romantic stories based on fact and myth surround India’s beautiful Taj Mahal, a tomb built by the Mughal ruler Shahjahan (1592 -1666; reigned 1628 – 1658) as a monument to his wife and favorite companion, Arjumand Bano Begum, known as Mumtaz Mahal (1590 – 1629). Until recently, however, little has been known about the ruined garden known as the Mahtab Bagh, found directly across the Yamuna River from this legendary monument. An intense seven-year project to study the the Mahtab Bagh was recently carried out under the sponsorship of the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave., S.W.) in cooperation with the Archaeological Survey of India. The results of the study can now be found in The Moonlight Garden: New Discoveries at the Taj Mahal, edited by Elizabeth B. Moynihan, with additional contributions by paleoethnobotanist David L. Lentz; experts on the symbolism of the urban layout of the 14th -16th-century imperial capital at Vijayanagara, John M. Fritz and George Michell; and James L. Wescoat Jr., whose specialties include the water resources of South Asia and the American West.

Matching the Taj gardens in width and alignment, this “Moonlight Garden” was flooded and abandoned soon after its construction. While evidence of pavilions still exists, the Mahtab Bagh is now overgrown with native phuse grassland and guava trees; its origins almost entirely obscured by deep layers of silt. The book discusses the botanical history and elaborate irrigation systems as well as the landscape design of this erstwhile garden, producing conclusions that cast new light on its genesis and function while de-bunking the myth that it was intended to house the black marble tomb of Shahjahan.

The Mahtab Bagh is just one of many gardens along the bank of the Yamuna River in Agra that were used for residences and pleasure grounds by Shahjahan’s great-great grandfather, the Mughal invader Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (1483 – 1530; reigned 1526 – 1530), his nobles and successors. A choice resting-place for these semi-nomadic rulers, the gardens symbolized the imperial presence while also functioning as staging areas for military campaigns, and havens used for both rest and lavish entertainment. Silken awnings, rich carpets, bolsters, cushions and elegant hangings decorated the gardens’ pavilions and platforms and musicians, acrobats, singers and dancers entertained, followed by great fireworks displays. Although the original purpose of the Moonlight Garden remains obscure, it is likely to have been designed by Shahjahan for contemplation of the Taj Mahal and its reflection in the garden’s raised octagonal pool.

“Modeled after the Persian concept of earthly paradise,” says director of the Freer and Sackler galleries Milo Beach, “the pleasure gardens of the 17th century Mughal emperors (ruled 1526 – 1858) contained stone buildings, as well as water chutes, standing pools, flowing fountains, and plantings intended to stimulate the senses.”

For both practical and aesthetic reasons, these gardens’ plantings and architectural designs naturally reflected the influence of the local climate and native craftsmen as well as the preferences of the later Mughal emperors’ Hindu consorts. “Cool rippling waters coupled with shade from overarching broadleaf trees were key elements to the natural climate control,” says Lentz.

Archeological evidence from the site combined with literary references indicate that the Moonlight Garden was planted with shady fruit- bearing palms, mangoes and cashew trees as well as fragrant night-flowering red cedars and magnolias, while cockscombs were probably planted to attract songbirds.

The Moonlight Garden: New Discoveries at the Taj Mahal is published as part of the Asian Art & Culture series by the Sackler Gallery, in association with the University of Washington Press, Seattle and London. The 100-page book contains 52 color illustrations including new photographs of the Taj Mahal and the garden, as well as paintings from Shahjahan’s era.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at