VIII. From Agra to Dholpur
During my 1978 trip to India, having reached Agra by following Babur’s route, I thought I had come to the end of my adventure. I was due to fly back to the United States the next night. Before heading for the Delhi train, I made a farewell visit to the Ram Bagh, the oldest Mughal garden in Agra, and sat on the steps leading down to the bath to reread my favorite passages in the Baburnama (fig. 1). The dusty, old hammam is my favorite spot in that garden (fig. 2); the spaces are intimate, the vaulting is low, and the place is crumbling, but it’s where Babur’s words come alive for me. A garden may have been constructed there during Babur’s time but it was taken over later by Jahangir’s empress Nur Jahan, who created the Bagh-i-Nur Afshan. This history is laid out by Ebba Koch in her important article on the paintings in the garden pavilions. This fine scholar has written widely on and contributed so much to the history of Mughal India. She is as fascinated by Shah Jahan and his architecture as I am by Babur and his gardens.
To Babur, baths were indispensable:
We suffered from three things in Hindustan. One was the heat, the other the biting wind, and the third the dust. The bathhouse was a refuge from all three. Of course, a bathhouse has no dust or wind, and in the hot weather it is so cool that one almost feels chill. One chamber of the bath, the one [with] the warm-water reservoir …, was finished completely in stone. The dado was of white stone; otherwise the floor and ceiling were of red stone from Bayana. (Baburnama, f. 300)
After completing the well at the river’s edge, Babur began building a charbagh on the bank of the Jumna [Yamuna] River; it had a hot-water bath, as did the neglected ruin where I was sitting.
On the Road to Dholpur
As the Baburnama mentions, a hot-water bath was also one of the first things completed at the Lotus Garden in Dholpur. Babur provided more details about creating this garden than he did about any of his other gardens. He visited and referred to it frequently. Given the urgent matters demanding his attention, it is surprising how often he returned to the Dholpur ridge. It was a full day’s ride from Agra, and he usually stayed a few days, overseeing the carving of the pools, designing the aqueduct, or checking the water channels (fig. 3). On two occasions he measured the time it took to make the round trip from Agra: ten hours, twenty minutes each way. He seemed so drawn to that part of the ridge and so committed to the unusual garden he was creating. I became convinced he had constructed something very special there.
As I reread the Dholpur passages in the Baburnama, I referred back to the section describing Kabul in 1522, when Babur took Khandahar for the second time; he ordered a rock-cut chamber to be excavated in the limestone cliff. That room, known as Chilzina or Forty Steps, still exists, its walls incised with Persian inscriptions. But then Babur shifted his attention to India, and that high, barely accessible space has remained isolated through the centuries. The construction of Chilzina may have been inspired by his time in Afghanistan. In 1506–7, during his dangerous winter trek back to Kabul from Herat, he spent Ramadan in Bamian (Baburnama, f, 195b). Throughout the Mahanuwara area, he would have seen rock-cut sculptures, edicts, and monuments and recognized the possibility for similar carving in the large sandstone outcropping at Dholpur.
[August 24, 1527] That night I slept somewhere along the way and stopped the next morning at Sikandar Lodi’s dam. Below the dam, where the mountain ended, there was a mass of red building stone. I had Master Shah-Muhammad the stonemason brought and ordered him to carve a chamber from this single block, if possible. If it was too low for a building, he was to level it down into a pool. (Baburnama, ff. 330–330b)
Intrigued by these instructions to Shah Muhammad, the stone cutter, I felt I must go to Dholpur. I had to see if any trace of the Lotus Garden remained. After following Babur’s tracks across Central Asia, I couldn’t let the journey end without finding the answer to such an intriguing question.
I changed my ticket home and was lucky that a friend was willing to accompany me. Harmit Singh, an excellent photographer, became a fearless Sikh warrior behind the wheel of his Peugeot. My first stop was at the Agra office of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to inquire if any of the staff knew about Babur’s Lotus Garden. At the time, the director of the ASI’s Agra Circle was Dr. W. H. Siddiqi, who was most courteous despite his discouraging response to my inquiry: he’d never heard of the Lotus Garden, but he wished me well, and hustled me out of his office.
Dholpur was just over an hour southeast of Agra; it was a busy place along the main highway south, previously known as the Imperial Road of the Mughals. It was easy to locate the district collector’s office, but no one there—or at the police station—had ever heard of Babur’s Lotus Garden. Using the Baburnama as a guide, I made a map and a list of possible landmarks. Harmit and I started our search by following every paved road leading out of town; we investigated every chhatri, every ruin, every earthwork we spotted, old tanks, dry water catchments, everything along the road.
Over the next two days, false hopes were raised by signature Mughal traces in a few rebuilt commercial properties along the main road. The wide, flat plain three miles south of Dholpur figures significantly in Mughal history; in 1658 during the Mughal War of Succession, Aurangzeb defeated Dara Shikoh, Shah Jahan’s chosen successor there. On this same historic battlefield Aurangzeb’s sons (Azam and Muazzam) fought a decisive battle in 1707; Muazzam, the victor, became the emperor Bahadur Shah.
The banks of the Chambhal (Chambal) River near Dholpur rise 170 feet above the river bed and are riddled with deep clefts. Some of those clefts run for miles, providing a hideout for dacoits (bandits) who had terrorized the main roads for centuries. This was accepted as a fact of life in the area. By the third afternoon we were following any dirt trail that led across the fields toward the river. As we crept along, raising a huge dust cloud, we came upon two men armed with heavy clubs barring the path. Dacoits! Harmit grabbed my hand-drawn map and jumped out as I scrambled to hide our cameras under the car seat. Charging, he ran up to the men waving the map and forcefully questioned them about the garden. They were thoroughly confused and clearly thought Harmit was a madman and began backing away. Annoyed, Harmit stalked back to the car, and off we went. The dacoits were so puzzled they gave up the chase.
We had arranged to stay overnight in the empty Circuit House just outside of Dholpur. It was a huge, two-story bungalow; the sole staff member was a chowkidar (watchman), who put me in the cook’s quarters on the ground floor next to the kitchen and Harmit on the second floor in the master suite. In the middle of the night, I was awakened by sounds of traffic and voices immediately outside. When I looked out, I saw the two dacoits who had stopped us, fencing their take with a group of men who had arrived in cars. They’d all assumed the bungalow was empty and were deeply engrossed in the business they were conducting under the headlights. I felt entirely safe, went back to bed, and fell asleep instantly.