IX. The Lotus Garden: Part 1
Without hesitation, the clerk said, “Yes, of course. That would be Hari Singh Rajoria (fig. 1), the retired ADC [aide-de-camp, a great pre-Independence title] to the late maharaja.” This helpful fellow then hopped on his scooter and led us to Rajoria Bhavan in the center of Dholpur. In an amazing coincidence, Hari Singh Rajoria was standing on the front steps, as if he had been waiting for us, attired in a brocade turban and a long velvet coat. He had courtly manners and spoke perfect English. He led us inside, introduced his son and grandsons, offered us tea and listened as I went on about Babur and his Lotus Garden. He smiled, shook his head, and said he loved the Baburnama but didn’t think the garden existed.
His statement was disappointing, but he was fascinating. As a young ADC and note taker, in 1931, he had accompanied the maharaja of Dholpur to London for the Round Table meetings with Gandhi. He had total recall, great stories, and interesting photo albums of the London trip. He was sorry to disappoint me and agreed when I asked if I could read Babur’s key passages aloud to him. Here is a sample:
“A little before noon I halted at the garden and pavilion I had ordered a kos west of Dholpur. The place where the garden and pavilion are situated is at the end of a mountain spur, which is a solid piece of red building stone.… Master Shah-Muhammad the stonemason was ordered to design a scalloped octagonal pool on top of the solid rock that had been shaped into a courtyard. The stonecutters got to work in earnest.” (Baburnama, ff. 339–339b)
When I finished, he sat quietly for at least five minutes; then he called his son, Niranjan Singh Rajoria, and instructed him to take us out to a square well (fig. 2) on the Bari road. He explained that square wells were very unusual in the area—usually wells are round—but that well was very old and could be what I was looking for.
Finding the Garden
When we reached the well, Harmit and I realized we’d passed it a half dozen times in our search. He and Niranjan sat on the well wall, talking, as I walked around the well in ever-widening circles, my eyes sweeping the ground. In about a half hour I reached a small shrine with a base about four feet high (figs. 3, 4); it was elevated just enough that when I stood on it, I could see a village a few hundred yards away. As I walked toward the village, a cut stone wall gradually became visible beneath a cluster of huts—a beautiful straight line seldom seen in nature! I ran to the village. It was noon, but there was no one to be seen; they were inside, sheltered from the midday heat. Fortunately, no dogs threatened my approach either. I climbed up on the wall and there, immediately in front of me, carved into the rock, was a large octagonal, foliated pool (figs. 5, 6). It was a lotus blossom! It was filled with branches and surrounded by drying cow patties (dung). It was gorgeous! I have never been so excited.
I called out to Harmit and Niranjan and eventually got their attention. But I also startled the villagers, who came out of their huts, rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Some had never seen a Western woman before, and those who had could not believe one was jumping up and down with excitement in the middle of their village.
Harmit and Niranjan drove over, rushed out, and exploded with excitement. Everyone was excited. My companions, all the villagers, and I were all talking and laughing at the same time. When we explained to the villagers what I had been looking for and asked if they had heard of Babur, the most wonderful thing happened, an example of why one loves India! A handsome, very erect, white-haired old man who was laughing excitedly said, “Babur never came here, but his army did. They filled this pool with wine, and they all got drunk.” Everyone applauded; all the villagers were very proud of him (fig. 7).
Babur’s daughter Gulbadan recorded that her father originally intended to celebrate his victory over Rana Sanga by filling the pool at the Lotus Garden with wine. But he had renounced wine before the battle, so he filled it with lemonade. This dignified old villager had not read the Baburnama, but he did know the oral history of his village. Niranjan rushed back to tell his father the amazing news and bring his sons to join us.
We spent the rest of the day being escorted around by the villagers. It was fascinating to discover the many historic layers on the sprawling site. Sikandar Lodi’s dam was in very good shape— beautifully carved stone Jain pillars (fig. 8) had been used in its construction—while Babur’s Lotus Garden was made entirely of the red sandstone from the ridge. It is worth noting that Babur always used new materials for his Indian architectural projects; he did not recycle previously carved stonework.
In the middle, I had a ten-by-ten well made, and it was nearly finished. The water from the well went to the pool. To the northwest of the pool, Sultan Sikandar had made a dam, on top of which he had built some structures. Behind the dam the monsoon rains collected and formed a large lake. On the eastern side of the lake was a garden. To the east of the lake, I ordered them to carve some things like benches from solid stone and on the western side a mosque. (Baburnama, ff. 339b–340; see fig. 9)
The catchment area behind the Lodi dam was dry, but a nala (a redirected stream) curved around the outcropping, where Babur had erected chambers and where the village now stood. The nalaprovided water and drainage for the village, backed up by Babur’s large stone well in the field between the Lodi dam and the stone outcropping. It was a beautifully constructed well (fig. 10), but some stones had been removed on one side, and an electric pump running on a generator was installed.
The outcropping that inspired Babur is a fine-grained, cross-bedded red sandstone with a fracture parallel to the bedding. This would have made a rock-cut residence structurally impossible, so the outcrop was reduced to form a large level platform of three broad terraces descending to a garden (fig. 11). Single-room chambers were constructed out of the sandstone as separate buildings. The scale of buildings at the Lotus Garden was intimate.
Revealing the Past
The name of the village built on the central terrace of the garden is Jhor, and of the 165 people living there in 1978, one hundred were Hindu and sixty-five were Muslim; all were friendly and helpful (fig. 12). When a hut was built on the base of a Baburi construct, the original floor was left exposed, and the new exterior walls were whitewashed with a painted floral or vine pattern framing the door. Where a hut was built on the rock face, the villagers built up a mud base, then stone or wattle walls, and a roof of branches, occasionally covered with a tarp. One house, larger than the huts, had a floor paved with the heavy, cut stones taken from the forecourt in front of the Timurid-era building (fig. 13). A Timurid structure housed a large extended family. A two-story section with a cement roof was used for sleeping; the single-story section with a shallow watercourse, cut into smooth, even blocks, housed a buffalo. When vacating a hut, a family left only the mud base. The new occupant would apply another coat of mud, then rebuild the walls and roof. The village had a spacious feeling and was quiet and attractive.
The Dholpur ridge begins at the Lotus Garden and runs about thirty miles north to Sikri; Babur constructed gardens at each end. The ridge has been quarried since Mughal times, when the early emperors, like their founder, favored the red Dholpur sandstone and constructed roads to take the stone to Agra and Delhi. From the highest point on the ridge beyond Jhor, you can see across the Chambhal. An almost deserted ancient sacred Hindu site, Machkund, a spring-fed lake ringed with more than one hundred temples, is about a half mile beyond Jhor toward the river, a pretty walk through a small thorn forest edged by a few acacia trees and filled with birds. A half mile beyond Machkund is the Sher Shikar Gurudwara, a Sikh pilgrimage site.
We left Jhor just before sunset to avoid dacoits on the road; in those pre-cell phone days we had to go to Agra to find a telephone. In the morning, I went to the ASI and persuaded Dr. Siddiqi to accompany us the Lotus Garden. We later became friends, and I was always grateful to him for making the trip that day. I did not want to leave India without knowing that someone responsible had visited the site. Fortunately, he had a particular interest in garden traditions and was one of the few Muslim officers in the ASI. In 1987 he published an article on an interesting pre-Mughal Tughlaq garden he’d excavated in South Delhi.
Harmit’s wife, Betsy, came down from Delhi, and we spent the next two days clearing the pools and water chutes while Harmit photographed everything. The villagers revealed additional pools and tanks and helped us clear them. Before we left, we helped them re-cover everything to protect the sandstone carving. On each of my six visits I always paid the villagers and never took outsiders in to work. During the years when I returned to research the garden, I found the locals very interested in and protective of the site.
It was not until 1984, however, that I finally received permission from the Indian government to document the garden. My application for the project was well supported on the Indian side but required that I have a grant from an American institution. I received a $5,000 grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) thanks to that scholar of Asian studies, Professor Edward C. Dimock, who endorsed my request (fig. 14). There was one delay after another. The project had to be approved by three offices in the central government, the ASI, and the state government (fig. 15). I was also told that the land was privately owned and that “was a problem,” but no one named the owners or defined the problem.
Once again Maura was my companion. In January 1985 we set up camp in the Dholpur Circuit House, where we were the first guests since my visit in 1978. A friend in Delhi lent me a cook, and Pradeep Mehindrutta of AIIS lent me a car and driver (fig. 16). My architect friend (and guru) Cyrus Jhabvala located the surveyor and Mihir Bhatt, the young architect who made the drawings. The drawings successfully supported Mihir’s application to graduate school at MIT the following year. He now has a practice in Ahmedabad.
In 1978, when I first walked the site, the boundary along the northern side of Babur’s garden was a wall of large, dressed sandstone blocks at least one hundred yards long and seven to nine feet high. It was a very handsome structure in good condition and served as a retaining wall against the hill. On the top, there had been a stone pavilion; it had been toppled, and all the elements appeared to be lying nearby. When I returned years later to document the site, the first thing I did was walk the perimeter. The wall was gone. I could not believe it and was dismayed to learn the beautiful cut stones had been hauled away, broken up, and used to widen a road. The garden had never been declared a protected site.
A new district collector was assigned to Dholpur just before I visited in 1984; he was an energetic, interested young man. He had taken some initiative and was developing a plan for the Lotus Garden with Niranjan Rajoria and a group from the local men’s club. In his plan, the Lotus Garden would become a protected site and hopefully a destination for tourists. That would mean moving the villagers, providing new living spaces for them nearby, and employing some of them to maintain the garden. The villagers were unaware of this plan, and I had no contact with the local citizens working on it and had not been involved. I accepted this arrangement and believed that my role—if I were to have one—was to reveal the past, not plan the future.