India is a marvelous place, but it can be overwhelming. There is so much to learn, historically and culturally; it is not an easy place to navigate or absorb. When we arrived in India more than forty years ago, I felt overwhelmed. But after getting settled, I became focused on one thing—surveying the surviving Mughal gardens. I carried the Baburnama with me. With a specific subject as a reference, over the years everything else has fallen into place. Now I feel very much at home in India.
Elizabeth Moynihan is an architectural historian and author who specializes in the study of Mughal gardens in India. Her interest in the region was sparked when she moved there with her husband, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served as ambassador to India from 1973 to 1975. While there, she conducted groundbreaking research on Mughal gardens, published in 1979 as Paradise as a Garden in Persia and Mughal India, and on the Mughal dynasty’s founder, Emperor Babur (reigned 1526–30). Eventually she would locate and document four previously unknown sixteenth-century gardens built by Babur. In 1996, she directed a joint project for the Archaeological Survey of India and Freer|Sackler on one of those gardens, the Mehtab Bagh, which is described in The Moonlight Garden: New Discoveries at the Taj Mahal (2000).
Moynihan has served on many boards and committees during the course of her distinguished career, including the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States, American Schools of Oriental Research, and SUNY Binghamton. She served on the Freer|Sackler board from 1990 to 2005 and has also been a trustee of the National Building Museum; Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, Harvard University; and the Preservation League of New York State, among other educational and cultural institutions. In 2003, she became a founding trustee of the Leon Levy Foundation, where she focuses on such garden-related projects as the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve in Eleuthera, Bahamas; Native Plant Garden, New York Botanical Garden (NYBG); Water Conservation Project, Brooklyn Botanic Garden; and the Center for Conservation Studies, Nagaur Fort, Rajastan, India.
As devoted to politics as she is to gardens, Moynihan served as a volunteer during Adlai Stevenson’s and John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaigns and Robert F. Kennedy’s run for the Senate. She met her future husband in the mid-1950s, when they both were involved with Averell Harriman’s gubernatorial campaign in New York. Married to the former ambassador and senator for forty-eight years, she managed three of his four campaigns for the US Senate. She retired from active politics in 1995.
Gardens, however, will always play a starring role in her life, whether she is in Asia or America. “For almost forty years,” she notes,
I gardened at our farm in Delaware County, New York. I started with an herb garden planted in the stone foundation of an old barn next to the house; gardens of many shades of a single color were my favorites. I built a berm along the road from the barn to the house drive and planted over two thousand daffodils and narcissus on it and saw them multiply. It created a barrier to the road and protected the house and gardens from dust. On the slope inside the berm I created three shallow terraces with a quincunx of antique apple trees on each terrace. Through the years, I created many gardens but always preferred edible plants (that people or birds and animals eat) to retain the character of a farm.