Works in Progress: Mehtab Bagh and the Taj Mahal

With the help of archaeobotany, the Taj Mahal's evening garden may bloom yet again.

By Karen WrightJul 1, 2000 5:00 AM


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On the north side of the Yamuna River in central India, cupped in an oxbow near the city of Agra, lies a rural floodplain of wheat and mustard fields, low forests, and poor farming villages. It seems an unlikely place on which to pin any hopes. Yet the site has become a key component in the Indian government's plans to preserve the Taj Mahal, the extraordinary shrine erected by 17th-century Mogul emperor Shah Jahan to house the remains of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

About 350 years ago, when the Taj was built on the Yamuna's south bank, a moonlight garden called Mehtab Bagh grew just across the river on the northern waterfront. Once an oasis with fragrant flowers, shaded pavilions, fountain jets, and reflecting pools, the abandoned 25-acre plot is now ground zero in a court-ordered project to establish protective greenways around the Taj. As the land is reclaimed, historians, geographers, and botanists from around the world are scrambling to learn about the magnificent garden that once occupied the site. With some help from science, Mehtab Bagh may bloom again.

Interest in Mehtab Bagh has been piqued by increasing concern for the Taj and its grounds, which are threatened by urban sprawl, too many tourists, and air pollution that eats away at the shrine's marble exterior. The lush gardens that once lined the riverbanks on either side of the Taj may be reincarnated in a scheme to shield it from further depredations. Conservationists maintain that a buffer zone of greenery would keep development at bay, diffuse tourist traffic, and help remedy local air, noise, and water pollution. In 1996, a supreme court ruling directed the government of Uttar Pradesh province to construct just such a buffer. Much of the land for the greenbelt had already been acquired through an earlier initiative to establish a 340-acre national park around the Taj.

Exactly what form the greenbelt will take has become a matter of international debate reaching from India to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There at a recent daylong symposium suggestions ranged from the profane to the sublime. Desh Deepak Verma of the Uttar Pradesh Department of Tourism, for example, propounded a vision for the new national park that includes hotels, meditation centers, and a golf course. Designs for Mehtab Bagh could become both the geographic and aesthetic focal point of the park.

Although historians aren't sure exactly when Mehtab Bagh was first created, they are confident the site was remodeled to complement the Taj Mahal. The garden's layout conformed to a standard Mogul design: a four-quartered garden, both symmetrical and rectilinear, in which the quarters are separated by walkways of white plaster. The white walkways could easily be seen by nighttime visitors escaping the day's blistering heat. More than that is uncertain. "We don't have any direct historical information about the plantings at Mehtab Bagh," says botanist David Lentz of the New York Botanical Garden. The impeccably groomed grounds on the south side of the Taj Mahal are a late 19th-century British interpretation of an Indian garden, Lentz says, and don't necessarily reflect the horticultural preferences of the Mogul invaders who occupied the subcontinent from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Historians know more about Mogul plantings in central Asia, whence the interlopers came, and where apples, plums, cherries, apricots, and aspens thrived in the temperate climate. "When the Moguls came down from the Khyber Pass, they had to leave behind their ideas about what a garden should be," says Lentz. Creating gardens along rivers, however, was one idea they brought with them.

When Lentz first visited the Mehtab Bagh site in October 1996, it was covered with a tall, coarse grass that had taken root in several centuries' worth of river sediments deposited by periodic flooding. "We learned very quickly that most of the Mogul activity surfaces were one to two meters underground," he says. Working in temperatures higher than 120 degrees, he and colleagues from the Archaeological Survey of India dug down to the planting beds, waterworks, and walkways of the Mogul era and carefully sifted through the soil there for surviving traces of plant material. Back in New York, Lentz used an electron microscope to identify the species in his samples based on the size and arrangement of pores and specialized cells in tissue cross sections.

Predictably, most of the plant material Lentz recovered was from trees, because woody fibers keep better than the soft tissues of petals, stems, or leaves. The only annual he identified—cockscomb—came from the northeast corner of the garden, where it grew next to a member of the magnolia family called champac and another tree, the jujube, that produces edible fruits. From that corner and a rectangular pool at the center of Mehtab Bagh, Lentz recovered the remains of chirunji, a relative of the pistachio. At the south end of the garden, which faces the Taj and was accessible from a river landing, Lentz found cypress and red cedar, a mahoganylike tree.

Each of these plants has obvious advantages for a moonlight pleasure garden, Lentz notes. The cockscomb has bright red flowers and copious seeds to attract songbirds; the champac and red cedar bloom at night with fragrant, showy white and yellow flowers; and fruits and nuts from the jujube and chirunji could be picked and eaten on the spot. "Plantings of the neat, geometric cypress may have alternated with high-arching, broad-leaved red cedar along the south wall," says Lentz. "The contrapuntal effect of these two must have been lovely."

Lentz's research suggests that mango, palm, and fig trees were part of the landscape, then as now. Jujubes that grow at the Mehtab Bagh site today may even be direct descendants of the ones planted by the Moguls, he adds. And it's significant that most of the plants in his survey were cultivated in India before the Moguls arrived; cypress is the only import. "The Moguls were quite willing to incorporate new elements in their design," Lentz points out. In this the Mogul emperors may have been influenced by the Hindu princesses they were fond of marrying, he says.

As part of a series of studies begun by the Indian archaeological survey, geographer and landscape architect James Wescoat of the University of Colorado at Boulder documented many of the principal features of the elaborate Mehtab Bagh waterworks, including wells, cisterns, pipes, channels, cascades, fountains, and pools. His studies of the main pool, whose octagonal foundation at the south end of the garden is more than 100 feet wide, revealed delicate lotus ornamentation along the edges and the ruins of 25 fountains. Wescoat's efforts were among the first to identify a Mogul fountain pit, where terra-cotta pipes feed the base of the fountain jet.

Based on his findings, Wescoat thinks that the garden's water supply and distribution may have begun at riverfront wells filled by leather buckets lifted from the river by rope and oxen. According to his calculations, Mehtab Bagh could have consumed as much as 70 acre-feet of water annually—just about enough to supply a modern 70-home subdivision in the United States. It may be too much to expect a present-day reconstruction of such a thirsty project, says Wescoat, now that the Yamuna's waters are depleted.

"It would be naive to think that cultural heritage can be pursued separately from environmental protection and economic development," he admits. Neither he nor Lentz has gotten clear signals about how their reports will be used in the park's planning. Since Wescoat did his fieldwork, the Indian archaeological survey has scraped down the square plot of Mehtab Bagh to expose its Mogul beginnings. Verma confirmed that some trees have already been placed around the octagonal pool but says he doesn't know what kind they are. Lentz says the Taj's head horticulturist won't tell him what's been planted, either. But over lunch at the Illinois symposium, he adds, representatives of the Indian government offered to consider his findings in subsequent restorations of Mehtab Bagh."The question of what comes next," says Wescoat, "is very much on our minds."

For a cybervisit to Mehtab Bagh and the Taj Mahal, go to which includes photos of the site.

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