Mughal Garden Typology: Conversation with Dr. Nicolas Roth
Updated: Feb 6
There are only two types of Twitter threads that I pay close attention to: One is by historian Ali A. Olomi, an expert on Muslim politics, gender, Islamic esotericism & folklore (and host of ‘Head On History’ Podcast). He has written some epic threads on Jinns and their context in the Quran. The second thread is by Nicolas Roth who recently covered the topic of garden typology in the Mughal era in an impossibly erudite manner.
Nicolas Roth’s research explores writing on gardens and horticulture in early modern South Asia across languages and literary genres, and their impact on intellectual and social spheres during this period. Roth grew up in Germany and the US and holds a PhD in South Asian Studies from Harvard University. When not studying Mughal-period texts about gardening or traveling for his research, he can often be found trying to grow the plants mentioned in them in his garden in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Visual posts of Roth’s horticultural experiments can be found on Instagram: @nic_in_the_garden and more high resolution images can be viewed at the Stuart Cary Welch Islamic and South Asian Photograph Collection at Harvard Fine Arts Library). In the following conversation, Roth provides a deep dive into what garden iconography, culture and architecture stood to signify in the Floral Empire.
Bharti Lalwani: Nicolas, let me start with two questions: How did you arrive at the decision to cover 17th and 18th century horticultural practices for your Doctoral thesis? What were the outer contours that defined the points in history where your research would begin and end?
Nicolas Roth: It was really a convergence of my various interests. I have always had a passion for gardening, and I have long been interested in garden history, and at some point that let me to dig into these subjects also within my study of early modern South Asia and its literatures. What I found was that while Mughal gardens were a fairly well-defined object of study within the history of art and architecture, very little work had been done on the various forms of horticultural technical writing – that is, gardening manuals and the like – that were produced or circulating in Mughal South Asia. Nor were literary engagements with gardens, gardening, and botany really acknowledged or explored beyond certain stock floral symbolism seen as inherited from either Persian or Sanskrit literary convention, and no one to my knowledge had tried to “read gardens” comparatively across the multiple literary languages and genres that shaped the diverse and richly multilingual landscape of Mughal-period intellectual culture.
The temporal framing of my project was influenced by several factors. To some extent, it was guided by where the bulk of the primary materials I found fell – for reasons I have not fully figured out yet, the archival record of both textual and pictorial sources for my project was richest in the first half of the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth. Another reason was that until recently, the eighteenth century has been neglected by South Asian historiography as a presumed period of disorder and decline. However, we now know that while there was indeed great political instability and change, this did not mean that there was a dearth of cultural or intellectual production – quite to the contrary, actually.
The eighteenth century is particularly rich in artistic and literary innovation, and saw many of the social, religious, and political developments that really shaped North Indian culture(s) and everyday material realities we know them today. Understanding those developments is also vital to understanding the further changes and developments subsequently caused by British colonial rule. For earlier generations of historians of the Mughal period – beginning with British historians in the colonial period – it was very convenient to gloss over the eighteenth century as a period of chaos and decline because that both helped to justify the British takeover as “restoring order” and obscured the rapacious maneuvering of the British East Company over the course of the century that resulted in British dominance in the first place.
Altogether, then, I found this era to be particular rich for the purposes of my project while also recognizing a gap in the record and our understanding that scholars are now increasingly trying to close, an effort to which I hope my work contributes.
"Emperor Jahangir with holy men in a garden" by Abu'l Hasan, c. 1650-1620; San Diego Museum of Art 1990.345 (via the Stuart Cary Welch Islamic and South Asian Photograph Collection at Harvard Fine Arts Library)
BL: Help me understand why the earliest Mughal rulers cared so much about laying the foundations for elaborate gardens – was it about replicating the sensory experiences of a landscape they missed while putting down roots in a foreign subcontinent?
NR: Funnily enough, that might actually be one of the aspects of Mughal garden history that has been covered most extensively by scholars, especially historians of art and architecture. Elizabeth Moynihan, James Wescoat, Catherine Asher, and Ebba Koch especially have written about early Mughal gardens.
The general understanding is that Babur’s creation of formal gardens in India was at least in part about visually and materially asserting control over the land and a new environment. The Mughals saw themselves as a continuation of the Central Asian Timurids – Babur being a descendant of Timur (1336-1405) – and formal Timurid gardens would have been a prominent feature of the elite culture in which the future Mughal emperor grew up.We know from his memoirs, the Baburnamah, how invested he was in gardens and plants, noting them as the major attractions of places he visited and sought to improve and develop them in places he conquered.
Since the court was frequently on the move, gardens also often served as halting places for the royal camp and a setting for courtly functions, a practice that would continue with subsequent generations of Mughal rulers once they were established in the Indian Subcontinent. Laying out formal gardens of the kind with which he was familiar was thus also in a sense an architectural requirement for the functioning of the court.
Above: "Muhammad Shah in a Garden," by Nidhamal, Delhi, c. 1735; Museum of Fine Arts Boston 14.686
Left: Close up detail of above image
BL: Do we consider Babur as the first to plan royal garden-architecture across the Indian Subcontinent?
NR: Whether Babur was in fact the first to lay out such gardens in South Asia is a tricky question. People have generally relied on Babur’s own statements on the matter, and he makes it sound as if gardens or ornamental landscapes – or things he recognized as such - were completely absent from the North Indian plains. However, the northwest of the Subcontinent had already been a part of the Persianate cultural sphere for centuries by the time of Babur’s conquest in 1526; it seems unlikely that the Delhi Sultanate and other pre-Mughal Indian dynasties that participated in Persianate courtly culture did not also lay out gardens that reflected some of that influence. Moreover, we know from the Sanskrit literary record that there was of course a sophisticated local conception of ornamental gardens and horticulture even before that, though they revolved around a garden ideal that lacked the formal symmetry that defined early modern (Mughal) gardens in much of South Asia.
BL: So apart from formal symmetry, tell us about the horticultural innovations and techniques they brought to the Indian Subcontinent?
NR: The feature generally most talked about is the symmetrical layout I already mentioned, with straight watercourses and paths intersecting at right angles. However, from my study of Sanskrit and Persian gardening manuals as well as literary garden descriptions in various literary languages of early modern South Asia – Sanskrit, Persian, Avadhi, BrajBhasha, etc. – and representations in Mughal and Rajput painting, I have concluded that the most significant innovation, at least from a horticultural perspective, was the introduction of formal flower beds of herbaceous flowers. Older Sanskrit gardening treatises and descriptions of gardens talk about trees, vines, and some shrubs, but very few annuals or herbaceous perennials. They have no terminology for garden beds, and seem to largely envision gardens of groves, ponds, and bowers, not open, level spaces filled with blocks of flowers like poppies or marigolds. Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, however, flowerbeds and the plants one would grow in them became increasingly central to depictions of gardens. They are also, literally and spatially, at the center of the idealized vision of the garden that begins to crystallize: an enclosing wall, then trees, and at the core, around the central tank, watercourses, and/ or platform, a parterre of beds filled with flowering plants.
Above: "Maharana Jagat Singh II celebrating the Festival of Flowers in the Gulab Bari Garden," by Raghunath, Udaipur 1750; National Gallery of Victoria AS144-1980
Left: Close up detail of above image
BL: What of the varieties of flora they introduced to our landscape that then becomes part of our art, literature and symbolic iconography?
NR: With many of the plants that would be grown in these beds it is difficult to say whether they would have been entirely unknown prior to the Mughal period, but they definitely become much more prominent once parterres of herbaceous ornamental plants become a standard garden feature. Poppies, for instance, do not really appear in the historical record in South Asia before the sixteenth century. By 1577, a Sanskrit gardening book written in Mewar, lists them under a Sanskritized form of the Persian term gul-ilalah, which normally describes tulips but in early modern Indian Persian and Urdu was more commonly applied to poppies. It also mentions almonds, apples, and figs, all under their Persian names still current in Hindi and Urdu today.
Narcissi, irises, and pink damask roses come to be among the most commonly depicted flowers in North Indian arts and literature, and are likewise discussed in Persian-language horticultural treatises, but were much less frequently mentioned previously, although they did appear in the work of earlier Indo-Persian poets such as Amir Khusraw. In addition to these Mediterranean and Central Asian plants, which may have been known in India before but suddenly become much more prominent during this time, the Mughal period also coincided with a great influx of new plants from the Americas and, to a lesser degree, East Asia, as a result of globalizing trade and colonialism. These include common food plants like chillis, tomatoes, corn, pineapples, and papayas, but also many common flowers, such as the now ubiquitous marigolds and bougainvillea. Many of these newly introduced ornamentals lent themselves to the seasonal flowerbeds that were now a defining feature of gardens – the marigolds, for instance, but also globe amaranth, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, and so on.
BL: In your recent blog post, ‘The Floral Empire: Flowers in the Arts of Mughal South Asia’, on an art and horticultural website, you cite a section in Mīrzānāmah, a 17th century treatise, that describes how a proper aristocratic gentleman, a mīrzā, ought to be interested in unusual and multicolored flowers and how if he wants to smell one, “he should pluck it himself so as to avoid potential pollution through the touch of someone else […].” How did tending to gardens become integral to refined (masculine) court culture?
NR: An interest in gardens and a certain level of horticultural and botanical knowledge became markers of intellectual and ethical sophistication. They denoted intellectual curiosity, an appreciation of beauty, and the proper awareness of and reverence for the marvelousness of divine creation. On the one hand, botanical rarities and lavish gardens were a way for the elite to display wealth and enjoy the good life; on the other, flowers, by dint of being “natural” were less liable to criticisms of excess and decadence than other luxuries. For the Mughal court specifically, the image of the garden, and with it an aesthetic dominated by florals, also became a metaphor for the peaceful prosperity and order of the empire under Mughal rule, especially during the reign of Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1658). An appreciation of gardens and flowers was thus baked into the expectations of self-cultivation associated with elite masculinity.
BL: As in, this was the domain limited to elite men?
NR: The Mirzanamah, a seventeenth-century treatise on the proper comportment of a mirza or aristocratic gentleman, returns to the subject of flowers and gardens repeatedly, asserting that a true mirza cannot help but be attracted to beds of flowers. However, this does not mean that the garden was a purely male space; elite women likewise used gardens, and there were certainly female gardeners. In fact, in literary and artistic depictions the enclosure and relative privacy afforded by gardens makes them a preeminent setting of women’s activities and of romance between men and women or among women, while relatively more public and male-dominated spaces such as the bazaar are often associated with the celebration of male objects of desire.
BL: From gardens to the realm of metaphor in literature/texts/poetry was botanical knowledge a ‘language’ and did they have fixed meaning?
NR: Regarding the metaphorical use of gardens, poets would often construct elaborate conceits around specific traits of plants or aspects of gardening practice or pun on botanical or horticultural terminology, so a certain level of knowledge in this regard was necessary to fully appreciate those works. There were inherited sets of plant symbolism, from Persian as well as Sanskrit literary tradition, which were operative to various degrees not just in works written in those languages but also in the North Indian vernaculars. The rose, for instance, usually stands for the aloof beloved and/or for the ephemeral nature of his or her beauty, the narcissus evokes beautiful, intoxicated eyes, and so on. However, poets would strive to come up with new creative plays on these ideas, and they would introduce new plant and garden subject matter – that push of innovation and interest in novelty is really a hallmark of the period I study, once one becomes familiar with all the conventions in which it is embedded.
BL: Nicolas, what fascinates me is that you have successfully grown some varieties of flora depicted in paintings from a few centuries ago – Do you usually look at a Mughal era miniature painting, or read a garden description in 300 year old texts and decide to grow a selection of plants? (In other words, what are some of the quirks and challenges that crop up in this process?)
NR: It varies a bit – in some cases coming across a plant I had been aware of but had not tried growing before in a historic text or painting sparks a new interest in it. More rarely, I first learned about a plant or a specific variety from my primary sources and was then inspired to grow it so as to have a real-life experience and understanding of it. I should also say, though, that my gardening is also very much driven by my own nostalgic associations with a lot of plants based and places that matter to me where I first encountered them or saw them used in a particularly striking way. For instance, I grow a historic rose known as ‘Kakinada Red’ or ‘Maggie’ because I first found it in a nursery in Delhi and grew it on my terrace there during my dissertation fieldwork. After coming back to the US, I tracked it down at a specialty rose nursery and planted it here to bring a bit of my Delhi terrace garden to New England. ‘Kakinada Red’, though an old variety, probably does not go back as far as the eighteenth century, but often these personal and geographic associations with particular plants overlap or are intertwined with my historical interests, too.
In another instance, one of my favorite things about being in India is the common availability of tuberose, both as a garden plant and as a cut flower, and its wonderful fragrance.
At the same time, tuberose was also one of the notable introductions from the Americas – Mexico, specifically – that took Indian gardens by storm during the Mughal period and it is often mentioned in texts and occasionally portrayed in paintings.
The prolific Delhi-based writer and gardening aficionado ĀnandRām ‘Mukhliṣ’ (1699-1750), for instance, is at pain to describe and distinguish to detail between tuberose (Polianthestuberosa), stocks (Matthiolaincana), and wallflowers (Erysimumcheiri) because in the Indian Persian of his day they were all referred to as gul-ishabbūor “night-fragrant flower” and hence liable to confusion.
"Study of a tuberose," Jammu, c. 1740-1750; Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art 76.228.PH18
BL: Out of curiosity, has it happened that the process and result of growing certain plants has made you reconsider some of these old texts/ paintings?
NR: I have not necessarily had any big dramatic revelations, but greater familiarity with a plant and its behavior in all stages of its growth cycle usually helps to better understand and appreciate the nuances in literary and artistic depictions. For instance, the Masnavī-idilpazīr, a 1798 Urdu verse romance by Sa’ādatYārKhān ‘Rangīn’ (1757-1835) that I have drawn on extensively in my work, contains a couplet that runs motiyārā’e bel-o-dā’ūdī / thīnkahīnzardaurkahīnūdī or, roughly, “different types of Arabian jasmine and chrysanthemums / they were sometimes cream-colored, sometimes pale purple.” That line never really made sense to me. Chrysanthemums can be purple, but neither of the jasmine varieties mentioned usually are, and even chrysanthemums are practically always white or yellow in early modern South Asian depictions. Then one day last fall in my garden I saw flowers of a white chrysanthemum and a motiyā jasmine beginning to fade at the same time, and noticed that as they were doing so both were developing a purple flush. In that moment I understood the play of color, and the minute process of change, that Rangīn had captured in his verse.
Narcissi (on the right) and Rosa x damascena 'Trigintipetala,' the "thirty-petalled" damask rose widely used to make rose water, growing in Roth's garden
BL: Lastly, Nicolas, would you indulge me by describing your favourite garden scene/ painting/ text/ architecture - and what the olfactive experience may have been like?
NR: There are so many, it is really difficult to pick! There is a whole fascinating subgenre of painting produced at the Udaipur court during the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century of the mahārāṇās in a rose garden, surrounded by fields of pink damask roses and sometimes jasmine bushes. Clearly, the rose water fragrance of those roses and the scent of jasmine were intended to pervade those settings. However, I also love scenes like one of two aristocratic young men meeting on a terrace, and each is holding a single sprig of nargis or tazetta narcissus. Presumably, they would have periodically sniffed the flowers in such an instance, and the sweet and spicy narcissus fragrance would have marked the encounter. This might have also had a purpose beyond mere enjoyment, as such fragrances were considered a mufarrih or “exhilarant” that was salutary to both nose and brain, opening the mind.
Above: "A prince having an audience," 17th century, Museum of Fine Arts Boston 22.685