Merit Award -- Research
The Moonlight Garden Project: New Discoveries at the Taj Mahal
Elizabeth B. Moynihan, ASLA; David Lentz; James L. Wescoat, Jr., ASLA;
John Fritz; George Michell; P.B.S. Sengar
Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
101 Temple Hoyne Buell Hall, 611 E. Lorado Taft Drive
Champaign, IL 61820
Statement of Purpose: The white marble tomb of the Taj Mahal stands prominently along the Yamuna riverbank, situated on the northern edge of a classic four-fold Mughal garden built in Agra, India in the 17th century. Although legends of a "Black Taj" across the river had long been dismissed, this research examined the archaeological evidence at the garden opposite the Taj Mahal, known as the Mahtab Bagh or "Moonlight Garden." Working as a collaborative team, we sought to determine the landscape architectural aims, layout, components, and meanings at this historic Mughal garden.
The first Mughal ruler, Babur (r. 1527-30 CE), introduced Central Asian garden traditions to Agra, and be encouraged construction of riverfront gardens, which culminated at the Taj Mahal and survived, in remnants, to the present day. Although the history of Mughal gardens advanced rapidly in the late-20th century, it has involved little archaeological or basic scientific research. Following a joint Indo-US Agra Heritage Project, an international Blue-Ribbon Panel recommended systematic investigation of one garden --the Mahtab Bagh --using the most advanced archaeological and scientific methods available. The Moonlight Garden Project thus brought together, for the first time in Mughal garden studies, research on landscape architectural history, archaeology, paleoethnobotany, hydraulic analysis, and architectural documentation.
Initial Landscape Context: In 1995, the Mahtab Bagh comprised a roughly 24-acre rectangular site buried beneath a meter of flood-deposited soils, with fragments of a riverfront wall and corner tower. Residents of three nearby villages cut grass and scrub around the garden, scavenged brick and sandstone building material from the site, and commuted to work across-the Yamuna River by ferry.
Landscape Architectural Findings: Landscape survey research and excavation revealed that the Mahtab Bagh was part of the original Taj Mahal complex, which fundamentally changes our understanding of its landscape context and design. For example, longstanding debate about the location of the Taj Mahal tomb on the edge, rather than center, of the garden must now be reconsidered. Archaeobotanical research found evidence of cardinal orientation in plant selection and planting design. Waterworks research linked the functional components of water supply, storage, distribution and display with key garden themes from the Koran expressed in marble inscriptions at the Taj Mahal. Our publication, The Moonlight Garden, strives to synthesize these new perspectives on landscape architectural design at the Taj Mahal for a broad public, professional, and scientific audience.
Significance: The Moonlight Garden Project is the first systematic scientific study of a Mughal garden. It demonstrates the feasibility of synthesizing basic landscape architectural, archaeological, and historical research. Subsequent proposals for a Taj Mahal National Park and Taj Mahal Gardens and Waterworks Conservation Project are applying the methods and framework developed in the Moonlight Garden Project to advance the theory and practice of landscape architectural conservation in India.