Southworth lecture #1

10:15–11:15am  Nov. 7, 2015

James L. Wescoat Jr, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“The Poetics of Mughal Gardens and Subahs in the Akbarnama”

Author’s abstract: Of the many fragmentary sources on Mughal gardens during the reign of the third Mughal ruler Akbar (1556-1607 CE), the Akbarnama stands out as an historical chronicle compiled by a brilliant courtier, Abul Fazl. It contains the richest array of texts – from poetic garden images to virtuous metaphors, historic garden events, and regional garden analogies. Some passages exaggerated the garden-like qualities of people, while others shed light on the evolution of Mughal garden culture. Still others provided new layers of meaning through the representation of gardens in the many paintings that illustrated royal copies of the manuscript. This paper re-reads the Akbarnama, including its three volume topical supplement known as the Ain-i Akbari. The Ain-i Akbari includes an account of all the Mughal provinces at that time (subahs), in which the larger geographic contexts of gardens were described. For all of these reasons, I refer to these sources as “The Gardens of Abul Fazl.” Without Abul Fazl’s Akbarnama, it is fair to ask whether Mughal garden culture would have been sustained through Akbar’s reign, especially in ways that co-evolved with larger Mughal cities and territories.

My comments:

I have a story related to James Wescoat’s opening comment that Maine lies in the ancient climate region 6, just south of the zone inhabited the barbarians. When I first arrived at Colby my graduate school advisor, the distinguished historian Charles Gillispie at Princeton asked me, “How are things at the edge of the North Woods?”  I replied, Oh Charles, I am so glad you said “edge.”  Now, the air is very pure in Maine, and this has a direct and beneficial influences our mental processes, which are sharp and clear.

James Wescoat’s paper re-reads the three-volume Akbar nama, the official chronicle of the reign of Akbar, the third Mughal Emperor (1556–1605). The text was written in Persian by court biographer Abul Fazl and includes, notably, extensive text and illustrations of gardens, citadels, and cities past, present, and future.  The Mughals were obsessed with symbol and incorporated it into their gardens in many ways. References to paradise are embedded in the architecture, layout, and in the choice of plant life, juxtaposed with numerology and zodiacal references, for example in the prevalence of octagonal pools.

My questions, returning to the opening trope, involve first of all climate and place, which provide geographical context for both the flora and the people.  Second, regarding social organization, the Akbar nama presents an extensive description of the Caste system in its many dimensions.  I would like to hear more on the “scaling up” of gardens and on social divisions.