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Don't Be Shocked If Mughal Art, Cuisine Get New Names


As someone who grew up in Delhi, I have had some familiarity with Rashtrapati Bhavan's spectacular Mughal Garden, now renamed Amrit Udyan. While exclusive for most months of the year, during February and March, when winter morphs into spring, it is opened to the public. Like tens of thousands of Delhi residents, or visitors to the capital, I have often visited the garden and soaked up its charms.

I have a deeper acquaintance with the garden. For two years (1948-1950), when he served as India's Governor General, my maternal grandfather, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, was the master of the mansion to which the garden belonged, which meant that along with cousins and siblings, I, then in my early teens, could roam the garden freely. I felt connected to it.

My association with the garden did not cause my sadness at the renaming, though it certainly amplified it. It was the impulse behind the renaming that triggered the sadness. The renaming cannot, and will not, erase the historical fact that when in the late 1920s and early 1930s - one hundred years ago, that is - Lutyens, his horticultural advisers, and their team of maalis created the enchanting park, they called it the Mughal Garden. And that is how it was called, and written, and remembered, even if by its "Moghul" misspelling for decades.

It is entirely likely, given the publicised renaming, that future generations will forget this history of how the garden was created, and what it was called. Facts of history can be suppressed, or rewritten, or misremembered. Yet what happened did happen. A beautiful garden was raised, albeit by our British rulers, and it was named the Mughal Garden. At least a few will continue to remember that fact, and it will quietly but surely percolate into the future.

These few will also remember why it was called the Mughal Garden. Did the white empire-creators, most of them Christian by religion, desire to acknowledge an earlier non-Hindu empire founded by Muslims? That may well be the explanation preferred by those who feel triumphant at the renaming. But no, that wasn't the reason. 

The park was called the Mughal Garden because it emulated the pattern of gardens raised in Delhi, Agra, Lahore, Kashmir and elsewhere during three centuries of Mughal rule. Each Mughal Garden contained canals intersecting at a 90-degree angle, fountains, and a parade of flowers. To call a garden "Mughal" was to describe the garden, not to memorialise a dynasty.

A "Mughal" miniature is named thus not as a salaam to the Mughal Empire, but because the painting conforms to a particular style of art. Mughlai food bears that adjective because of the way it is prepared, not from a wish to honour India's pre-British monarchs. A Mughal garden, likewise, is only a garden with a particular design.

We shouldn't be shocked if future farmans declare that for the sake of Hindu honour (which will be equated with Indian honour), fresh names have been assigned to what we still call Mughal art, Mughal architecture, and Mughal cuisine. Such announcements will recall the emotion that drives the renaming of the Mughal Garden, which is also the emotion that has driven the escalating project of renaming streets, towns, and institutions, of which Amrit Udyan is only the latest example. 

Resentment that the Mughals, who happened to be Muslim, were here once upon a time is that emotion. And this resentment seems joined to an inner regret, not always openly expressed, that Muslims exist amidst or close to us today. 

Renaming may produce great temporary glee that "they" have once more been put in their place. Renaming may also fire up your base and be politically expedient. But it will not dispel your uncomfortable emotion of regret, resentment, or complaint. Only acceptance can banish that troublesome emotion: acceptance of history, and acceptance of neighbours. We do not like it, yet we learn to accept loss, illness, injury, or bereavement. There is sanity, similarly, in accepting history, and in accepting neighbours.

A renamed building or garden may not be able to protest, but we know that human beings don't like it when others give them new names. The RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, repeatedly asserts that all who live in India are Hindus. India's Muslims are Hindus, he insists, and so are India's Christians, Buddhists, and Sikhs.

Perhaps Mr Bhagwat speaks like this to convey a sense of oneness. Perhaps, when he tells Muslims and Christians that they too are Hindus, or that they carry the same blood, he is only saying, "You and I are the same." For the sake of clarity, however, anything that resembles doublespeak or triple-speak should be firmly avoided. When he refers to "Hindus", Mr Bhagwat should clarify whether he is speaking of a race, a nationality, or adherents of a religion. If Hindus is to be a word for all who live in India, then another word should be found for those faithful to the Hindu religion.

"India, that is Bharat" is a statement enshrined in our Constitution. However, equating India with "the Hindu nation" would be incorrect, misleading, and unconstitutional, even though 80 percent of the Indian population may call themselves Hindus. "Hindu" is a powerful, ancient, and precious word. Let us not dilute it by identifying it with "Indian" or "of Bharat".

Moreover, let us not again defy the old Hindu teaching that all on this earth belong to one another, that we are a single family, even when distinct in religion or in other ways.