Saturday, May 25, 2013

On Flowers and Gardens and Gentlemanly Pursuits

As part of my academic work, I recently came across a scholarly article published in 1975 by Aziz Ahmed which discusses some 17th-century Indian texts that are written in Persian and bear the title Mīrzānāma. They are prescriptive guides to the behavior, etiquette, and "good taste" to be expected of a mīrzā or aristocratic Mughal gentleman of that time period. Among the passages offered in English translation by Ahmed, there are a number that deal with flowers and gardens:

"The real mīrzā-hood is a very different thing altogether. It is not merely pinning flowers to one's headgear or wearing a greenish or semi-greenish turban and strolling through a garden. It is rather to inhale and imbibe the fragrance of the flower" (Ahmed 100)

"He should always provide perfumes in his parties; and try to keep his party fragrant with them. All sorts of vases full of flowers in every season should be on view. Without them, he should consider the luxury of living as forbidden. He should keep his feast colourful; so that whoever departs from it may feel that he has been to the feast of a mīrzā; that is to say, he should depart bearing the fragrant smell of scent and flower" (Ahmed 102)

"He should regard the beauty of flowers as better than the green beauty of grass, though he should appreciate that also. He should appreciate more the green grass under the flower-shrubs. Of the jewels, he should like rubies and pearls; of the fruits, pomegranate. A house which does not have a pond and a fountain surrounded by flowerpots filled with flowers of every season, is a house without enjoyment. He should set a garden wherever possible in the compound of the house, for the mīrzā is equal in numbers (ham-'adad) to a gulzār (a rose-garden); he is bound to be attracted by a garden. In every corner of his garden there should be colourful chirping and singing birds like nightingales and parrots. He should hear unpleasant voices of other birds from a distance, because a mīrzā's temperament cannot bear listening to such noises. The beauty of these flowers and birds is not merely for external view; the beauty of every bird leads one to the contemplation of its Maker, and its singing leads the heart to the anguish [of divine love]" (Ahmed 104-105)

"But for visiting gardens and viewing flowers and flower-gardens, he should ride a flower-coloured or black and white (ablaq) horse" (Ahmed 105)

"He should enjoy unfamiliar and half-coloured (nīmrang) flowers. If he wants a flower to yield fragrance, he should himself pluck it from the bough. He should not accept it from the hands of the gardener, for there is no hand cleaner than the hand of a mīrzā. He should not wear flowers in his turban, as it is effeminate to do so. It is a blemish for the mīrzā, who is a [masculine] lover. But he can, as a blessing, put a gul-i mutlaq [rose] which is made of the holy sweat drops of the Pride of All Creation on his head. Occasionally, in privacy, he may put a bunch of nāfarmān flowers, which is like a plume of feathers, in the corner of his turban; it would look becoming" (Ahmed 106)

So many rules, at times rather arbitrary from our contemporary perspective... But they clearly speak to an ideal, if not a reality, of a sophisticated appreciation of plants and gardens. Hopefully I will at some point be able to work on the Persian originals of these texts and perhaps track down some others like them.

Source: Ahmed, Aziz. "The British Museum Mīrzānāma and the Seventeenth Century Mīrzā in India." Iran 13 (1975): 99-110.


  1. He should set a garden wherever possible in the compound of the house. Makes perfect sense to me! I wish that our own society put a little more emphasis on the appreciation of plants. (Besides the perfect suburban lawn and perfectly shorn hedges.)


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