The people in this small village of mud houses and lush fields aren't quite sure what to make of Elizabeth Moynihan, although they certainly find her interesting to watch. She spends her days on her hands and knees, digging up long-dried wells and prowling across the dirt floors of their living rooms with a trowel. A gang of 20 children follows every move she makes, giggling and eyes wide. "They think I'm crazy," she says. In the afternoons their parents offer her tea, which she takes alongside the water buffaloes and goats.
At the same time that her husband, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), was busy in Congress, his wife was literally on the other side of the world, unearthing an important archeological discovery here that she found herself. It is a pleasure garden built 450 years ago by Babur, the emperor who founded the Mogul Dynasty in India. "If you know what you're looking for here," she says, "you'll find it."
The Indians were stunned.
It began a decade ago when Elizabeth Moynihan was living in New Delhi as the American ambassador's wife. She was studying Mogul gardens in general and Babur in particular, poring over a 1921 translation of his journal, the "Babur-Nama." She became convinced that the lotus garden he described in such detail still existed, even though scholars thought it had long disappeared. Following his phrases like clues in a treasure hunt, she finally came upon the village of Jhor. She walked straight to a stone terrace the villagers used to dry cow dung patties, pushed aside some lentil branches and found, just as she had suspected, the remains of Babur's lotus pool.
"I was jumping up and down," she says. "It was terrific."
Babur was also her salvation from New Delhi embassy life, which can wrap visitors in a sterile gauze that carefully protects them from any real experience of living in India. Americans newly arrived to Delhi are inundated with information from fellow expatriates on where to get the best green olives, pastries and other reminders of home.
Entire conversations center on the number of times Americans have been sick from the water and dirt. Dinner parties can be as formal and stylized as those on the official circuit in Washington, with the exception of an occasional Indian face and the bearers, the phalanxes of servants who bring the food to the table. Some hostesses like to summon them with little silver bells.
"I was overwhelmed by everything," Moynihan says. "Pat's not a career diplomat, and I'm not attached to that whole world. I cried a lot, although I'm not sure what it was all about. But I feel I was lucky to be grabbed by something. If that happens, then the whole thing falls into place. People I know who didn't have that experience never got over the crying. Oh, the tears dried up, but the emotions were still there. I think it's worse in Delhi, where people have tried to re-create their own environment. It's not until you can shuck your own cultural baggage that you can perceive -- and accept -- the culture into which you've been thrust."
Moynihan now speaks of Babur as she would an old friend. "First of all, he's a genius," she says. "He was tactically very good at military exploits. He was a natural botanist. He spoke and wrote several languages. He was a poet. He was a musician."
It was at Babur's 500th birthday-anniversary party, celebrated two years ago with friends in India, that Pat Moynihan raised his glass and said proudly, "I'd like to make a toast to the other man in my wife's life." At the Ancient Garden
To get to Jhor, you take the Taj Express, a three-hour train trip from New Delhi to Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal. On the train the attendant brings hot tea in an old china cup as fields of young green wheat and yellow mustard flowers flash by the window. Wild doves flutter through the cool, hazy sunshine. From Agra, it is a one-hour drive to Dholpur along a dusty road crowded with skeletal cows, camels pulling old wooden carts, hollow-eyed beggar children, noisy bazaars, vegetable stands and roast-peanut stalls. It smells smoky, spicy and musky, unlike anything in America.
At one bend in the road, a group of vultures is feasting on a dead dog.
In Dholpur, it is a five-minute drive down a dirt path to Jhor, where the car can go no farther. At the end of the road is Liz Moynihan, in Eddie Bauer jeans and a black sweater, 54, white-haired, opinionated and independent. She has an easy manner, the loose laugh of a salty politician's wife who has probably put up with a lot. She says she never gives interviews in the United States because she hates being asked questions like "What's it like being married to Pat?"
"The thing is," she says, "who'd put up with either one of us?"
She and her 27-year-old daughter Maura are staying for the week at the nearby guest house -- an enormous old bungalow built by the British on the scale of the Raj. There are peacocks and bougainvillea in the gardens, but the interior has seen considerably better days. The water comes from two little faucets in a dark, cavernous wash house: It has been a week since the Moynihans took a bath. The bedroom, which is the size of a small auditorium, has 50-foot ceilings, grimy walls and a lone bed in the center. "It beats a tent," says Liz Moynihan.
The bill for the entire week comes to 49 rupees, or, at current exchange rates, $3.90.
Moynihan begins her tour of the garden, the usual gang of children at her heels. "Everybody thinks gardens are a very ladylike pursuit," she says, leading the way to Babur's bathhouse, still nearly intact and now used by a village family as a stable, "but nobody knows that you spend your life up to your ankles in you-know-what. Watch your step."
The village sits on top of most of the garden, which probably covered several acres. In its prime, it included a mosque, a pavilion, two pools and an aqueduct. Babur loved it and spent time recuperating there from his military exploits, using it not so much as a water garden as a country house away from the battles. Babur was the first of the Mogul invaders who came from the north -- Moynihan calls them the world's most elegant nomads. His garden at Jhor is the only link between the water gardens of India and Persia.
He made regular entries in his journal, describing the garden in detail. On Jan. 13, 1529, he wrote: "A place was fixed in the S.E. of the garden for a hot bath, I ordered a plinth erected on the leveled ground, and a bath to be arranged, in one room of which was to be a reservoir 10 by 10."
Now Liz Moynihan points to an old pool. "We measured it this morning," she says, "and it turned out to be 10 by 10. Which is what he said. What do you know?"
She discovered the garden in 1978, returning to India after she had left three years before as the ambassador's wife. The country got under her skin in a deeper way than it did her husband's. "I had more fun," she says. "I seldom went anyplace with Pat because I was uncomfortable with the entourage. It's much better to take a train. I didn't go to the receptions, but he had to." Then, too, she says she was never sick in India, although her husband was sick all the time. "It got to be sort of a problem for us," she says. The senator maintains he was only sick once -- it just lasted, he says, for 2 1/2 years.
She didn't return to the garden again until 1983, when she showed it to Pat. Ever the politician, he held out sweets for the village children. Now she has returned a third time, this trip for a formal survey that she hopes will become a monograph, a record of use to architectural historians. The Indian government has declared it a protected site, and there is talk that the villagers will be relocated nearby and the garden made into a park.
"I haven't really thought about what I want done with it," Liz Moynihan says. "A foreigner can't come into a place and say, 'This is what should happen.' What I did say was, 'This is what did happen.' "
A commotion over by the lotus pool has started among the villagers. A pretty 16-year-old girl is sobbing on Maura Moynihan's shoulder, telling her in Hindi that she's unhappy because she is the only girl in the village not yet married. Maura, who is wearing a kurta and speaks fluent Hindi, listens as the girl tells her she is the youngest of six daughters and that her father has no more money for her dowry.
Maura decides to go to the village bazaar and buy her some things: a red sari, several silver bracelets and, for her kitchen, a brass urn and four stainless-steel platters. The bill isn't much more than $25, a fortune in this village. The girl is so grateful that she sobs and sobs, while her father, a painfully thin man with gray hair and deep lines in his face, shows the Americans a snapshot of the prospective groom. It is impossible to tell exactly what is going through his mind, but he appears both terribly embarrassed and terribly relieved.
He says the wedding will be in the summer. Maura Moynihan tells the girl that when she comes to the village again, she knows she'll see her with a new baby. The girl sobs some more, then brings a garland of marigolds that she puts over Maura's head.
"When I go into villages here," Liz Moynihan says a little later, "I really don't feel absolutely culturally different from these people. They offer you tea, they have manners. They want to carry your bag for you, they want to make you more comfortable. They love their children. It's not all that different. We all want the same thing."
She herself began work on a book about Mogul gardens soon after she left India. Babur's garden became an important part of that book, now called "Paradise as a Garden," but she gave herself exactly a two-sentence mention as the discoverer. There's no picture of her on the book flap, either, and no mention of who her husband happens to be.
"Pat says I was quite British about it all," she says. The Path to Diplomacy
Elizabeth Moynihan has always been a little different. In Washington she generally avoids the Senate wives, doing things like serving on a White House luncheon committee, then not turning up for the meal. She was born in Massachusetts, the daughter of a divorced Catholic woman who edited a local newspaper. She went to Boston University but never finished because she ran out of money and was terrible at math.
She met Pat Moynihan while both were working on Averell Harriman's campaign for governor of New York, but decided to leave Albany soon after the election. Then she broke her leg skiing and wound up staying and getting married. The courtship officially started when Pat came up to her in her wheelchair at a party and announced: "You're going to marry me." Liz Moynihan thought she'd heard him wrong and was embarrassed that this imaginary offer had leaped from her subconscious. But the next day he repeated it.
"So then we started going out," she says. "But if he bought dinner, I bought drinks. I was totally impossible. People didn't do that then."
She went with him to Washington when he joined the Labor Department during the Kennedy administration, then on with him to his professorship at Harvard. She came back to Washington when he served on Richard Nixon's White House staff ("We had a big fight about that," she says), then left with him for India in 1973. They had their three children with them -- Maura, John and Tim.
"I had terrible culture shock," she says. "I had never been to India before."
The American ambassador's residence didn't help. "You've seen the Kennedy Center, so you've seen the embassy," she says. "You open the front door and it's like the hall of flags. The first thing I did was put up a badminton net and a Ping-Pong table and let John's friends play there." The architect of the building had in fact designed the Kennedy Center -- Edward Durrell Stone, whom some critics call the master of mediocrity.
The house also came with the usual barrage of servants, common to the homes of foreigners in India. "I hated it," she says. How many were there? "Let's see," she says. "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight in the house, then the watchman, the malis [gardeners], oh, God, there were about six of them. And the electrician. That huge space had to be air-conditioned. He was there all the time."
She describes life among the diplomatic corps as "incestuous." "They entertain each other. For the most part they were senior career people, they'd met all the people they'd wanted to meet, and what they really cared about was their retirement home, had they bought all the things for it, and had they shipped them yet."
So Liz Moynihan avoided the parties and began studying her gardens, traveling all over the subcontinent. Diplomatic eyebrows were raised. "We'd been there almost a year," she says, "when Mrs. Gandhi had a reception, a garden party. It was for ambassadors' wives and their children. It was very pleasant, and she had a little gift for each child. And she said something very odd to me. She said, 'You're doing the right thing not going to those parties -- don't you worry about their complaints.' Well, that was the first I'd heard of those complaints. She knew all the gossip."
The final straw of diplomatic life came after Liz Moynihan was well into the 100 calls on ambassadors' wives that she was expected to make. "I made 60," she says. "You don't know what I've done for my country." One day she paid a visit to the wife of a South American country's ambassador, who proudly brought out her collection of wigs that she kept on fake heads. At one point, she plopped one of the heads right in Liz Moynihan's lap.
"That was the last call," she says. Sunset
Now it's evening, and Liz Moynihan, never one to miss a moment of drama, decides that at the end of her last day in the garden she will read aloud from the Babur-Nama at sunset. She walks up to a ridge that overlooks the garden, opens the well-worn book and begins. The sun is a deep orange on the horizon, and the air is silent and cool.
A village man, barefoot and wrapped in a plaid blanket, sidles up to her, sits down, then looks at her with a mixture of puzzlement and intensity, as if trying to understand a difficult lecture. He understands Hindi, not English, but he listens to every word.
At the end, she's sad. "Well, that's it," she says, sighing as she closes Babur's journal. "Hell of a guy."