Forgotten tombs of Shahdra
Walled city of Lahore Authority is doing excellent work and has taken care of several monuments within old Lahore, but Shahdra Bagh still awaits its savior
Thanks to Archeological Survey of India’s online 360 degrees walkthroughs, I have spent the past few days visiting landmark Mughal monuments on my screen. These include the Royals Forts of Delhi, Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, the Taj Mahal and tombs of Humayun, Akbar, Maryam Zamani and Itimad ud Daula. These virtual reality walkthroughs were absolutely spell bounding and very close to reality. Being a huge admirer of Mughal Empire’s architectural legacy, I always wanted to visit the old cities of Delhi and Agra, the very heart of Mughal Empire. Such are the wonders of technology, my wish is partially fulfilled.
During these virtual walkthroughs, I strongly felt that historical monuments are very well maintained by concerned authorities in India. With such fabulous wealth at their disposal, Mughal built like giants and decorated like jewelers. However, they lacked foresight that one day Mughal Empire was going to come to an end and future rulers of India may not have the same passion or resources to maintain these architectural marvels. The great Mughal Empire started declining within a few decades of construction of these great monuments. Gold ceilings and precious stones inlaid with floral patterns on the walls were either used by weak kings in subsequent financial crises or looted by warring factions and invading armies. Some structures were stripped bare of every decoration, even marble and red sandstone; others were demolished altogether. Surviving Mughal monuments were just a shadow of their former glory. Today, whatever is left of these monuments is well maintained in India. Restoring their original form is impossible but monuments are saved from further erosion and kept very clean and tidy for visitors. Especially the gardens are very well kept and on a rainy day, still present a reflection of Quran’s paradise which was the original inspiration for the Mughal Chahar Bagh.
Lahore became the capital of Mughal Empire between 1585 and 1599 when Akbar the Great was crushing rebellions in Afghanistan and expanding his Empire into Kashmir and Sind. The capital was taken back to Agra at the start of 17th Century but it remained a beloved city to the Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses. Mughals left great cultural and architectural heritage in Lahore making it an exquisite jewel in the crown of Mughal Empire and a city famous for its exotic gardens. With the empire’s decline, Lahore suffered long civil wars and fell into the hands of Sikhs and later on the British before finally becoming a part of Pakistan with India’s Independence and Partition. The city’s Mughal outlook lost its beauty with time, but from Shahdra to Shalimar, Lahore’s landscape is still dotted with palaces, mosques and tombs from the bygone era.
Few of the most exquisite Mughal monuments in Lahore are in Shahdra, the vast garden complex across river Ravi. It includes the tombs of Emperor Jahangir, Empress Noor Jahan and Grand Vizier Asif Khan, a mosque, a caravanserai, several magnificent gateways, the boundary walls and bastions. Jahangir’s tomb is the grandest and most beautiful building in Shahdra Bagh complex. It is considered a jewel on Lahore’s landscape. Nearly all these buildings are in a state of ruin. Maintenance is negligible. Eastern gateway and wall of Jahangir’s Tomb complex have long been demolished. The entire Shahdra Bagh complex is threatened by encroachment. Exterior sides of the northern walls of Jahangir’s and Asif Khan’s tombs are hidden behind poor settlements. The garden of Noor Jahan’s tomb lost its symmetry at the hands of British long ago when they laid a railway line between the tomb and rest of the complex. The remaining open space in front of the tomb is used as a cricket ground by the local lads. Recently an unattractive, asymmetrical wall was built around the tomb to contain ever increasing encroachment. The garden of Asif Khan’s ruined tomb is also a picture of desolation. Out of sixteen plots of the garden around Jahangir’s tomb, only four or five are maintained. The rest of the garden is a complete wasteland covered with thick bushes, unkempt trees, overgrown and messy vegetation, roots and wild grass. It has become a safe haven for drug addicts.
There is practically no maintenance of the Shahdra Bagh complex and the scale of erosion is devastating. One day, I walked towards the southern gateway of Jahangir’s tomb which is a path less taken. I came across a lot of rubble piled against the boundary wall. They were fragments of precious building materials like marble, red sandstone and various other beautiful stones, once part of the building. I found a beautifully carved leaf on red sandstone still intact. It is a regular feature of nearly all Mughal monuments and was used mostly as an outdoor skirting of a building. Carved with such skill on a stone which is not extracted in Pakistan, this piece of art was lying in debris. I took it as a souvenir and placed it in my study. Sometimes, I wonder about the artisan who carved this stone into a beautiful leaf.
The principal approach to Shahdra Bagh complex is a bumpy mud road surrounded by poor settlements and small industries. The area is highly polluted. In such undesirable circumstances, even a historical heritage as exquisite as Shahdra Bagh complex doesn’t inculcate a sense of pride in visitors.
This historical treasure can be converted into a great tourist attraction. Restoration of gardens and waterworks would give a beautiful touch to the monuments and attract a lot of visitors. The chambers of Akbari Serai between the tombs of Jahangir and Asif Khan are in a state of complete ruin and have never been put to any use. First half of the Serai could be converted into an exotic restaurant and the other half in an oriental bazaar. Serai’s roof is wide enough for an open air restaurant with an additional benefit of excellent view of the monuments. With proper illumination at night, running fountains, classical music, oriental bazaar and Mughal cuisine, fantasy of a thousand and one nights can be recreated at this exquisite monument.
Unfortunately, concerned authorities in Pakistan have shown criminal negligence towards historical and cultural heritage. Walled city of Lahore Authority is doing excellent work and has taken care of several monuments within old Lahore, but Shahdra Bagh still awaits its savior. With a public largely ignorant of the importance of historical legacy and a government more interested in building flyovers and expressways over historical heritage rather than providing basic necessities to the poor people, it is unlikely that Pakistan’s historical monuments would get the attention and care they deserve. History however is a silent observer and the time will tell that a single brick of unfortunate Chauburji is more valuable than the mega project which is threatening its survival.
Haroon Ashraf has a Masters in International Relations from Punjab University. He’s a travel enthusiast. His other areas of interest include culture, history and literature.