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The telling tale that was Naulakha Bagh

September 22, 2013

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Probably the best known ‘Naulakha’ in Lahore is the exquisite structure next to the Sheesh Mahal inside the fort. It was made by Mughal emperor Shah Jehan, who at that time was undertaking the Taj Mahal. But this is beauty on a much smaller scale, and, many believe, architecturally much more pleasing.

That today sulphuric vapours emitted by motor vehicles have eroded and spoilt the magnificent marble probably matters little to our Punjab rulers and their servile bureaucrats. I understand on good authority that the prime minister is most worried about the condition of the Lahore Fort and the Walled City. I also understand that he, and more so his wife, were most annoyed by the comments about the great Dr. Lietner uttered by his attack team (I wish journalistic licence would allow me to use a more lucid word) in the Punjab Assembly. So there is yet hope (slender as it appears) of some semblance of sanity returning to the world of conservation and restoration of our heritage.

But my story today is about another ‘Naulakha’, the one partly researched by Dr. Neelam Naz of the UET, and it is about the now disappeared Naulakha Garden. This garden, vast as it was, once stood where today stands the Lahore Railway Station. It was built by Mirza Kamran, the second son of the first Mughal emperor Babar and step-brother of emperor Humayun. On the annexation of Lahore he set about building an expansive garden, the centre piece of which was his palace called Naulakha, because Rs900,000 was the estimated cost. This was his assumed terrain, for he had ambitions as the future emperor of India.

Where today stands the Lahore Railway Station once stood the beautiful palace in the Naulakha Bagh. Prince Mirza Kamran spent lavishly on this exquisite architectural and horticultural beauty. But this wayward prince was not a much liked person. He was hated in Lahore for his cruelty, and when he escaped to Kabul he was hated even more there. Luckily his father had instructed the elder Humayun: “Please do not kill your two younger brothers when your time comes, though by my reckoning they deserve such a punishment”. A wise ruler as Guru Nanak had predicted.

Mirza Kamran refused to assist his brother when Sher Shah Suri took over, and then later tried his best to assume power in Lahore. In the end he was killed in Kabul by a population that took an immense dislike to him. But in Lahore his garden was taken over by Asaf Khan, the brother of Empress Nur Jehan. He improved the access to the Walled City through the garden and expanded it. By the time Dara Shikoh came to Lahore, he worked hard to convert it into an even bigger garden in which almost every known tree was planted. The river was skillfully used to irrigate this lush green garden. From Delhi Gate the view to the east was one of unending greenery right up to the Shalimar Gardens. If ever Lahore was heavenly, it was in the form of the Naulakha Garden.

But then ghastly events also took place here, like the butchering of 10,000 Sikh women, children and men by the butchers of Lahore, the monument of whose death is known as Shaheed Ganj, located in the middle of the Naulakha Bazaar between the railway station and Delhi Gate. This, undoubtedly, is one of the most important monument to the martyrs of Lahore, one that we disregard because of our extreme communal worldview.

As the Mughals declined and the Afghan invaders came repeatedly, the garden was encroached upon. By the time the Sikhs took over the road nearing Delhi Gate became the Naulakha Bazaar, and the horse market (Nakkas Khana) and the slave market (Nilamkhana) took hold. To the south the expansive land saw a massive cattle market (Gowalmandi), the largest in northern India, being established. With time segregation of this market saw the milk suppliers build houses, and what we today know as Gowalmandi is basically the final shape of that very market.

But as the Naulakha Bazaar started to take shape it was overtaken by events in which all the three major religions of Lahore – Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism – established their monuments. At the very end of the bazaar we have the Shaheed Ganj complex of a gurdwara and the infamous well in which thousands of Sikh women and children jumped to their death, a major monument in Sikh history. Next to it, almost merging is the Shaheed Ganj Mosque, built in 1653 by Abdullah Khan, the ‘kotwal’ of Lahore.

Built in the days of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, it was seen by Sikhs as an attempt to erase the memory of their ‘Wada Gulgolara’ – the Biggest Massacre. Just next is the Moolchand Mandir, known in Lahore as ‘Shaheed Ganj da Mandir’, remnants of which can still be seen. This flashpoint naturally generated tension, which took a turn for the worse on the night of 9th July, 1935, when, assisted by police and the army and supervised by British officers, the mosque was erased and a new ‘gurdwara’ built. Needless to say that come 1947 the reverse was done. In July 2011 a militant organisation managed to say their Eid prayers there. Since then it is guarded by the police.

But the telling blow to Naulakha Garden came when the British arrived. In 1864 they inaugurated the Lahore Railway Station, and with it the entire northern area of the garden disappeared under track, not to speak of important Mughal monuments near Shahdara. The British destroyed more monuments than anyone else. To the east the railway colonies ate up the greenery right up to Garhi Shahu. Mind you Shahu was a notorious dacoit in the pre-Ranjit Singh era, in the days when Lahore’s Walled City, for almost 50 years, was surrounded by vast tracts where the writ of the dacoit reigned.

To the south the British were building their new Lahore, and the northern edges of Donald Town, with Donald McLeod Road cutting through it, touched the boundary of Naulakha, where a huge missionary establishment was set up, as well as a lot of hotels run by British settlers.

To the west the road to Delhi Gate ran along its old alignment from the railway station crossing, and this was, in its days, the road where all horse-driven traffic from the station approached the Walled City. Along the way stands the mausoleum of Shah Kaku Chisthi, as well as a number of other important monuments.

But today the entire bazaar, probably the oldest bazaar outside the Walled City of Lahore, is a mix of ironmongers, merging into a Landa Bazaar at the end of the crossing. What was once a vast green terrain is now an ironmongers dream. Even the old ‘nakkaskhana’ outside Delhi Gate was in 2012 demolished by a trader backed by the son of the present ruler to build a plaza.

The once exquisite Naulakha Garden is no more, eaten up by industrialisation, greed, neglect, hatred and avarice. The trend continues all around the Walled City, and with greater ferocity within the old city itself. The area is still called Naulakha, and in that name hangs the history of much of what has befallen us.