Mural extraordinaire

May 29, 2016

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The Shahi Qila is a historic masterwork and a Unesco World Heritage Site, and should be restored to its original state. -Photograph by Arif Mahmood
The Shahi Qila is a historic masterwork and a Unesco World Heritage Site, and should be restored to its original state. -Photograph by Arif Mahmood

Say the words ‘great wall’ and most people will instantly assume you are referring to China’s most famous landmark. The Great Wall of China, one of the most remarkable feats of engineering of all time, is the world’s longest defensive fortification, a bulwark against the warlike nomadic horsemen of the Mongolian plains in the north.

Surprisingly, Pakistan, too, has a ‘great wall’. This amazing structure is the tasaveer ki dewar, commonly miscalled taswirat ki dewar, in the Shahi Qila, or Fort of Lahore.

While China’s Great Wall was purpose built for protection, this Great Wall of Lahore is a marvellously decorative one, built for the visual delight of an aesthete, a patron and connoisseur of art. Commissioned in 1624 by the fourth of the Great Mughals, the emperor Jahangir, (and completed by his son Shah Jahan in 1631), this ‘picturised’ wall is unequalled for the dazzling brilliancy of its gorgeous, glazed-tile mosaic ornamentation.


The total surface area of this Mughal architectural feat is an astonishing 8,000 square yards. Nearly 1,500 feet in length and some 50 feet in height, (450 x 15 metres) this mosaic masterpiece is the largest mural in the world.


The total surface area of this Mughal architectural feat is an astonishing 8,000 square yards. Nearly 1,500 feet in length and some 50 feet in height, (450 x 15 metres) this mosaic masterpiece is the largest mural in the world.

Floral pattern cut tile mosaic within an arch
Floral pattern cut tile mosaic within an arch

After the Mughal emperor Akbar moved his court from Fatehpur Sikri to Lahore for strategic reasons, this city served as a third Mughal capital after Agra and Delhi. Akbar had the outer walls of the old Lahore Fort massively fortified to enclose an area of some 30 acres. In this space are the pavilions, palaces, courtyards and gardens commenced by Akbar, continued by Jahangir and completed by Shah Jahan.

Jahangir’s decision to embellish the western and northern façade of these private palaces of the Lahore Fort with a marvelous variety of designs created a unique ‘Picture Wall’. Framing the Shah Burj and including the Hathi Pol or Elephant Gate, this enormous mural is divided into rectangular, square and arched sunk panels that are filled in with brightly coloured glazed-tile mosaics. The surface remaining between these panels is covered with a layer of red-coloured plaster, in which by means of white lines, the effect of brick and mortar is produced.

In the exquisite enamelled tile work of this Great Wall of Lahore are depicted not only the formal geometric and floral designs associated with traditional Islamic Art, but also detailed naturalistic images of imperial attendants engaged in various activities such as blowing trumpets. Frequently portrayed are combatants armed with sword and shield. Such gladiators were called shamsheer-baz in Persian.

Mosaic tiles on the ‘Picture Wall’ of the Shahi Qila depicting an elephant mounted by mahouts
Mosaic tiles on the ‘Picture Wall’ of the Shahi Qila depicting an elephant mounted by mahouts

Also displayed on the wall’s decorative panels are animals such as battling elephants, prancing horses, skirmishing camels, ferocious tigers and leopards chasing deer.


“In the pictured wall of Lahore a large number of the tile mosaics relate to animal fights which were no less favourite an entertainment at the Mughal Court than in ancient Rome.” — J. Ph. Vogel, Tile Mosaics of the Lahore Fort


On the spandrels of the large arched panels below Jahangir’s Khwabgah (the Imperial Bedchamber) are azdahas or winged dragons from ancient Persian mythology, cup-bearing angel figures herons, cranes and other flying birds.

Many of the scenes displayed on this ‘Picture Wall’ illustrate the court life of the Mughal sovereigns, their sports and their pastimes. One of the finest panels shows four horsemen playing the noble game of chaughan, nowadays known as polo. Most prominent are those relating to elephant fights, which were one of the favourite recreations of the Mughal court.

Mughal horsemen and foot soldiers
Mughal horsemen and foot soldiers

This wonderfully ‘pictured’ wall was first viewed in April 1899 by Dr J. Ph. Vogel, superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India. A scholar of art and archaeology, he noted in dismay that many of the wall’s decorated panels were too damaged to be recognisable. Appalled at how “far advanced in decay” this unique tile work was, he decided that at least the best preserved panels should be recorded for posterity.

Work began early in 1902. Most of the panels could only be reached with the aid of long bamboo ladders tied together. The scorching sunlight of Lahore made the task of tracing the panels difficult and dangerous. Then there was the work of preparing drawings on a reduced scale from these tracings, but not without comparing each finished drawing with its original on the Fort wall. Finally, in 1920, Vogel published his detailed report titled Tile Mosaics of the Lahore Fort.

In this pioneering study Vogel painstakingly reproduced what he refers to as “the 116 panels of tile mosaics that are found on the west and north walls of the Lahore Fort which contain the palace buildings of the Great Mughals, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, and consequently date from the first half of the 17th century of our era.”

Horseman hunting a lion
Horseman hunting a lion

Of the wall’s astonishingly colourful decoration, Vogel says: “Introduced from Persia, it was largely restored to the brick buildings in the plains of Northern India, especially in the Punjab, the most famous specimens being found in Lahore, the capital of that province … certainly no decorative art could be devised more truly oriental in the dazzling brilliancy of its colours, more bright and glowing in the splendour of an eastern sun.”

While admiring the “truly princely magnitude of the colour decoration,” Vogel pointed out that “What lends this work an uncommon interest, is the fact that here not only geometrical or foliated designs have been used, but, in defiance of the tenets of the Muslim creed, a great number of the panels exhibit figures of living beings.”

Figurative art — the use of animal and, above all, human forms — was avoided in the Islamic world. Jurists throughout Islamic history had frequently expressed their suspicion of images. Basing their views on certain Hadith (sayings of the Holy Prophet), they had developed an argument which held that the figurative representation of living beings was contrary to the Divine Will and thus reprehensible. Such dogmatic attitudes caused Muslim artists to more or less abandon figurative art for calligraphy and geometric expression. In spite of condemnation by orthodox jurists, figurative art did exist during the tolerant rule of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan but it was usually restricted to the illustration of illuminated manuscripts, albums and Mughal miniatures.

An elephant fight
An elephant fight

Since his princely residence, unlike places of worship, had no religious significance, Jahangir had no qualms about ordering an extensive figurative repertoire for its decoration. The visually impressive embellishment of the Lahore Fort’s façade thus displays numerous examples of figurative ornamentation evoking the pleasures of the palace.

Set among the various geometric and floral patterns, one can see many detailed images recalling the pastimes of the Imperial Mughals: royal hunts, military parades, sports, and spectacles such as elephant, camel and bull fights.

Jahangir’s magnificent obsession was painting. His taste in art was eclectic but he was particularly fond of the European paintings presented to him by traders and diplomats.

Sir Thomas Roe, the first British ambassador accredited to the Mughal court, noted that among the presents given by him, what the emperor prized most were paintings, and that he had these copied by artists of the royal atelier and used as decorative murals in his palaces.

View of the ‘Picture Wall’ divided into compartments that are decorated in cut-tile mosaics
View of the ‘Picture Wall’ divided into compartments that are decorated in cut-tile mosaics

Such was Jehangir’s passion for painting that his Court painters always accompanied him on his tours. They excelled both in painting precise pictures of birds and animals and vivid portraits of people. When the Mughal courtier Inayat Khan, dying of alcoholism and opium addiction, was carried into the palace to bid farewell to his emperor, Jahangir, though touched by his appalling condition, immediately ordered that a drawing be made of the dying man, because, as he put it, “though painters have strived much in drawing an emaciated face, yet I have never seen anything like this”. Today this painting, ‘Inayat Khan Dying’, is considered a classic of Imperial Mughal Art.

Most of the six Great Mughals were prolific patrons of monumental architecture.

Jahangir, however, preferred painting to architecture. Unlike his father Akbar (whose monumental projects included the imposing Tomb for Humayun, Fatehpur Sikri and Sikandariya), or his son Shah Jahan, the most magnificent of the Grand Mughals, (who built the world-famous Taj Mahal, the sumptuous Red Fort palace complex and Jama Masjid in Delhi, the Shalimar Garden and the sumptuous Shish Mahal, the Naulakha Pavilion and the Moti Masjid in the Lahore Fort), or his grandson Aurangzeb who commissioned both the immense Badshahi Mosque and the gigantic Alamgiri Gate, Jahangir built no masjids, mazars or maqbaras.

A lover of animals he did, however, order a grand memorial for a pet gazelle. In 1607, when his favourite antelope Mansraj died in the imperial hunting reserve at Sheikhupura, he erected an elegant three-storeyed octagonal tower to its memory called Hiran Minar.

Jehangir abhorred Agra, his father’s imperial capital, but is said to have had a special affection for Lahore. According to legend, before he ascended the Mughal throne he fell passionately in love with a dancing girl here. Her name was Anarkali (Pomegranate Blossom) and Jahangir, then simply Prince Salim, was determined to marry her. Emperor Akbar was enraged when he caught the infatuated prince exchanging amorous glances with the dancing girl in the Shish Mahal, or Palace of Mirrors. On his orders Anarkali was entombed alive; named after her is Lahore’s bustling Anarkali Bazaar.

When he ascended the throne, Prince Salim adopted the name Jahangir which means ‘World Seizer’. He had by then long gotten over Anarkali and was a much married man when he met Mehrunnisa, the widowed daughter of a penniless Persian migrant. He named her Nur Jahan, ‘Light of the World’. Highly intelligent and accomplished, artistic and ambitious, Nur Jahan was Jahangir’s last wife. A domineering woman, she soon became the de facto emperor as the besotted Jahangir, who preferred private life to state activities, happily consented to become the most henpecked husband in Mughal history. When he died in 1627 in Kashmir, he willed that he be buried in Nur Jahan’s garden in Lahore’s Shahdara, in the garden of Dilkusha.

A panel of cut-tile mosaic representing a triumphal procession
A panel of cut-tile mosaic representing a triumphal procession

What about the amazing picture wall he created?

After emperor Aurangzeb died in the Deccan in 1707, his weak successors rapidly lost all influence in the Punjab. In the 18th century, the fort in Lahore was hardly used as a royal residence and left to ineffective provincial governors. Invasions, plundering and destruction by Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Marathas and Sikhs, racked the city. When Ranjit Singh united the Sikh forces and made Lahore his capital in 1799, most of the Mughal edifices were stripped of their architectural ornamentation and their white marble facings transported to Amritsar’s Golden Temple. This “Lion of the Punjab” did not vandalise the fort, but after his death in 1839 mayhem followed.

The Lahore Fort was twice bombarded, in 1841 and then in 1843, by vandalising Sikh contenders squabbling for Ranjit Singh’s throne. In a book published in 1898 titled Lahore: Its History, Architectural Remains and Antiquities, Khan Bahadur Syad Abdul Latif says that on the occasion of the first siege Sher Singh placed 40 marksmen on the minarets of the Imperial Badshahi Mosque which at that time was used by the Khalsa as a powder magazine. Many of the Picture Wall’s brightly coloured mosaics were, of course, destroyed while those that remained are riddled with bullet marks. After the British annexed the Punjab in 1849, the royal Mughal residences of the Lahore Fort were turned into barracks and garrisoned by British troops. It was not till Lord Curzon’s viceroyalty that the Lahore Fort was reclaimed from the military and recognised as a historical monument of the first order.

Despite all the ravages and disrepair that this magnificent remnant of the Mughal era has suffered in the nearly 400 years of its existence, one can still detect vestiges of former glory in its remaining enamelled tile work. It can be confidently predicted that if this Great Wall of Lahore is repaired and restored, it will become a veritable magnet — a crowd-puller for tourists and for all those interested in history and art.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 29th, 2016