One late Moghal-era structure of Lahore that intrigues a lot of historians is the Cypress Tomb, or ‘Saruwalla Maqbara’, in Begumpura on the Grand Trunk Road, on the northern edge of the tomb of Dai Anga.
What intrigues most people is just how could a woman, allegedly a very pious one at that, be allowed to be buried at a height of 25 feet from the ground, instead of being buried six feet deep in it. The name of the tomb, the woman buried at a height, the reason she is buried at a height, and how the tomb was treated by later rulers all make an interesting story about a forgotten part of the city’s history.
My interest in this tomb was given a fillip by a former British High Commissioner to Pakistan, Sir Nicholas Barrington (1994-1997), who has collected considerable material on Lahore’s notable monuments.
His abiding interest in conserving this monument deserves to be commended. Many experts believe it is today the best preserved monument of this era thanks to Sir Nicholas. He now works on Pakistan-related issues in Cambridge, and is an influential much-consulted person in Britain on Pakistani affairs.
The tomb of the ‘cypress’ lady is that of Sharfun-Nisa Begum, a sister of the Subedar of Lahore, Nawab Zakariya Khan, who ruled the city in the reign of the Moghal emperor Muhammad Shah, known popularly as Muhammad Shah Rangila.
This time period is an important turning point in Punjab’s history, for after the killing of Banda Singh Bahadar, known as Banda Baragi, the growing Sikh power ebbed for a time.
Nawab Zakariya initially tried to appease the Sikhs to strengthen his position against the weakening Mughals. But then the invasion of Nadir Shah upset his calculations and he succumbed. The Sikhs resisted.
He took on the Sikhs and the result was the beheading of over 2,000 Sikhs outside Delhi Gate at the ‘nakaskhana’, an event for which he is still cursed today.
In these trying circumstances we see Sharfun-Nisa Begum become a recluse and build for herself an elevated tower where she would spend her time reading the Quran. This tower is today called the ‘Saruwalla Maqbara’.
This ‘tapered tower with a pyramidal vault’ was built by the begum herself as a reclusive place to avoid the politics of the rulers of Lahore.
This unique structure is covered by what is described as ‘Varanasi Tiles’ which has tile colours much brighter than the traditional Lahori tile. One description claims that these tiles were imported from Europe, though no proof of this exists.
Another account by Catherine Asher of Cambridge states that the glazed tiles were not unique to the architecture of Lahore, while Pakistan’s official PEPA report claims it is entirely a local effort. But no matter what the ‘experts’ say, it goes without saying that Cypress Tree tiles are not found in any other monument in the city. That they are still in good condition says a lot about their quality.
It is worth-thinking about why the sister of the ruler of Lahore would want to spend her time far away from the Lahore Fort, where her brother lived and worked. This mystery has been treated in two different ways by famous Lahore chronologist Kanhaiya Lal and historian S. M Latif. Both agree that the sister had some serious quarrel with her brother, but disagree over the reasons. However, what is agreed is that the tower was completed in the year 1745AD, which is 38 years after Aurangzeb died and 54 years before Maharajah Ranjit Singh came to power in Lahore. This meant that by the time Sharfun-Nisa Begum died the Sikhs were the dominant power in the lands around Lahore.
In her lifetime Sharfun-Nisa Begum would spend most of her time on her ‘chajja’ outside Lahore at Begumpura. She would climb to this room by means of a wooden ladder and would leave her Quran and a jewelled sword given to her by the Moghal ruler when she left, when the ladder would be removed.
When she died it was decided that she should be buried in the same chamber in accordance with her wishes. After being ‘buried’ the doors and windows were blocked up and within the dark chamber she was left.
When the three Sikh rulers took over power in Lahore and its surroundings, they knocked through the blocked door and stole her jewelled sword and other treasures.
When Ranjit Singh came to power in 1799, he removed the exquisite tiles from the lower portions of the tomb. Luckily they could not manage to steal the upper, and much more beautiful, cypress design tiles.
The question arises as to what is the importance of this unique monument to the history of Lahore. As Moghal rule weakened and frequent Afghan and Persian invasions, coupled with the rise of Sikh power, the building of such tombs and monuments had stopped.
So this could, safely, be said to be among the last of the Moghal-era architectural marvels. The only saving grace could be said to be the fact that the Sikhs, who otherwise ripped out most Moghal structure marble embellishments to use in their own structures, failed to damage this monument in full.
The lower tiles were taken to Amritsar for use in their religious buildings, as were the marbles from Jahangir’s tomb and the Lahore Fort, as well as from other structures.
The only mystery is just why the upper tiles were left untouched. One version is that it was too much of an effort to remove them, for tiles were relatively of little use unless used in a complete design. The damage to a few would spoil the entire design. That does seem a reasonable explanation. But then Lahore is a city where belief has struggled alongside common sense.
The popular myth in Lahore, which has more stories and myths than there are people, is that the Sikhs ‘mysteriously’ kept falling off ladders whenever they climbed to remove the tiles. Maybe it was the tapered structure that they could not manage to think through.
The long ladder, most probably made of flexible bamboo, would have probably bent in the empty middle portion of a huge 39-foot gap and the climber would certainly be thrown off on the rebound.
But then this led to the belief that the power of the holy lady – Sharfun-Nisa Begum - would simply knock down the tile looters. So it was that the upper tiles were left untouched. Even today the caretaker of the tomb narrates this fable. All it does is add to the mystery of the burial chamber which stands 25 feet above the ground.
Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2017