Over the last few years we have seen the names of boulevards, streets and lanes being changed from simple descriptive ones steeped in history to ‘patriotic’ so-called ‘Islamic’ ones. The curse of wanting to be seen as pious seems to pervade the very way we think.

Lahore has several Jinnah roads and innumerable Allama Iqbal roads. While both the gentlemen deserve to be honoured, but to overkill is certainly a disservice, a sort of devaluing of their true worth. Inside the old walled city the names of old ‘galis’ and ‘mohallahs’ and ‘katras’ are slowly changing to new ‘Islamic’ ones. Names of lanes describing old crafts and professions are being forgotten and names like Imam Ghazali, or Imam Bukhari, or Muhammad bin Qasim and even mundane names like Plastic Gali can be seen on maps and on walls. This process is virtually soul-destroying for it tends to cut out the very flavour of ancient places.

Let me describe just one example. Guru Arjan’s ‘Lal Khoo’ inside Mochi Gate now has a team of religious fanatics refusing to let people, especially Sikh pilgrims, from hanging red rags on the old ‘pipal’ tree. They started off by blocking up the old well. This is very much a trader-politician trait, undertaken by their ‘pious’ supporters. Wanton destruction, history destroying and name-changing is the new culture.

In this piece let us concentrate on just one bazaar in the northern portion of the old city, that being Bazaar Baroodkhana. This was once known as Bazaar Begum Shahi, in line with the original name of the nearby mosque named after one of the many wives of the Mughal emperor Akbar. In Ranjit Singh’s time this mosque came to be known as “Baroodkhanaywali Masjid’ and hence the entire bazaar took on a new name.

Once the British took over and the department of archaeology researched the mosque, it acquired its now official name ‘Masjid Marium-uz Zamani’. Events moved in such a direction that the mosque, surely one of the finest and oldest in the walled city, built before Wazir Khan and Badshahi mosques were erected, fell into disrepair because of the way events moved.

This exquisite structure was converted into an ammunition dump by Maharajah Ranjit Singh, just as the Badshahi Mosque was converted into a massive horse stable. Very few would know that in many Sikh documents Badshahi Mosque has been referred to as ‘Shahi Nakas-khanay wali masjid.’ Dr Johann Martin Honigberger describes the place in some detail in his classic book ‘Thirty Five Years in the East.’ He was a doctor whom the maharajah initially deputed as the head of his ammunition depots, the idea being that as doctors mix medicines surely they could do the same for gunpowder.

The bazaar starts from behind Paniwala Talab near Haveli Baroodkhana and runs all the way to Bangla Ayub Shah. Because Bazaar Begum Shahi had shops and warehouses that provided a lot of the materials for gunpowder manufacturing, and because it was next to the Begum Shahi Mosque, it came to be known as Bazaar Baroodkhana. That name still persists. Once the British took over in 1849, they undertook a detailed study of the mosque, and on the recommendation of the famous Fakir family of Bazaar Hakeeman returned the mosque to the people of Lahore.

At the western edge of this bazaar is a huge ‘haveli’ that was built by a leading Sikh general. Considerable mystery exists as to which Sikh general it really was? Based on Sikh-era documents it seems that it was one of the houses of the family of Jamadar Khushal Singh, a tall sturdy Gaur Brahmin Hindu who converted to Sikhism on the wishes of Ranjit Singh. He died in 1844 in Lahore and his ‘samadhi’, as those of his brothers, are in the small garden outside Masti Gate, the name now for Masjidi Gate after the mosque of Begum Shahi or Mariam-uz Zamani. The garden and his ‘samadhi’ were once part of the ‘haveli.’

There is a theory that is pandered about a lot that some mysterious Sikh general owned this ‘haveli’ and as he had stored gunpowder and ammunition in one section while living in the other, hence it was called Haveli Baroodkhana. This seems to defy common sense. Why would any sensible army officer, let alone a general, store gunpowder in his house and at that in a congested residential area.

If we look at the geography of the main ‘havelis’ starting from Dhian Singh, Jamadar Khushal Singh and Teja Singh, it is clear that they all had not one but several ‘havelis’, mostly running into one another, for in all three cases they had two to four of their brothers and sons also in high army positions with their ‘havelis’ dovetailed. The Haveli Baroodkhana is so named because it was at one end of Bazaar Begum Shahi, which had acquired the name Bazaar Baroodkhana. This new name came about from the ammunition depot that existed in the Begum Shahi Mosque. It had nothing to do with itself being a ‘baroodkhana’, which is an unlikely proposition.

One very plausible opposing theory, which is given in Surjan’s book on ‘Old Lahore’ claims that this was a ‘haveli’ built by the Sikhs and handed over to the French general Claude Auguste Court. Surjan states that Gen. Court’s ammunition depot was between the mosque and Taxali Gate. That is a reasonable fit for this place. But to imagine that a Sikh general also lived there is fairly far-fetched.

This ‘haveli’ was initially taken over by the British in 1849, and acquired in a dilapidated condition in 1870 by a Kashmiri family of Sialkot headed by Mian Karim Bakhsh. They initially were construction contractors and made their fortune from British contracts. They acquired this ‘haveli’ in that process.

Now let me return to Mariam-uz Zamani and the mosque named after her. Here again two versions are afloat. One claims that Mariam-uz Zamani was really from a Portuguese Jesuit family that came to Lahore in the reign of Akbar the Great. She converted to Islam and married Akbar, who gave her the Mariam-uz Zamani, or ‘Mary of the Age’. A recent study in Cambridge on that very Jesuit mission by Dr Carolina Armenteros of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica, Santa Domingo, also claims this based on Portuguese documents.

However, a lot of Indian history books claim that she was a Rajput princess named Jodha Bai, the daughter of Raja Bihari Mal of Amber in Jaipur, who married Akbar in 1562 and converted to Islam. Another name put forward is Harkhan Champavati of the Kachwahas clan. Her tomb, built by her son Emperor Jahangir in 1623, is in Sikandra, near Agra, next to that of Akbar, and is the nearest to the grave of Akbar compared to all his other wives.

The mosque of Marium-uz Zamani is surrounded on all sides by encroachments to such an extent that it is barely visible from the Lahore Fort’s Akbari Gate. Used tyres shops, as well as car and truck rim shops abound, hiding it from view from the road. It is known as Rim Market. The back portion has warehouses for these goods. Over the years the authorities, all purporting to be pious in intent, ‘threatened’ to remove these encroachments.

The latest such ‘threat’ came from the Walled City of Lahore Authority just four months ago. They were, as is to be expected, just empty slogans and are promises never meant to be kept. The latest promise to remove encroachments and to conserve and restore the mosque has seen a ‘loud’ silence. Probably just another ‘U-turn’.

The current Punjab government is known for ‘silent promises’ with an emphasis on allegedly promoting tourism. If true it could be a sensible strategy. But do they have the time, inclination and resources to restore Lahore’s oldest large mosque? That only time will tell.

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2018

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