How old is Lahore? The clues lie in a blend of historical fact and expedient legend

How can the significance of the contemporary city be established without a glorious past?
Published December 31, 2018

At the end of a long street, deep inside Lahore’s Shahalami bazaar, lies a mausoleum — a modest domed structure fitted inside a mosque.

Some boast that the bazaar, which attracts traders from all over Punjab, is the “largest wholesale market in Asia”.

Named after the son of Emperor Aurangzeb, Shahalami was once a Hindu-dominated residential area that was burned down during the riots of Partition. This bazaar rose from its debris. The Shahalami gate, which once provided entry into Lahore’s walled city, now exists only in name.

At the modest mausoleum inside this bazaar lies the grave of Malik Ayaz, the slave who rose to the rank of governor during the reign of Mahmud Ghazni, the 10th-century sultan.

Many narratives suggest that Malik Ayaz and Mahmud Ghazni were lovers. In Persian poetry they both became an everlasting symbol of a devotee and the divine — Malik Ayaz was the perfect devotee while Mahmud Ghazni was the ultimate object of devotion.

But it is doubtful if the story of Malik Ayaz and Mahmud Ghazni being lovers is historically accurate. It possibly gained currency through the poetry about them.

And so it is with narratives about cities. Take Lahore for example.

As the Ghazni Empire emerged from the shadows of the Samanid Empire in Persia in the 10th century, it made inroads across the Hindu Kush mountains, beyond the Indus, and into Punjab.

At its peak under Mahmud Ghazni, the empire had two capitals, the fabled Ghazni (in present-day Afghanistan), where artisans from all parts of his empire were invited, and Lahore, its eastern capital.

Read more: Beyond shiny houses — Lahore’s story

The city of Lahore came of age around this time, and started to feature on the political maps of the subcontinent. This was also the time when the Lahore Fort first came into existence, along with the walled city. The shrine of Data Darbar, now believed to be Lahore’s patron saint, was also first constructed during this period.

There are some who do not find the story of Lahore’s origin under the Ghazni Empire satisfactory. After all, a few centuries later, Lahore became one of the most important cities of the Indian subcontinent under the Mughals.

In the 16th century, under Emperor Akbar, it even became the capital of the Mughal Empire for a short period. It acquired the honour of hosting the imperial mint, with the Taxali (imperial mint) Gate in Lahore still standing as testimony to this status.

Under Akbar’s great grandson, Dara Shikoh, who became the governor of Lahore, the city received another patron saint, Mian Mir.

Emperor Jahangir expressed his desire to be buried in the city. His tomb now lies in Shahdara Bagh on the outskirts of the city.

To the Sikhs, Lahore became the city of Guru Arjan. It was the capital of the magnificent Sikh Empire, an inspiring story of an underdog that emerged as the one of the most powerful powers in the region.

Under the British, Lahore became a powerful symbol of the colonial regime. It was the Raj’s educational and economic centre, attracting young people from all over the subcontinent.

Its architecture, an amalgamation of traditional and colonial styles, became a powerful expression of a new force. At the time of Partition in 1947, Lahore was a grand city, and so it remained even after.

The court of Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh at the Fort of Lahore. Gouache heightened with gold by Bishan Singh. Circa 1860.—Toor Collection
The court of Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh at the Fort of Lahore. Gouache heightened with gold by Bishan Singh. Circa 1860.—Toor Collection

Creating histories

A grand city also requires a grand history, an ancient past, perhaps even a portent at its birth that was to foretell its magnificence.

While Lahore’s recorded history dates back about a thousand years, this antiquity was just not grand enough in a subcontinent where complex cities have thrived for more than 4,000 years.

How could Lahore claim to be a grand city when across the subcontinent ancient cities much older than it were still alive and flourishing, even though nowhere as significant as Lahore? There were therefore possibly signs that were earlier missed, an ancient, magnificent past that was never recorded.

A legend subsequently grew that connected the history of the city with Valmiki’s Ramayana. According to this narrative, Valmiki lived on a mound on the banks of the Ravi when he hosted Ram’s consort Sita after she was banished from Ayodhya. It is here that she gave birth Lav and Kush, the princes of Ayodhya, who later founded the twin cities of Lahore and Kasur.

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On the political front, legends were crafted about how Lahore was the ancient capital of Punjab, and ruled by the famed Jayapala, the city’s last Hindu king before it was absorbed into the Ghazni Empire.

Following the rise of the Ghazni Empire under Subuktigin, Mahmud Ghazni’s father, Jayapala is believed to have led a confederacy of Hindu kings to subvert the rise of Muslim forces.

Leading an army of 100,000 soldiers and hundreds of elephants, augmented by forces from Delhi, Ajmer, Kalanjara and Kanauj, the Hindu king is believed to have confronted the modest forces of the Muslim ruler, only to be humiliated on the battlefield.

After losing parts of his kingdom to the Ghazni Empire, Jayapala (some narratives suggest it was his son) is believed to have led another confederacy, this time against Mahmud of Ghazni, only to be humbled yet again.

This time Jayapala also lost his capital Lahore. The defeated Hindu king later immolated himself — some say in Peshawar, others suggest in Lahore.

A metro bus travels in Lahore.—AFP
A metro bus travels in Lahore.—AFP

Fact or fiction?

Needless to say there are major historical loopholes in these narratives that were first crafted by Muslim historians at least 600 years after the events are believed to have taken place. These writers were not interested in depicting authentic history as much as they were looking to glorify the achievements of the Muslim kings.

For instance, their narratives possibly exaggerated the forces of the Hindu king and understated those of the Muslim ruler. They also assumed there was a uniform Hindu identity and that Hindu kings were ready to come together — cutting across caste, sectarian and other political differences — to fight against the Muslims.

Other problems with these narratives are the assumptions they make of Lahore and Delhi’s past.

Now read: With Pakistan’s rivers dying, are its ancient cities running out of time?

In the 10th century, during the peak of the Ghazni Empire, both these cities were far from the significant political centres they had become at the time when these narratives were first written.

The contemporary significance of these cities led writers to make assumptions about their past, with Lahore becoming the capital of Jayapala, and Delhi one of the confederacies that joined forces with him.

An imaginary past about the grandiosity of these cities was created to suit their contemporary splendour. This past continues to be reiterated, for how can the significance of the contemporary city be established without a glorious past?

Correction: The article originally misstated that Dara Shikoh was Akbar's grandson. He was in fact his great grandson.

The article was originally published on Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.