Of recent while researching trading trends in Lahore during the Mughal era, it came as a surprise that in the days of Emperor Akbar dozens of huge ships were being built in ‘Lahore port’.

The research of historian Irfan Habib, as well as the work of J. S. Grewal, and then an excellent article by Nazer Aziz Anjum, provided immense material. But this piece was triggered by a descriptive letter written in 1594 by the Jesuit Jerome Xavier, a Navarrese by birth but representing the Portuguese ruler at Goa who lived and worked in Lahore. Other sources like William Finch’s ‘Early Travels’ and Sir Charles Fawcett’s descriptions, provided sufficient materials concerning Akbar’s 14 years in Lahore and his ship-building efforts.

First let us concentrate on where was the port of Lahore. Then on the ship designs, the materials used, where the skilled workers lived, and, lastly, the pattern of trade these ships carried out. The subject deserves a much longer research, if not a book. But let me start with a quote from a British source who observed that “the timber has been so treated that bullet shots simply bounce off easily”. That was trigger enough for this piece.

The port of Lahore, the ‘bandar-gah’ of Lahore, was located outside Khizri Darwaza, now known by the Sikh-era description of Sheranwala Darwaza. Mind you in those days the River Ravi flowed from the north-west of the Lahore Fort, encircled the fort and the walled city and then just outside Mori Gate moved south-west along today’s Urdu Bazaar and curled around the mound that houses the District Courts and moved towards Sanda. Over the years the river has naturally meandered to its present position.

The port itself was about 300 yards from the present gateway, almost along the present Circular Road. The present-day bazaars inside the walled city, if you imagine their locations, are all designed to serve this port, as also the land trade that arrived at Delhi Gate, then located to the western side of the present Shahalami Bazaar. So the construction of the ships, boats and barges took place between the city walls and the river.

If you enter the old walled city still, you will find ‘mohallahs’ with names like ‘chupponwali gali’ (the street of oars), ‘tarkhanwali gali’ (carpenter’s street), an odd name is ‘lakkartaylee mohallah’ (wood-oilers precinct) and so on. Sadly, if not tragically, such old street names have been Islamised, rubbing out a potent period of our history. They should all be renamed according to their original names.

In the Akbar era we see the emperor having once in his youth having sailed in a ‘toary’, a sort of barge, between India and the Red Sea. These were frequently used for trade, for onward transportation of goods to Europe. He acquired two ships, named ‘Salimi’ and ‘Elahi’, which were dedicated to taking members of the royal family for Hajj. Then from the records we know that two huge ships were built at Lahore in 1593 and 1596. We know that Emperor Shah Jehan got built two ships named ‘Shahi’ and ‘Gangawar’. Aurangzeb built a special ship for sailing to and from Mecca called ‘Gang-e-Sawai’. The capture of that ship by the British led to a major incident.

The building of the huge ships at Lahore by Akbar has been described by the Jesuit letter. It says that “special wood was brought for ships from afar and treated in a secret manner”. That secret manner was that huge logs, cut to specific sizes, were put in huge special boiling pans with water and ‘phat-karri’ (Alum). For two days the water was boiled and then the wood was dried. Once dried they were oiled and left to soak for another day. Then workers used flat hammers to beat the wood in an attempt to harden it. The result was an ‘iron-like’ quality.

It is no wonder that those ships planks would see gun bullets (pellets in those days) simply bounce off them. Then came the ship construction. The initial ship designs were like the Chinese junks that traders used along the Indian coast. But then the designs changed to an Arab barge like ship. But the Lahore ships were an enlarged flat-bottomed boat-like the ones that plied the rivers tackling low and high tides.

From what the Jesuits described, it seems the Portuguese influence of their European style designs also influenced the ships of Lahore with a high galley and large guns on the sides and sharp-shooters high up on the sail-poles.

The sizes can be well gauged from a description by Xavier who says they were “180 feet long and 50 feet wide with three levels. The ships had high triangular sails which were turned when strong winds came. They could carry 12,000 maunds”. That would make it a 480-ton carrier, which is a good indicator of the amount of trade that took place from Lahore’s docks.

The design and craftsmen initially came from Surat, which was well-known for ship-building. But then we see that Lahore also developed an amazing quality ship building industry. This port at Khizri Gate was the focus point from where land transported goods reached the huge markets of Lahore, and then were shipped downstream towards Multan and Thattha and the ancient port of Debal, which is now near the port of Karachi. From there barges moved towards the Red Sea and towards Arabia.

Just what were the main goods that flowed from Lahore? We see indigo, spices, shawls and saffron from Kashmir, dried fruits, pottery and cotton fabrics, especially pattern woven fabrics, moving from Lahore downstream. Recently a shipment of such goods from the sub-continent was unearthed in Spain after the camels and their drivers perished in, probably, a massive sandstorm. But Irfan Habib tells us of goods from Lahore and other ports reaching Amsterdam. He also talks of a barge to rescue sunken ships and boats powered by a camel on board the barge. It was for its days what we can call ‘high technology’.

To understand the rise of Lahore as one of the greatest cities of the world can well be seem in its trade patterns, its innovative technologies, its educational skills and engineering proficiencies, and its administrative influence on the rest of western sub-continent. A comparative analysis of the skills of Europe then to what it was in our land, surely provides a sobering thought. To feel proud of what we were is not enough. The point is where have we landed now, and where are we headed.

Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2020