Sitting to the west of the River Ravi in Shahdara is the much pillaged tomb of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. Today in the 21st century it is probably the most neglected, and in need of drastic conservation. Nearby the tomb of Asif Khan, brother of Empress Nur Jehan, is a complete disaster.
Though Jahangir’s son Shah Jahan ordered the tomb to be built in 1627, taking 10 years to complete, it is claimed to be the inspiration of Jahangir’s 12th and last wife, the empress Nur Jahan, who lies buried nearby. In its days it was regarded as the “Pride of Lahore”. Today thanks to almost 300 years of ‘benign neglect’ as the historian J.P. Thompson put it, this ‘pride’ is surely a disgrace of how later Mughals, the Afghans, the Sikhs, the colonial British, and then the State of Pakistan, have treated this masterpiece of Safavid style Mughal-influenced architecture. The Iranian influence can be attributed to the family origin of empress Nur Jahan.
It might come as a surprise to many that a letter No. 343, dated 15.04.1886 by the junior secretary of Punjab to the commissioner suggested that the Chief’s College of Lahore, later renamed Aitchison College, be located inside Jahangir’s tomb. So colonial neglect was visible from the very beginning.
We read in Thornton and Kiplings’s book ‘Lahore’, printed in 1876, the claim that Bahadar Shah, son of emperor Aurangzeb, removed the central dome and its awning made of gold.
The Afghan invasion period pre-1876, saw Sultan Muhammad Khan, cousin of Amir Dost Muhammad Khan, as living in the tomb for 10 years. This is mentioned in Mufti Ghulam Sarwar’s ‘Tarikh-e-Makhzan-e-Punjab’ who claims that Ahmed Shah Durrani removed the exquisite carved doorways of the tomb. Then we have Maharajah Ranjit Singh removing the white marble lattice parapet which surrounded the roof and the tower galleries. That can be seen today in the Golden Temple at Amritsar. In Maulvi Noor Ahmed Chishti’s ‘Tehqiqat-e-Chishti’ we read of when a mullah dug a hole in the roof over the grave so that “Allah’s blessing could rain on the emperor”. Priestly knowledge, it seems, has not progressed much from the stone age of idols. One of the three Sikh rulers of Lahore pre-Ranjit Singh era, Sardar Lahna Singh, covered it with planks to save the beautiful mausoleum. Even he had better sense.
The stories of the pillage and damage go on and on and on. We have a list of such acts given in Kanhaiya Lal’s book. We also have the theory, supported by a lot of scholars, that the pavilion of Hazuri Bagh, opposite the Lahore Fort and the Badshahi Mosque, has the finest marble portion of Jahangir’s tomb’s roof on it.
S.M. Latif and also Rai Bahadar, the executive engineer of Lahore in the early colonial period, both have identified just which portion was removed. The 3rd Report of the Curator of Ancient Monuments, 1882-84 clearly states so.
The destruction of the golden dome of Jahangir’s tomb seems to have been mentioned by Cunningham, as well as by Von Orlich and Thornton. Many other experts are silent about this dome, which was removed in the last days of Aurangzeb or Bahadar Shah. But then their silence does not explain the large hole in the roof, which the mullah opened up so as to allow “the blessings of rain on a grave”. We do know that Aurangzeb and his extremist views on burials could be to blame.
The immense damage to the tomb did, however, see Ranjit Singh order a ‘cover-up’ of his own stealing of marble and covered his doings with brickwork. The damage to this beautiful monument continued after Ranjit allowed a Spanish officer of his Khalsa Army to live in the premises of the tomb, with his whole regiment. The officer called Senor Oms allegedly died there and was buried within the garden. He was known among Sikh soldiers as ‘Musa Sahib.’
Come the British in 1849 and the building of the railways, all three tombs, those of Jahangir, Nur Jahan and Asif Khan, damaged them beyond belief by laying the Lahore-Rawalpindi line through them. On protest by the population of Lahore the British did undertake repairs in 1890. But it was more of a demonstration of intent than real conservation work.
Then came the biggest pillage of all times when the 1947 Partition took place. Refugees of Partition built makeshift houses by digging holes into the main outer walls. A lot of building materials, especially bricks, were stolen from the main monument, just as traders from Amritsar stole bricks from Lahore’s old walls. Even today if you see the old ‘katchi-abadis’ around the tomb you can clearly see small Mughal-era bricks in the walls, not to speak of two houses which have marble door entrances.
The inhuman touch of the living was furthered by Mother Nature when 12 major floods since 1947 onwards entered the tomb with devastating consequences. The worse damage was in 1988 when 10 feet of water remained in the monument for nearly six days. There was a lot of criticism of the inability of the government, both federal and Punjab, of their insensitivity to this great monument. But then politicians in South Asia are often seen as having little concern for history and learning.
In 1993 the United Nations included this unique monument in its list of ‘Severely Threatened’. The law of the land now claims that no construction can take place at least 200 feet around all ‘protected monuments’. It was painful as a journalist to see that as soon as the UN stipulation became public knowledge, people started building concrete houses within the parameter. The old ‘hole-in-the-wall’ Partition houses also improved in quality with cement finishes. One bold government officer tried to bring a halt to these activities, only for a ‘concerned’ politician to get him transferred to Balochistan.
So to the mountain went the concerned officer and to the mountain went the effort to save this precious once ‘Pride of Lahore’. The latest position is that a regular maintenance programme, in low profile, is under way, which experts tell us does not make any difference to the larger damage done. However the good news is that after plastering the nearby tomb of Noor Jahan, so badly damaged by the British, work on the façade has been started by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. It would be delightful if the tomb of Asaf Khan, totally ripped off all its beautiful marble, also be restored and conserved.
It might be of use if the UNESCO publication on sub-continental Mughal monuments are first consulted. The tomb of Babar in Kabul and Humayun in Delhi have been tackled by the AKTC with impressive results. It makes sense if a special effort be undertaken to entice Pakistani and foreign donors to set up a fund to complete the conservation of this over 350-year old ‘Pride of Lahore’.
Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2020