The engravings that decorate the mosques of Wazir Khan, as those of Begum Mariam Zamani, inside Lahore’s old walled city, are largely attributed to the skills of the craftsmen of Chiniot. But then they also did contribute to the engravings on the Taj Mahal in Agra.
These artistic contributions to Lahore during the reign of the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan, all took place because of the Governor of Lahore, Nawab Saadullah Khan of Chiniot. He was also responsible for the exquisite Shahi Mosque of Chiniot. Inside the Lahore Fort a lot of the finer artistic engravings, especially on the Naulakha structure, are thanks to him. He was a person who understood the increasing demand for skilled engravers, and set up a small training school for engravers in Lahore. That school was based next to the house he built for himself, that is the Rang Mahal. It was in its days Lahore’s finest ‘haveli’, and afterwards served as the central point in the commercial and military expansion of the post-Akbar walled city.
Even today it is the centre of the old city’s commercial hub.But in every stage of life in the old walled city, the location of this ‘haveli’ has played a central role. On the eastern portion of the mound to the north-east corner was the outer mud wall of the ancient walled city, where lies buried Malik Ayaz, the Georgian slave of Mahmud, the Afghan invader. Mind you it was outside the walled city as it stood then. The expansion of the city by Akbar opened up a lot of possibilities, and in this space the Governor of Lahore, Saadullah Khan of Chiniot, built his exquisite Haveli Rang Mahal.
In other parts of this expanded space to the east of the ancient city came up the mosque of Wazir Khan, and as also the garden outside it right up to Delhi Gate. Just next to the gateway was built the Shahi Hammam, for the elite riding in from Delhi to prepare to meet royalty in the Lahore Fort. It is for this reason that the road that passes by two Mughal-era monuments towards the fort has been designated as the ‘Royal Route’ for touristic purposes.
But the first new ‘haveli’ to come up in this opened space was the famous Rang Mahal of Saadullah Khan of Chiniot. Just nearby was built, though much later, the Haveli of Mian Khan, which the trading classes post-1947 have destroyed.But a bit about Nawab Saadullah Khan, the head of the Thahim tribe of central Punjab.
The Thahim are a Seraiki-speaking tribe, allegedly of Arab origin who settled in Sindh during the invasion of the Arab general Muhammad bin Qasim. They allegedly are connected to the famous Tamim family of the Arabian Peninsula. In thosedaysChiniot was governed as part of Lahore. Nawab Saadullah Khan was governor of Lahore from 1640 to 1656.The emperor Shah Jehan was so impressed by his skills and taste that he employed him to decorate the Taj Mahal.
With the MughalEmpire in decline we see the rising power of the trader classes, led by the East India Company and supported by traders and local financiers out to capture Indian products for export. This left little for the Mughal officials to collect as taxes. Thus the rise of corrupt officials and their bribing trader partners undercut the State. Ultimately the master foreign trader came to power in the whole sub-continent. It is amazingly similar to what is happening today inside the old city, now without its walls.
The peak of the creative power of the Mughal dynasty was during the Shah Jehan period, and among the many contributors Nawab Saadullah Khan contributed immensely. When in Lahore he lived in his ‘haveli’. When he died he was buried at the beautiful tomb at Chowk Sheewala, Singhpura, on GT Road. His son Nawab Mian Khan also is buried at the same site. Considerable encroachments have eaten up most of the garden that surrounded this beautiful tomb.
During the Sikh period the Rang Mahal ‘haveli’ was occupied by a Muslim family of Col Ghaus Khan, who in 1810 was head of the special artillery of the elite Fauj-e-Khas. He was gifted the building by Maharajah Ranjit Singh. He died in 1814. His son was General Sultan Mahmood, who played a major role in the First Anglo-Sikh War and in the decisive Battle at Chillianwala.
Sadly, just four days after the battle, which was a stalemate of sorts, defection by leading Sikh generals to the British converted it to a defeat. A leading Muslim artillery General Ilahi Bakhsh also defected. So the families of Ghaus Khan and those of Sultan Mahmood lived in the Rang Mahal during the entire Sikh period.
Come the British in March 1849, within months they got the Rang Mahal emptied and it was handed over in December 1849 to a set of American Presbyterian missionaries. Here the very first English-medium school of Lahore was set up. In a way this building represents the first and critical departure of Punjab’s educational future towards English and away from their own mother-tongue. This was to dent Punjab’s culture beyond measure, even though there is a growing movement back towards the mother-tongue, a language that experts think is older than Sanskrit.
During the Sikh period of Punjabi rulers, the court language remained Persian of the Mughal-era. This was also initially maintained by the British, who slowly converted to English as the court language. They then moved towards Urdu, a 300-year old pidgin language of Turkish-Persian, Hindi and Punjabi, as a substitute when English was not understood. That is as it still remains.
The Rang Mahal School started, initially, under a tree nearby with just three Kashmiri students, two of them from Ludhiana and one from a rich Kashmiri family of Gowal Mandi. Within a fortnight the number grew to seven. The two missionaries, Mr Forman and Mr Newton, initially could not cope with the heat of Lahore.
Incidentally, in 1850 the heat and malaria killed nearly ten per cent of the local garrison in the Lahore Fort.
Newton returned for rest to the USA and Forman decided to live in the tomb of Nasrat Khan in Mughalpura.
By 1852 the school had moved into Haveli Rang Mahal with over 80 pupils, which was not possible under a tree. In those days Forman decided that only good scientific education would be of use, and he ordered $600 worth of scientific equipment. So Rang Mahal School had the Punjab’s finest scientific laboratory.
By 1854 the school had become famous and with its amazing science laboratory it had 200 students. Along with mathematics all students had to study the Bible. It might come as a shock that the Rang Mahal School got printed the very first Punjabi dictionary. This was to meet the linguistic needs of the local population.
The missionaries also translated a lot of European books into Hindi, Urdu and Persian.
In 1864 the American missionaries set up the Forman Christian College (FCC) at the Rang Mahal, shifting it to Napier Road in 1889, and then to its current location alongside the Lahore Canal in 1940. At the moment two boards stand outside the old building of Saadullah Khan. The first says ‘Government Rang Mahal High School’, and the larger board says ‘Government Rang Mahal Christian High School’. The reader can take his pick.
Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2020