Very often we pass by amazing structures of historic Lahore without realising its value in the past, and how it served as the bastions of power over the centuries. Our ‘mind’s eye’ just does not wander to a land virtually rejected. But times will change.

We cannot describe each and every such structure in one column, so let me select a few examples from important portions of our past. Let me touch on a few ‘serais’, or hotels as we now call them now. Their role in our history is important, with numerous stories attached to each, The oldest ‘serai’ of Lahore left standing today in structure only, and not functioning, is the ‘Akbari Serai’ standing between Jahangir’s tomb and that of Asaf Khan.

The name is a bit of a misnomer for it was built before the Akbar era. The credit for that goes to Islam Shah Suri, son of Sher Shah Suri, in probably 1554-55. This ‘serai’ served travellers coming from, or going to the West, as well as those who rested before entering Lahore across the River Ravi. The disused mosque remains certainly are from the Suri era.

Next to ‘Akbari Serai’ are also a number of rooms, which still exist, though in a dilapidated condition. These were built in the Shah Jehan period. In the early Mughal period this place also served as the postal office, or ‘Dak Chowki’, for this was the very first form of the legendary ‘Pony Express’ that carried official letters.

The entire place was run by an important Mughal official called a ‘Shahna’ who provided travellers with bedding and food as well as fodder and water to the tired horses. This official had several assistants as well as a ‘Hakeem’. One can assume that Shahdara Bazaar came up primarily to cater to the needs of this ‘serai’ and its visitors.

The original ‘serai’ was spread over 12 acres within an 800 by 600 feet area which had 180 rooms, known as ‘khanas’ with a front verandah and a common passage to each verandah. In the middle was a large green space. At the edges of the compound were watch towers and it had two gateways, portions of which still can be seen.

This place was once the finest structure of Mughal Lahore, though the Sikhs partially damaged the place for its marble and inlaid designs. When work on the mausoleum of Jahangir started, workers lived there. Afterwards the mausoleum’s caretakers lived there.

This vast ‘serai’ was used by Maharajah Ranjit Singh to house a Spanish general known as Musa Farangi who lived there with his regiment. Amazingly, this place was not destroyed by the Mughals, or the Afghans or even the Sikhs, but by the British who set up their railway depot while laying the Lahore-Pindi railway line. The name ‘Akbari Serai’ came about because of the mention of this place by Abdul Hameed Lahore as ‘Jillu Khana-e-Rauza’ in his ‘Badshahnama’.

From this oldest ‘serai’ of Lahore let us move to the second ‘serai’ that is of considerable interest. This is famous as ‘Sultan ke Serai’ in Landa Bazaar. This once-huge ‘serai’ was built by a British-era contractor named Muhammad Sultan, who was a Kashmiri contractor hired to remove the debris left by the Sikh destruction of the old walled city. He collected the bricks of magnificent palaces like the ‘Pari Mahal’, the ‘Rang Mahal’ as well as the amazing historic mosque of Sitara Begum.

This contractor purchased on the very cheap the destroyed palace of Dara Shikoh and on its site built ‘Sultan ke Serai’. With such precious debris this ‘serai’ managed to provide the early British officials with accommodation and facilities for their horses.

But there are two stories connected with this place that need to be narrated. As the destroyed mosque of Sitara Begum was dear to the people of old Lahore, they used to curse Sultan for not rebuilding the mosque. For this reason when bad times befell him, the people of old Lahore claimed it was their curse.

But on a more scientific level if we are to understand the destruction of historic sites of Lahore, all we have to do is study the Ph.D. thesis of Yusuf Awan as submitted to the University of Sheffield’s School of Architectural Studies. A detailed survey by him over the last 1,000 years shows that 36.4 per cent of all historic structures destroyed in old Lahore were in the Sikh Period. So the massive debris that came Muhammad Sultan’s way was no surprise.

A second story about this ‘serai’ is given by Peter Hopkirk in his book ‘Quest for Kim’. It was in this ‘serai’ that stayed Mehbub Ali, the master spy of the Great Game mission of Rudyard Kipling. In ‘Kim’ this place is called ‘Kashmir Serai’ after the owner. Research shows that Mehbub Ali was a horse thief who provided three rare horse breeds - Turcomans, Badakshanis and Kandaharis - three breeds those export was banned by the Afghan ruler.

Hopkirk tells us that Mehbub Ali moved to Mohallah Kakayzayian inside Delhi Gate opposite the ‘serai’ and had three sons - Wazir Ali, Afzal Ali and Aslam Ali. His grandson went to Cambridge to study the veterinary sciences and hired out his services to Lahore cantonment’s cavalry.

Sultan was a small-time soap manufacturer in Akbari Mandi who was interested in wrestling. In that connection he met a British official tasked with disposing Lahore’s debris. Sultan struck a deal and the rest is history. Within a few years he was among the richest persons of Lahore. He fell seriously ill and ended up mortgaging his entire property to the Maharajah of Jammu. On his death the maharajah took over the property.

Now let us move on to our third ‘serai’. This was the original ‘Serai Muhammad Shafi’ opposite Lohari Gate. Of the three this is the only functioning one, and is known as the ‘Delhi Muslim Hotel’ at the far end of Anarkali Bazaar. Traders not able to enter the old walled city once gates were closed at sunset, spent their nights here. In 1929 Shafi renamed it Delhi Muslim because of the high number of traders and officials coming from Delhi.Mr. Jinnah used to frequent this hotel though he stayed at Faletti’s Hotel when Muslim League meetings took place in Lahore. From Pakistan’s point of view this is a historic ‘serai’.

After 1947 the Muslim Auqaf took over the hotel and for a small amount divided the old ‘serai’ between the two sons of Shafi. In 1977 the original part of this historic place was demolished to make way for the expanding Mayo Hospital. However some structures, two of them Sikh-era ones, remain. Of relative recent fame was the fact that the famed dancer Maharaj Kathak lived in a room permanently fully paid for by a secret admirer of the dancer.

Just to be fair to a relatively modern British-era hotel, or ‘serai’, was the old Nedous Hotel built in 1880 on The Mall. It was here that T.E. Lawrence of Arabia, the British spy, stayed and married the daughter of Mr. Michael Nedou. Lawrence abandoned her and she married Sheikh Abdullah of Kashmir in 1933. After 1947 this housed government offices, and in 1960 the Park Luxury Hotel was built here by Mr. Avari. In the late 1970s it was demolished and the Hilton Hotel came about. A change of management saw it become the Avari Hotel.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2020