Enjoying the rich architecture and the cultural-historical treasures of Lahore, one cannot help being awed by the grandeur and the mystery of a Mughal-era tomb’s pale-white dome situated inside the south-western boundary wall of the Punjab Civil Secretariat. The tomb is known as the last abode of the celebrated romantic character Anarkali, a courtesan of the Mughal emperor Akbar and his son Prince Saleem (Jahangir).
The character of Anarkali has always haunted the historians, in particular, and the people in general, with a strong feeling of suspense, mystery, awe and a passionate romance. The story of Anarkali is, originally, a traditional legend which has travelled verbally from generation to generation. From whatever research information is available it is believed that the lady, born Nadira Begum or Sharf-un-Nissa, was basically from Iran and came to Lahore with a traders’ caravan.
As she was very attractive, she got access to Akbar’s court and was endowed with the epithet of Anarkali on the basis of her beauty. It is really amazing that neither Jahangir mentioned her in his book Tuzk-i-Jahangiri, nor any contemporary historian left any clue of her saga.
The first historical mention of Anarkali is found in the travelogue of the British tourist and trader, William Finch, who came to Lahore during 1608 to 1611. According to Finch’s account, Anarkali was one of the wives of Emperor Akbar and the mother of his son Danial Shah. Akbar developed suspicions that Anarkali had incestuous relations with Prince Saleem (Jahangir) and, on this ground had her buried alive in the wall of Lahore Fort. Jahangir, after ascending the throne, had this splendid tomb constructed, at the present site, in memory of his beloved.
Other western visitors, who arrived here during the next two centuries, including Haggle, Prince and Mason, only mentioned the charming gardens and fascinating architecture of the tomb, but nothing about the person buried in the grave or the incident of Anarkali.
Noor Ahmed Chishti, in his book Tehqiqaat-i-Chishtia (1860), has provided some details about the grandeur of the building and the episode of Anarkali, based on his personal observations as well as traditional tales. He writes, “Anarkali was a beautiful and a favourite concubine of Akbar the Great and her real name was Nadira Begum or Sharf-un-Nissa. Akbar’s inordinate love for her made his other two ladies jealous and hostile towards Anarkali. Now, some say that Akbar was on a visit to Deccan when Anarkali fell ill and died and the other two concubines committed suicide to avoid the emperor’s wrath. When the emperor came back he ordered to create this grand tomb.” Chishti also relates: “I saw the marble grave that has 99 names of Allah inscribed on it, and the name Sultan Saleem Akbar was written on the head side”.
Syed Abdul Lateef, in his book Tareekh-i-Lahore (1892), mentions that Anarkali’s actual name was Nadira Begum or Sharf-un-Nisa and she was one of Akbar’s concubines. He suspected illegitimate relations between Prince Saleem and Anarkali and, therefore, ordered that Anarkali be burried alive in a wall, and the tomb was later built there by Jahangir (Saleem) when he succeeded to the throne. A couplet by Jahangir written on the grave in Persian reads, “If I could behold my beloved only once, I would remain thankful to Allah till doomsday”.
This clearly infers a passionate affair between Saleem and Anarkali. Two dates have been mentioned on the grave: 1008 Hijri (1599AD) and 1025 Hijri (1615AD) — perhaps the date she died and the date of the completion of the tomb.
In his compilation, titled Tareekh-i-Lahore (1897), Kanhaya Laal writes that Nadira was a beautiful concubine in the court of Akbar and was endowed with the name Anarkali on the basis of her pink complexion and ravishing beauty. He also opines that she died a natural death when Akbar was on a tour of Deccan. Later on, Akbar got this graceful tomb built, but it was destroyed by the Sikh rulers and was later converted into a Church by the British.
Abdullah Chagatai, a 18th century historian and architect, has given a very different version. He opines that the tomb, basically built in the centre of a pomegranate garden, contains the grave of Jahangir’s wife Saheb Jamal who was very dear to him. With the passage of time the lady’s name disappeared into oblivion and the tomb was christened by the people as the tomb of Anarkali on the basis of the surrounding pomegranate gardens.
The building was exploited by the successive British and Sikh rulers and was converted into a Protestant Church, a Cantonment, a store house and residence, in different phases of history. The real romanticism and poetic beauty associated with this character was created when Imtiaz Ali Taj wrote a romantic play on Anarkali’s passionate affair with Prince Saleem and her ultimate tragic death. Then, the historically famed Indian film Mughl-i-Aazam went a long way to deify the character of Anarkali by presenting the charismatic and gifted actress Madhubala as Anarkali against the legendary Dilip Kumar as Prince Saleem.
Although the available historical facts about the character as well as the mausoleum are vague and confusing, the size and the grandeur of the burial chamber and the presence of a grave inside it vividly suggest that the deceased person was of great significance. Moreover, the bustling markets of New Anarkali and Old Anarkali in Lahore will never allow us to set aside the character of Anarkali summarily.