Vanishing villages of Lahore

Salma Mahmud writing for The Friday Times mourns the past magnificence of Lahore’s little hamlets

‘Nothing can be more sublime or more heart-rending than the sight of these wrecks of departed glory. They convey at once to the mind how transitory and unstable worldly eminence is. Those palaces are now in ruins, which were once the residences of the vanquisher of Banda Bahadur Bairagi, and his son the reconciler of the fierce Nadir Shah, where with all the pomp and pride of viceroys they sat giving orders to their umerah and officers.’ Thus, in 1892 or thereabouts, wrote the eminent historian of Lahore’s past greatness, Khan Bahadur Sayad Mohammad Latif, as he stood amidst the shattered domes of Begumpura. He was viewing the destroyed remains of a once wealthy and powerful suburb of Lahore, which was founded in the 18th century by Abdus Samad Khan Daler Jang, and named after his senior wife Nawab Begum Jan, also called Nawab Begum Kabir.

The whole wealth of the Punjab flowed into the coffers of Begumpura for thirty-eight years, from 1717 to 1745, during which time the Punjab was relatively peaceful. All the assets from a rich and prosperous province served to make it the cynosure of neighbouring eyes. But what a dirge, what an epitaph to be recited upon departed grandeur and the transitory nature of earthly glory.

Maaey nee main bhaeey deewani, dekh jagat mein shor,

Iknaan doli, iknaan ghori, ik siwey ik gor,

Nangey paireen jandrey dithey, jin key lakh karor

So said Shah Hussain in the 16th century, and like Byron’s Childe Harold musing on the ruined empires of the Mediterranean, Latif in the 19th century stood and viewed the devastation of a once powerful seat of government.

Yet today the ambience, the essence, of Begumpura still hovers over the truncated beauty of its remaining monuments. The most mournfully poignant of these is the Sarv Wala Maqbara, sacred to the memory of a pious lady, Sharfunissa Begum, the sister of Nawab Zakariya Khan, son and successor to Abdus Samad Khan. The superlative design of this Cypress Tomb is unique, as there is none other of its kind throughout the sub-continent, and the lady in question is said to have designed it herself. It is a tower which was originally encased in bronze on its lower half, standing around sixteen feet in height up to this point, and then tapering slightly in its upper half, which is decorated with unique white enamelled tile mosaic work on a plaster base, painted with four green cypresses on each side, interspersed with delicate red flowers between the trees; the cypress being a symbol of eternity, beauty and love in Eastern mythology. On top of the tower, which can only be accessed by a wooden staircase, is a shelf or ‘chhajja’ on the outside, and that is then crowned with a small dome. The bronze encasing has been removed by marauders, who obviously could not reach the tiles, which have survived more or less unharmed. They shine and gleam from afar, the only comparatively undamaged testament to the glory of Begumpura. Nawab Zakariya Khan’s mosque, close to Shah Hussain’s mazar, is in a sorry state, and the marble-embellished family graveyard was looted long ago.

There is a story attached to the Cypress Tomb, which reflects many tragic nuances of Begumpura’s history.. Sharfunissa Begum, who was unmarried, used it as a place of meditation and devotion, for she visited it every day to read the Holy Quran up on the top storey. She would leave a jewelled sword behind alongside the Quran when she climbed down. Upon her death bed she expressed the wish to be buried in her Cypress Tower, with the Quran and the sword placed atop her grave. Her wishes were complied with and the entrance to the tower was blocked with bricks and mortar in order to protect it. After the destruction of Begumpura, Sikh vandals who had heard of the legendary sword, broke into the tower and stole the sword along with the Quran, thus destroying the sanctity of Sharfunissa’s retreat and burial chamber.

But why should we complain about Sikh vandals, when recent photograph of the Cypress Tomb showed a very visible electioneering wall-chalking painted on the tower’s base? And right behind was an advertisement for a neighbourhood primary school. In any civilized country this tower, the nearby magnificent Gulabi Bagh Gateway and Dai Anga’s exquisite tomb would be a part of the nation’s protected heritage. We, on the other hand have wreaked more havoc on our tombs, havelis and gardens in the last sixty-two years than what was done during various periods of earlier devastation. A recent photograph in a daily newspaper showed a large orange-coloured rubbish tip placed right in front of Dai Anga’s Tomb. Is this an existential statement about environmental protection by our local municipal authorities? The mind boggles. And Ali Mardan Khan’s tomb in nearby Baghbanpura is completely surrounded now by railway workshops. So this is the ultimate resting place of one of the premier noblemen of the Emperor Shahjehan’s court, a Haft Hazaari and Viceroy of a Punjab which at that time stretched from Kabul to Delhi. He is also remembered for many engineering and public works, including the Shah Nehar which provided water to the Shalimar Gardens.

The Gulabi Bagh Gateway is a part of Begumpura’s remains, although built during Shahjehan’s time by Mirza Sultan Beg, the Emperor’s Admiral of the Fleet. It was the imposing entrance to a vast rose garden, of which not a trace remains today. The delicate brickwork, embellished with fine kashi kari: tile mosaic decorations, make it one of the finest of extant Mughal monuments. It is a lofty Timurid gateway, rising to a two-storeyed height, with panels defined by brick borders, profusely embellished with multi-hued tile mosaic. Thus humble brick is given an exciting veneer of beautifully crafted mosaic, each brick being cut to the exact form of a petal or a leaf, and then closely joined together with the tiles in a unique art form. The rose garden is said to have had vast pavilions, arches, paved floors and gates on all four corners. Today we can see that the rear side of the gateway has been damaged to a large extent.

Within the grounds of the Gulabi Bagh stands Dai Anga’s tomb, built in 1672. Dai Anga, who lies buried here along with her daughter Sultana Begum, wife of Mirza Sultan Beg, was the Emperor Shahjehan’s wet-nurse. Her imposing tomb, in spite of the Lahore Corporation’s rubbish tip, is a perfect example of the local style of brick and tile work, which produced a highly imaginative series of decorative panels both inside as well as outside the structure. The interior of the dome is splendidly baroque in its grandeur.

The question has now to be answered as to why Begumpura was destroyed in such a ruthless manner. The first attack came from the outside, from Iran, when Nadir Shah launched his campaign against India in 1738. Along the Grand Trunk Road his first logical stop was Lahore, more specifically Begumpura, where the tactful governor Zakariya Khan, getting no aid from Delhi, parleyed with him, bribed him, and concluded negotiations most pleasantly, thus saving the citizens of Lahore from the fate that was meted out to Delhi soon after. From there Nadir Shah plundered the Peacock Throne and the Kohinoor Diamond, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction, and taking away countless slaves to boot.

The next attack was the beginning of the end for Begumpura. In 1746, when Zakaraiya Khan’s debauched son Shahnawaz Khan was governor, he received a delegation from Sabir Shah, the favourite pir of Ahmad Shah Abdali, ruler of Qandahar. The pir reminded the governor of an earlier agreement he had entered into with Abdali, inviting him to attack the Punjab with his support. By now Shahnawaz Khan had reneged, and ordered that molten lead be poured down the throat of the saintly emissary, and his body be abandoned to the elements. Later however, well-meaning Afghans accorded him a proper burial outside the Badshahi Mosque.

The fury of Ahmad Shah can well be imagined. He arrived at the outskirts of Begumpura

and launched a concentrated attack against its ramparts. Shahanawaz Khan fled to Delhi, taking with him much of the wealth of the provincial treasury. Ahmad Shah gave his soldiers orders to begin looting the defeated Punjab headquarters. There was so much of coinage, jewellery, buried treasure, cannon, horses and elephants to plunder, that the soldiers did not want to proceed any further. A delegation of elders from the main city came to Ahmad Shah with a bribe, and successfully pleaded with him to spare the hapless citizenry from any further damage. And thus began the woeful tale of the destruction of this once powerful seat of government.

Once Mughal power declined and the Punjab was at the mercy of various Sikh adventurers, Begumpura was looted over and over again. The cause of this vengefulness was that the family of Abdus Samad Khan had controlled the Punjab and its rebellious Sikhs from here. Most specifically we can refer to the seven year campaign against Banda Bahadur Bairagi, the Sikh vagabond who had been appointed by Guru Gobind Singh to take revenge against the Mughals for the murder of his two young sons. Banda Bahadur roused the Punjab peasantry, mainly Sikhs, against their Muslim landlords, and created havoc throughout the province, but was eventually defeated by Abdus Samad Khan’s army. He was taken to Delhi in chains, accompanied by Zakariya Khan, and was there cruelly tortured upon the orders of the Emperor Farrukh Seyer, and put to death because he refused to accept Islam. Opinions on Banda Bahadur vary between Sikhs and Muslims, but even Khushwant Singh in his ‘History of the Sikhs’, admits that Banda’s wild lawlessness had turned the Muslim peasantry against him. However, his memory is still revered by the Sikhs.

As far as Zakariya Khan is concerned, the stories of his just rule over the Punjab are manifold, and will be continued in the future:

Naqsh-o-nigar-e-dar-o-deewar-e-shikasta

What I have written so far is but a shadow of the embellishments of the fallen walls of Lahore’s vanishing villages.

Salma Mahmud is a features editor at TFT

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7 responses to “Vanishing villages of Lahore

  1. Subhash Parihar

    Respected Madam,
    The article is quite informative. I happen to have seen two of these, namey, Gulabi Bagh Gatewa, and Dai Anga’s tomb, during my visit to Lahore in 1993.
    It is strange that writers condone Banda Bahadur’s destruction of Punjab in the name of “revenge against the Mughals for the murder of his two young sons. ” Revenge from whom? Banda killed thousands of Muslims, not sparing even old people or children. What was the role of these innocent people in killing two sons of Guru Gobind Singh? Then, what revenge from them? Should the killer of so many innocent people have been forgiven if he accepted Islam?
    We do not study history objectively and make some of them heroes and other villians without going into details. This is “Popular History”.
    Subhash Parihar, Kot Kapura, E. Punjab, India

    • Mr. Parihar this article is written about the town of Begumpura not about one person. Let me tell you here that Banda Bahadur fought against unjustice and his fight was not against Muslims or anybody, neither he killed old people or children.
      His fight was with the corrupt and cruel rulers of Delhi and Punjab.

      You may read Sikh history written by Cunningam and other historians.

  2. Unlike Karachi, which is almost entirely a metropolis (the Goths are hardly large enough settlements to stand in the way of urbanization), Lahore is a mix of urban and rural. As the city expanded, it swallowed whole tracts of thriving village communities. We are all familiar with Ichra, Mozang, Mian Mir, Baghbanpura and Begumpura. But what about Guru Mangat (Gulberg), Bhekewal (now Iqbal Town), Saidpur (now Sabzazar) or Charrar (in Defence). They’re a village in Model Town, along the Link Road. The new Phases VI, VII, VIII of DHA have also swallowed entire villages. Johar Town swallowed up many settlements and the new LDA schemes of South Lahore will eat up as many as a dozen village settlements.
    At no point has urbanization improved the quality of lives of the people in the villages and settlements the urbanization eats up. If you want a front row view, visit Charrar in Defence. Or any of the villages near Defence Raya in Phase VII (these settlements have been enclosed by cement walls so that the rich may not have to look at the less fortunate poor).

  3. I wonder why the LDA not shift these villages when the land is aquired for housing schemes ? It has created a strange mix of urban/rural at some place like Kotha Pind in Faisal Town and Jiwan Hana in Garden town and other place mentioned in the post above. Does the LDA wants to show the new settlers how the life was here in past ?

  4. Well, it was interesting to know about the town of Begumpura, Next time i will for sure visit this town.

  5. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this
    matter to be really something that I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complex and very broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

  6. kulwant singh

    All over the world the villages near big towns are swallowed in the name of development .the least the development authorities can do is name the areas it has acquired after the village it has swallowed. Every time I open goggle maps I find that the boundary of the village of my ancestors that is Lehana Singh wala out side Lahore is shrinking and fear it will vanish soon. Does any body living in the village or nearby have any idea of the history of the village of a great soldier after who the village is named. please send me a contact number of a elder of the village From what I recollect my grand father telling me it should be someone from the family of ALLAH DITTA OR ALLAH RAKHA . MY no is 919888248248 I would be highly obliged and great full to the person taking the trouble to do the needful.

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