The Wazir Khan baradari and the decay of a great library

By Majid Sheikh

WHEN the subedar, or governor, of Lahore, Nawab Wazir Khan, started building his famous and exquisite mosque in 1634 inside the walled city in the reign of the Emperor Shah Jehan, he also started laying and equally beautiful garden half a mile eastward from Lohari Gate. It was known then as Bagh Wazir Khan.

When asked why he was trying to copy the famous Shalimar Gardens being built then by his emperor, he said: “I am a humble ‘subedar’. The mosque is for man to try to appreciate the unseen beauty of Allah. This small garden is to help man to appreciate Allah’s beautiful nature.” Many experts believe the original ‘bagh’ of Wazir Khan was a much more beautiful garden than the legendary Shalimar. It is almost like comparing the Badshahi Mosque to the mosque of Wazir Khan .But today that garden is no more. The only trace of that exquisite creation is the Baradari of Wazir Khan. Every time you cross The Mall opposite the museum,or the old campus of the Punjab University, you are trampling on where the garden once was. The ‘baradari’ remains, a testimony to that great builder of Lahore. It eventually got to be the starting point of one of the finest libraries of the sub-continent.

The story of the Punjab Public Library is one that must be told, again and again, and lessons extracted, and action taken, concrete action, by private and public persons and institutions, for these actions could, eventually, determine our place in history. The ‘baradari’ of Wazir Khan has seen the history of our city unfold since 1634. The moghals collapsed, the Afghans pillaged and raped, the Sikhs suffered immensely and ultimately rose to power.

The beginning of their zenith started in the baradari of Wazir Khan, where the aspiring Sukherchakaria chieftain from Gujranwala waited before his troops stormed into Lahore in 1799. The baradari watched 40 years of utter pillage as it served as a garrison building for the Sikh elite officers of the French-trained the Fauj-i-Khas. The garden was looted of its fountains and flowers.

Then came the British and they also camped in the baradari. After the British took over in 1849 it first served as a Settlement Office as the East India Company set about expanding its writ in the Punjab. It next served as the first telegraph office in Lahore,connected directly to a point on Jahangir’s baradari in the River Ravi at Shahdara. Once consolidation was complete culture returned and it served as the very first building to house the Lahore Museum, which moved out after it got its own beautiful building just behind it.

The British then started the ‘Anarkali Book Club’, and the board stated, as one account of Golding tells us, “for Europeans only.’ When the Lawrence Hall was built and became part of the Lahore and Mian Mir Institute, now called the Lahore Gymkhana Club, the library was moved there. Thus the ‘baradari’ became available once again. At this stage the Lt. Governor of the Punjab, Sir Charles Atchison, wished that a library to reflect the immense history and literary traditions of Lahore be built in the baradari. This was named the Punjab Public Library. The committee formed to undertake this project met for the first time on November 12, 1884, in the French-built Secretariat building. Sir Charles donated his entire library and other well-connected people followed likewise. Well-known collections from, Munshi Naval Kishore, from Sardar Attar Singh and the huge and rare collection of Fakir Syed Jamaluddin, came the library’s way.It was an impressive start. On the December 21, 1885, Sir Charles Atchison inaugurated the library.

But the greatest contribution of Sir Charles was the fact that he made sure that it remained out of the clutches of bureaucracy. He got the library registered under the Charities Act, declaring its intentions as being ‘non-profit oriented’. This single step guaranteed its success. Great librarians then headed this unique library, which was seen as one of the finest libraries in northern India.

In 1886, the great Lala Kirpa Ram became the chief librarian, setting the highest stands of service and working day and night to make sure Lahore had the finest library in the entire sub-continent. He served for 27 long years and was followed by Lala Labbha Ram who served another eight years till 1921. By then these two had collected the finest set of rare manuscripts and books in India.

In 1921 another well-known librarian, Vidya Saggar Gorewara joined and served for just two years. In 1923 came Lala Ram Labhaya, who worked till the midnight of August 14, 1947, a solid 24 years of effort work that made sure Pakistan inherited one of the finest libraries in the world. In 1947 the first Pakistani Chief Librarian of the Punjab Public Library, Khwaja Nur Elahi, took over and served for 19 years till 1966. His greatest contribution was that he managed to keep the bureaucrats at bay, expanding the library in the process. As the library grew, so did the need for space. New buildings were built in 1924 and 1939. In the space of 80 years, just five librarians headed this great institution, which is testimony to its solid growth and direction.

The martial law of Gen Ayub Khan had by then set in a new malaise, a sort of aversion to learning and knowledge. Come to think of it, no library worth the mention, let alone an excellent bookshop, has managed to raise its head in Lahore over the last 40 years. Today the Punjab Public Library has a massive collection of 375,000 books, most of them rare ones.

For example the well-known book India: the Transfer of Power 1942-47 in 12 volumes, edited by Nicholas Mansergh, lies in the chief librarian’s office. That alone is worth a fortune. The very rare collection of ancient manuscripts number well over 850 collections, each one definitely worth more than money can measure. There is so much more in this library that only a massive effort of the donor agencies can help to save, what to my mind, is our finest institution gone all wrong.

On the dusty floors of the library rest some of the rarest books and manuscripts in the entire sub-continent. It is our history left to die. There is just not even enough money to get old and rare books rebound. The use of modern paper preservation techniques is missing. The lack of space, absence of funds and expertise, let alone a passion to save the true and rare heritage of this ancient city and the land, add to the tragedy called the Punjab Public Library.

The real malaise set in when the Punjab Government took over the library and placed it under their ‘education’ department, a violation of the trust in which it was set. The baradari still stands out for it houses the facilities to read newspapers and magazines. It watches in silence the decay. Even the young sensitive students of this city no longer protest, or feel, or even see, the slow, very slow, and silent death of one of Lahore’s greatest institutions. — From DAWN


One response to “The Wazir Khan baradari and the decay of a great library

  1. Oh! Great job!
    Very interesting and useful post.
    I add your interesting blog in my Netvibes page!
    We’ll expect many new interesting posts from you 😉

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