The Deceptive Web of Tunnels

By Salman Rashid

Who hasn’t heard of the tunnel that connects Lahore Fort with say, the Shalamar Gardens in Baghbanpura and the other garden by the Dal Lake in Srinagar? Or the tunnel that leads from under the fort in Lahore all the way to the Red Fort in Delhi and to several other places all over the world.

We all know of them. My earliest memory of being told of these incredible super-secret subterranean passageways goes back nearly a half century. I must have been five or six when I and my siblings with several other cousins and relatives took what in my memory is the first grand tour of Lahore. One warmish Sunday we took them all in: fort, mosque and Shalamar. The evening was wrapped up with a mad adventure of getting lost somewhere on the banks of the Ravi — which was then a beautiful river, not a sewer like today.

In the fort someone (no recollection who) showed us a staircase leading down into a darkened cellar. This was where the tunnel began, said the man. It headed out in one direction to the Shalamar Gardens and on to Delhi and Srinagar and on the other to the tomb of Jehangir and his wife Noor Jehan. That was the way Mughal kings used to go from one place to another — in total secrecy, he said. The Mughals, it was implied, did not wish it known when they were going from place to place. The gallons of ink expended in the keeping of royal diaries (now available in published form) was apparently simply to fool us gullible folks of posterity.

We wanted to see the tunnel and the man told us of the demons, snakes and scorpions that infested the tunnel. And the gases. Gases that killed humans instantaneously but to which the denizens of the dark were impervious. We insisted and he took us down the darkening staircase a few steps where further progress was blocked by a set of stout jailhouse-like bars. For some obscure reason the tunnel had been blocked by the government. As my scope of traveling broadened I learned of the extraordinary underground labyrinth that radiates outward from under every old city: Dipalpur, Peshawar, Gujrat, and Multan. No ancient city was spared and all the tunnels led to Delhi and Srinagar. Years later standing on the ramparts of Derawar Fort in Cholistan, the rough alignment of the one leading to Jaisalmir was pointed out to me. But by this time I knew better.

Some months ago I received an email from Rukhsana Ahsan (henceforth RA) in Karachi asking about the tunnels of Lahore. She had been contacted by a British researcher writing a history book for secondary classes. The researcher had read somewhere of the fabulous tunnels of Lahore and wanted confirmation before she entered this (mis)information in her book. My reply to RA is rather unprintable, but I suggested hanging, quartering and burying the British researcher ninety fathoms below. That having been done there evolved a very interesting exchange between RA and me and we now regard each other as friends.

It was RA who suggested I ought to write on the tunnels. A couple of weeks ago she wrote to inform me of a piece on Hiran Minar in a Lahore English daily. The writer, brashly pretending to be an historian of sorts, informs us of the tunnel that linked Jehangir’s hunting lodge with nearby Jandiala Sher Khan. The writer goes on to tell us that the source of information on this tunnel is General Bechingame, but that the tunnel is no longer ‘visible to the human eye’.

By golly! But it isn’t that the tunnel is now wearing a Sulemani topi. The researcher has never seen the work of this Bechingame chap because such a man never existed. But somewhere he had heard of General Cunningham who did a phenomenal amount of historical and archaeological research all over India in the 1860s and 70s and left behind an invaluable record spread over two dozen volumes. Not having read any of that and failing to register a name that this self-styled historian had only heard, he wrote it as he deemed best. Even so Cunningham (or Bechingame, take your pick) never wrote of tunnels under Hiran Minar.

This so-called writer is not alone, however. The rank and file of Urdu language reporters producing features on historical towns assiduously churn out stories of tunnels and tunnels. I have yet to see a piece on any historical town in the Urdu press that will not have some detail of this marvel. The question then is: where does this myth rise from?

Before I could go into the why and wherefore of the tunnels, I betook myself to Lahore Fort to talk to the guides that hassle tourists there. I was early and the guides had not yet come to work so I got talking to the man at the gate checking entry tickets. Tunnels? Of course, there was this incredible maze of tunnels all over the place under the city. I looked around suspiciously, placed my arm on his shoulder and pulled him away from his post.

Did he know, I asked as conspiratorially as I could get, that the tunnels did not only go to boring old Delhi but to all over the world? On sound authority I could tell him that there was one that went all the way west to New York via Rome, Paris, Moscow and London. And damn the geography. He looked at me incredulously. I had to be joking, he said. I placed my hand on my heart and in vain invoked the name of the Lord. It was true and this was no frivolous talk for I had books at home that gave out exact details of the underground route, I said.

If he could help me find those tunnels, I could offer him a 50-50 partnership. He wanted to know more of the partnership. I said I was an overseas employment agent of meager means. My competitors with more finances and better contacts were sending people abroad for vast sums of money. As we know many of those unfortunate men were going down with scuttled rust buckets or being shot as they crossed border illegally. I had the foolproof plan. We take our wad of money — half as much as other agents, shove our warriors into the tunnel and saunter off whistling the national anthem. Imagine the surprise of people in Marble Arch or by the walls of the Kremlin or under the trees of Champs Elysees or by the Trivi Fountain, or even in Brooklyn when the sewer lids are thrown back and out pop our battalion of illegal immigrants covered with the cockroaches of the long journey.

This was too much for someone as obviously gullible as the gate-keeper. He regarded me for a long moment before espying Yaqub, ‘the oldest chowkidar of the Archaeology Department’. Yaqub came up and my man told him I was interested in the tunnels. Yaqub put the damper on when without preamble he declared there were no such things. Point. None whatever and whoever said there were was lying through his rotten, cavitied teeth. His authority, he said, were some of the great masters of Pakistan archaeology. The plan to smuggle Gujranwala and Mandi Bahauddin men to the West went down — not the drain but a non-existent tunnel in this case.

Years ago when I had graduated from an ignorant traveler into one who had read at least two books, I understood that the spacious, dark and rather mysterious subterranean rooms under all buildings in Lahore Fort as well as any other fort or old haveli were at the bottom of the tunnel legend. A few people had seen them and the rest of us who only heard of them blew them out of all proportion. Then there were the escape routes. A secret underground tunnel leading out of Lahore Fort to the Ravi.

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8 responses to “The Deceptive Web of Tunnels

  1. Here here, well said!!!

  2. I heard that in Amritsar, Gobindgarh Fort to Lahore Fort there was a tunnel during Sikh period, However I strongly believe there were escape routes but no tunnels at all.

  3. Then there was a tunnel that connected Delhi to Persia. Anarkali was sneaked out to Persia after Akbar (Mughal-E-Azam) disallowed Jehangir to marry her. She was brought back to Delhi (not via a tunnel this time) as Princess Mehrunissa of Persia, and was married off to Jehangir. Dont take the fun out of this one now!!!!

  4. I cant understand what you are going to narrate here

  5. Yes i have seen a tunnel which starts from Khemkarn & belived that goes to Kasur Or Lahore, I walked into this for few yards……

  6. once my friend who lives near shalimar garden of lahore told me that a tunnel has been discoverd there during digging of old water works of shalimar garden(near 2007) and many of local people are visiting that tunnel these days. he further added that he with his cousin also went inside the tunnel around half kilometer but there was so much darkness and they came out of that.

  7. Interesting read. Don’t know about any tunnels any where else and just recently heared about the tunnel of Shalimar Gardens (don’t know yet if its true).

    But saying that there was no tunnel going out of Lahore Fort is not true. I don’t know if its still there, or what condition it is in but there actually used to be a tunnel in Lahore Fort that led to Delhi. My source? My great grandfather, who went inside that tunnel himself. I’m talking about my father’s grandfather whom I was lucky enough to see in person when I was a kid during the 1980s. Born in the 1880’s, my great grandfather was then more then hundred years old but physically sound.

    He told us how he went inside that tunnel just out of curiousity, got lost in pitch darkness and couldn’t find his way back for about half a day (even then with the help of his friends and a caretaker of the fort who all went inside searching for him with torches burning to light their way). He used to describe it as one of the scariest incidents of his life.

    The incident occured a few years before the world war 1. The Lahore Fort was not open to public then, but having friends in the fort’s administration helped them get permission. My great grandfather, along with his friends had gone to visit the Fort and even though they were told they shouldn’t go inside the tunnel, he sneaked out quietly. There used to be no barring gate to the tunnel at that time. The tunnel itself was below ground level many feet down, and he jumped inside but immediately realised he would not be able to climb back without some ladder. (Later he was told that the slop was destroyed by the British so as to make it impossible for someone from the insdie to climb up). The tunnel started initially as a vast space dimly lit by small window-like openings high up in the walls of the fort concealed from the outside. Afterwards, it narrowed down slightly, but even then, was broad enough for six horse riders to pass with ease. There were no arrangements of light once the way of the tunnel started; which was supposed to be lit by burning torches and jewels and glass work that was all stolen during the Sikh raj.

    Soon it got dark outside and the dim light from the far away openings was gone. It was then that he got really lost trying to find his way out. In that darkness, he wandered inwards the tunnel for I don’t know how long. By the time his friends figured out where he must have been after searching the whole fort, he had lost all hope of going back to the surface again.

    They went inside calling his name loudly and asking if he was there. All he could hear was very dim voices and saw in a distance what seemed like match-sticks burning (which were actually the torches his friends and the caretaker had been carrying). Hurrying, he returned to them shouting and running hard towards them for quite some time. So scared he had been that all color had been washed off his face.

    The tunnel was blocked some time during the next 20 years after similar attempts were made by other people to go inside. By that time it was still in working condition, though the absence of light and growing hazard of insects was a major hurdle. There was no hazard of any gases; the Mughal architects had shown great skill in constructing the tunnel and it had a system of air flow that helped keep the torches burning.

    I disagree that there was no tunnel down the Lahore Fort. It was there. It was real. And I guess I should be seeing the remaining members of the oldest generation of my family who can tell me more about the tunnel in Shalimar Gardens. If there was any tunnel, they will know. Before finishing, I’d mention my family history: My great grandfather’s name was Mian Allah Bakhsh and he was a descendent of Mian Mohammad Yusuf (the owner of the land where Shalimar Gardens were built before he presented it to Emperor Shah Jahan).

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