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.