The not-so-great Ali Mardan Khan

Salman RashidBritish historians wrongly made too much of Ali Mardan’s skills as an engineer and we who do not read followed blindly. In reality the man was a charlatan, a fraud. In April 1657, he died of dysentery while on his way to Kashmir. At that time his total assets which, according to law were attached to the crown, were in excess of a whopping ten million rupees!

The Lahore section of the Daily Times carries a picture of Shalimar Gardens (December 24). Part of the caption tells us that it was built by Khalilullah Khan ‘in cooperation with Ali Mardan Khan …’ It is time therefore to examine this Turk of the Zik tribe who lies buried barely a couple of kilometres from the garden he is believed to have built.

In 1607, the second year of emperor Jehangir’s reign, Shah Abbas, the Safvid king of Persia, seized Kandahar that had then been in Mughal hands for some decades. For the rest of his reign, Jehangir smarted under the ignominy of being unable to regain that distant city. Shah Abbas died twenty-two years later and was replaced by his grandson Sam Mirza styled Shah Safi.

If there was ever a paranoid maniac it was this man: he started his reign by a methodical removal of all his grandfather’s trusted courtiers; his mode of operation being imprisonment or plain cold-blooded murder. To ensure that there was no familial opposition to his reign, he even murdered a couple of dozen of his own close male relatives.

Ali Mardan Khan, then the governor of Kandahar, and much trusted by the late Shah Abbas became fearful of his life. And so, in 1638, he wrote a letter to the Mughal governor of Kabul advising him that if the Safvid army would attack Kandahar, he would speedily switch sides in exchange for Mughal military aid.

In India this was now the reign of Shah Jehan, and the new king, who had always considered Kandahar his personal legacy, jumped at the offer. With great alacrity, Ali Mardan got the mosques of the city ringing to the khutba in the name of Shah Jehan. With matching speed, coinage minted at Lahore was despatched to the newly acquired city in a bid to emphasise possession.

Later that same year (1638) Shah Jehan, much beholden to Ali Mardan, summoned him to Lahore where the turncoat was given the honour of ‘doing obeisance at the foot of the royal throne.’ The emperor clearly felt much obliged because among other gifts he also lavished a right princely sum of three hundred thousand rupees upon the man. This, incidentally, was the claim Ali Mardan put in as travel expenses from Kandahar to Lahore! And if that does not tell us of the man’s character, what else will.

Having wintered in Lahore where he evidently had the emperor’s ear, the devious Ali Mardan inveigled a posting as governor of Kashmir just as summer of setting in. The Shah Jehan Nama (my source) very indulgently tells us that this was because the man was ‘habituated to the climate of Iran and could not endure the burning heat of Hindustan.’ In March 1639 Ali Mardan was sent off to this new assignment with more generous gifts.

As the highland winter set in, the man found the Srinagar cold a little too harsh for his liking. Finding Shah Jehan over-eager to wean him, Ali Mardan requested for the governorship of both Lahore and Kashmir. The arrangement he sought was summers in the uplands and winters in the balmy climes of Lahore. Though the Shah Jehan Nama never gives a hint of it, I am convinced that deep inside the emperor was doubtful of the man’s loyalty and wished to keep him in good humour every which way he could.

While in Lahore in 1639, Ali Mardan represented to the emperor that there was ‘an engineer in his service who possesses eminent skill in the art of constructing canals…’ The man suggested that a channel be dug from the Ravi where it breaks out of the mountains nearly two hundred kilometres north of Lahore and water brought down to slake the parched country around the city.

The cost, as estimated by Ali Mardan, was one hundred thousand rupees which was duly doled out by the indulgent king. What happened next smacks distinctly of the working of many government departments in Pakistan today. In February 1641 when the canal was yet unfinished, Ali Mardan contrived a transfer to the governorship of Kabul. Shortly thereafter Shah Jehan inspected work on the canal and in anticipation of the water that promised to flow in it, ordered the laying out of his most beautiful and enduring gift to Lahore: the Shalimar Gardens. Mark that at this time Ali Mardan was in Kabul.

Work on the garden began on the twelfth day of June 1641, a day calculated by astrologers as being auspicious. In a remarkable effort of engineering, the Shalimar was completed in a period of one year and four months. Meanwhile, Ali Mardan’s servants came up from time to time with demands for additional funds which amounted to a total of another one hundred thousand rupees. The reason given for these supplementary demands, according to the Shah Jehan Nama, was ‘in order that the water might be made to flow with the required volume.’

The canal was eventually completed ‘under the directions of Ali Mardan Khan’s servants’, but it stubbornly remained bone dry. The emperor was miffed and the Shah Jehan Nama records that these so-called engineers had ‘through bad judgement’ wasted fifty thousand rupees. One wonders if this sum hadn’t made its way to the coffers of Ali Mardan in Kabul.

Be that as it may, the so-called con artists possessed of ‘eminent skill in the art of constructing canals’ were booted out, a new team of ‘learned specialists’ was hired and the canal had to be re-aligned. Of the full length, no less than a hundred and ten kilometres had to be dug anew. It is not without interest that only (I repeat only) eighteen kilometres of the channel dug by Ali Mardan’s ‘experts’ was utilised in the new design that eventually brought water to Shalimar.

When Shah Jehan sat on the marble pavilions of the gardens Faiz Buksh and Farah Buksh with the playing fountains cooling the sultry air of Lahore, it had been three years since Ali Mardan had advised the emperor about his canal-diggers. After the monies for the project were released to him, he was in Lahore only briefly during the winters. The rest of the time he was in Srinagar before decamping off to Kabul.

The canal his ‘experts’ dug was a sham. As for Shalimar, Ali Mardan had nothing to do with its design or construction because he was then in Kabul. Yet he was pampered by the emperor, even receiving Kashmir as his personal fief in 1649. Though the Shah Jehan Nama avoids every mention of the emperor’s misgivings about Ali Mardan, from a close reading of the book it is not difficult to assess how the king may have actually felt. The fear that a piqued Ali Mardan may again switch sides plucking away the cherry of Kandahar was surely one of the concerns.

British historians wrongly made too much of Ali Mardan’s skills as an engineer and we who do not read followed blindly. In reality the man was a charlatan; a fraud. In April 1657 he died of dysentery while on his way to Kashmir. At that time his total assets which, according to law were attached to the crown, were in excess of a whopping ten million rupees!

Today his tomb is a holy site. The Muslims of Pakistan, forever needing a grave to worship, resort here for the fulfilment of their desires. The watchman of the Department of Archaeology collects a neat little purse from the leavings of pious worshippers.

(This article was first published in The Daily Times)

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