The half-encroached Begum Shahi mosque exists as only a figment of Mughal grandeur
By Naila Inayat and Sarah Sikandar
It was a bright winter morning when we undertook to locate the “oldest Mughal mosque in Lahore”, on our own. Not quite familiar with the walled city, we were lost as soon as we entered through the Sheranwala Gate. We kept asking around for Maryam I’Zimani or Maryam Al Zamani mosque also known as the Begum Shahi mosque and were only greeted by don’t-know-what-you-are-saying expressions. Someone in the area told us to take the Moti Bazaar route. We fell for it to find that it was only a good exercise all the way through uncovered drains. The easiest way to locate this mosque is to follow the street opposite Masti Darwaza, right in front of the Akbari gate of the Lahore Fort.
Before going into the predicament of the mosque – hidden behind the encroached houses and markets – let us locate this mosque in the pages of history. According to The Empire of the Great Mughals by Anne Marie Schimmel “One of the most influential women [in the Mughal court] was the Rajput Manmati, who as Jehangir’s mother was honoured with the title Maryam-i-Zimani. She founded the Begum Shahi Mosque in Lahore (1611-14) and constructed the cascading fountain near the idgah in Bayana(1612). When she died in 1623, she was buried in Sikandra, the final resting place of her husband.”
The records are slightly different in The New Cambridge History Of India according to which Begum Shahi mosque is “the city’s oldest surviving Mughal mosque. Located near the fort’s Akbar-period Masti gate, this mosque was probably built as the Jami mosque for those attending court. It was not provided by the emperor, but its construction doubtless met Jehangir’s approval and commenced a Mughal tradition whereby important court ladies provided the major mosques in imperial cities. Known as the Begum Shahi mosque and the mosque of Maryam al-Zamani, it was built in 1611-12.”
Kazim Nadeem, professor of archeology, while talking to TNS said, “the Begum Shahi mosque was popularly known as Barudkhana Wali Masjid. This was because of the usage of the mosque as gunpowder factory by Ranjit Singh.”
The mosque was “originally entered by three handsome gates” which has come down to one now. The second entrance opens to the staircase which leads to the rooftop. The door seems to have been used ages ago. Even the small main door of the mosque is anything but handsome. On the left of the main entrance is a warehouse. The right side has small tiny shops of shoes and crockery. These shops have practically been built within the area of the mosque. Professor Kazim says the mosque covered an area of 135ft by 127ft, some of it encroached by the shops. These shops “block one’s view back up the hill toward the haveli gardens, and iron wheel shops block one’s view on the east side of Lahore Fort. A few trees remain in haveli and mosque courtyards, but the principal garden remnants now lie either outside the walled city or within Lahore Fort.”
Noor Muhammad has been serving as the muezzin of the mosque for the past twenty years. He had another story to tell. He told us that the mosque was especially built for the ladies of the court who came here to say their prayers. A long tunnel connects the mosque directly with the harem – the passage used by the ladies to enter the mosque. The tunnel, he said, was blocked when the fort was used as a prison for political prisoners. When asked who Begum Shahi was Muhammad said, “all I know is the mosque was built by some woman in the Mughal family.”
From the roof top of the mosque, one can see the huge gate of the fort and the story of the tunnel sounds believable. From here, one can also see the mosque is surrounded by houses and shops all over. The house built next to the mosque has even destroyed a part of the mosque wall. Of the two staircases to reach the roof top, one has probably not been used for long.
A major part of the mosque is surrounded by the rim market. The shopkeepers told TNS that their shops were originally at the Mela Ram Road. Almost 25 years ago, they were displaced and the whole market was shifted here. During Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1999, it was decided that the market is encroached and will be demolished but soon his government was toppled. It is not difficult to discern that it is not easy to remove these markets from here. Even if someone decides to do something right now, it is a little too late because the most part of the mosque has already been damaged. Even inside the mosques one can see the mazars (shrines) of some Maulvi Ghulam Qadir and another Guddi Sayein Baba.