Lahore: Blossoms, bricks, bravura

Salma Mahmud recalls the beauty of Lahore’s past (The Friday Times)

Maharaja Sher Singh after
a royal bath

Raja Dina Nath was granted the title of Diwan
by Ranjeet Singh in 1826

Ranjit Singh holding a darbar

A malang dancing at Shah Hussain’s mazaar

The demolished Shivala used to be a gathering place for Kashmiri pundits

” align=”justify”>Some felt that Raja Dina Nath’s falseness was the means to his success, for he never hesitated in deserting a losing party or a falling friend. There were others who testified to his generosity towards faqirs and orphans

If one is to be unbiased, then one must admit that The Lion of the Punjab was a great lover of natural scenery and greenery. He passed an order that not a single spot of barren land should be visible along the five miles between Delhi Gate and Shalimar. The GT Road was thus lined on both sides by eager courtiers and noblemen vying with one another to plant trees, gardens, parks and green fields … Lahore was in truth turned into a city of gardens

FFor those who love Lahore there is a mystical connection between themselves and the city. Regardless of its current ravaged and bereft condition, it continues to tug at the heartstrings with its lure and lustre.

And as you drive along the old Shalimar Road, the mist is thick, grey, smoky. You can almost eat it. This ancient road is withdrawn, remote, secretive, compressed within itself, surrounded by its dreary new townships.

Yet it is still full of magic, the magic of things half-seen in a dream, the magic of the barely visible or the partly remembered, which is the very stuff of dreams. Wily Raja Dina Nath’s legendary garden exists in this dream to the east of the old road, laden with fragrant blossoms, fruit trees, fountains, pleasure domes and pavilions. And the ruins of Shah Bilawal’s Baradari lie crumbling along the way, where Ranjit Singh’s heir Maharaja Sher Singh and his seven year old son and his retainers were brutally murdered by the Sandhanwalia conspirators. Surely all that blood must still exist somewhere under the earth? And perhaps it will cry out one day against the Qabza group’s encroachments on the Sher Singh family samadhs. Latrines have been constructed through the retaining wall, into the mound atop which stand the sacred chatthris. What further desecration could be possible? Recall the exquisite painting of the young Sher Singh after his bath, sitting with his curling hair spread out over his shoulders, and recoil from the current morass.

‘Nadiyon paar Ranjhan da thaana,

Mintaan karaan malah dey naal

A turning to the left off the Grand Trunk Road takes you to the tomb of Shah Hussain, the 16th century Sufi saint, whose festival of lights Lahoris celebrated at the end of March. The entrance is marked with a gateway of brick composed of a multi-foil of several leaf-shaped curves, and a simple cusped projecting archway through which a few steps lead you into an elevated court. The enclosure of the tomb is large, with a small graveyard located on the east side. Somewhere here lies Ustad Daman, one of Lahore’s beloved icons, who spent the last years of his life in Shah Hussain’s Hujra, situated below a mosque near Heera Mandi.

A well adds ambience to the area, and large old trees provide shade and tranquility. Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s beautiful Muslim wife Moran, a former Amritsar courtesan, whom he affectionately called Moran Sarkar, built a small mosque in the environs of the tomb as a token of reverence for the saint. Unfortunately this entire structure has been demolished and rebuilt.

Ranjit Singh, apart from giving lavish donations to the shrines of Hazrat Mian Mir and Baba Farid, was a great devotee of Shah Hussain, and a sincere believer in his powers of performing miracles. Two of these are worthy of mention, the first being his reputed ability to change wine into milk and then back again into wine. He is alleged to have performed this miracle at the court of the Great Mughal, Akbar Badshah.

The second miracle was his supposed power to transport human beings from one place to another. He is said to have achieved this for his beloved disciple Madho, who expressed a wish to be with his parents at Haridwar, where they were performing their pilgrimage. His parents saw Madho bathing in the holy waters of the Ganga, which was considered adequate proof of Shah Hussain’s supernatural powers in this regard.

Maharaja Ranjeet Singh’s intensely controversial figure still permeates the area between the Fort and Shalimar. He used to celebrate both Basant and Mela Chiraghan with great enthusiasm at Shah Hussain’s mazar as well as at Shahjehan’s romantic garden. On Basant all his courtiers were ordered to wear yellow clothes, and much of the food served during the festivities was yellow in colour. His cavalry stood at attention on the route from Delhi Darwaza to Chah Miran, as he wended his way along the GT Road, with Moran riding beside him on an elephant. Dancing and singing and carousing were the order of the day on both occasions.

His forty year rule was a strictly secular one, and two of his most trusted advisors were the celebrated Faqir brothers, Nuruddin the Hakim who cured him of a severe eye infection, and Azizuddin his Foreign Minister. Of the latter’s tact and diplomacy there can be no greater proof than the celebrated anecdote when the Governor General of India, Lord Aukland, asked him which of the Maharaja’s eyes was the blind one. His reply was, ‘The Maharaja is like the sun, and the sun has only one eye. The splendour and luminosity of his single eye is so much that I have never dared to look at his other eye.’ The Governor General was so impressed by Faqir Azizuddin’s reply that he presented him with his gold wrist watch. (Incidentally, the left eye was the blind one.)

Of Ranjeet Singh’s Hindu advisors, the most intriguing is surely Diwan/Raja Dina Nath, of the large deep-set eyes and neatly clipped white beard, referred to as the Talleyrand of the Punjab. Dina Nath was a Kashmiri Brahmin who came to Lahore in 1815 and soon rose to prominence at the court due to his diligence and brilliance. In 1826 Ranjeet Singh gave him the title of Diwan and granted him many jagirs.

Revolutions in which his friends and patrons perished passed him by, and in the midst of bloodshed and assassination his life was never endangered. Some felt that his falseness was the means to his success, for he never hesitated in deserting a losing party or a falling friend. He maintained his position during the years of anarchy following Ranjeet Singh’s death, and in fact his prestige and power continued to rise. This clearly depicts the strength of his extraordinary talent and tact. Eventually the British made him Raja of Kalanaur in the Jullundhar area.

On the plus side he has been described as physically brave and morally courageous when the occasion demanded it, and thereby he was one of the most successful courtiers of the Lahore Durbar. Nur Ahmed Chishti in his ‘Tehqiqaat-e-Chishti’, praises his boundless generosity towards faqirs and orphans. Chishti’s father Ahmed Bukht Yakdil was tutor to Dina Nath’s family, so this information comes from the horse’s mouth so to speak.

The two elegant havelis that he built near the Wazir Khan Mosque still survive, with several families living in each one. However, the beautiful Shivala or temple complex that he constructed in 1835 near the junction of Vachchuwali and Mohalla Sareen was demolished in 2006 by the Pakistan Evacuee Trust Property Board, in order to make way for a commercial building. This Shivala was a gathering place for Kashmiri Pundits, all of whom worship Lord Shiva, and their celebrations at Shivratri used to be exceptionally grand. It was two storeys in height, containing a large central courtyard, in which stood a five foot high Makrana marble statue of Shiva in the celebrated Nathraj pose, placed on a large pedestal. The Shivala was constructed of red sandstone, with the main door being of engraved Burma teak. The inner walls were decorated with paintings from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It is indeed distressful that a place of worship that remained dormant yet standing for a hundred and seventy one years, should be demolished in such a senseless manner by an official Qabza group, no less.

Dina Nath’s gardens are another side to his multi-faceted personality. His very large garden off the old Shalimar Road was near the mazar of Ghorey Shah. It was enclosed, with a fourteen foot high wall all round it. Part of the wall and a well

still existed as late as 1947. Inside there were pavilions, platforms and tanks, and the pavilion to the south was exceptionally beautiful. Dr. Saifur Rehman Dar, the distinguished archaeologist and cultural historian writes that even during the time of Raja Dina Nath, the general public used to walk about in this, one of the loveliest gardens in Lahore. He also planted another garden on the way to Chah Miran, in honour of a saint named Hadi Shah. This too was walled, with many buildings inside. Attached to it was a large tract of agricultural land and a well to irrigate it. This was named Faiz Bagh, and until eighty years ago the enclosure wall still existed, but now there is nothing, just a locality named Faiz Bagh, somewhere between the Do Moria Pul area.

To wind up this initial survey of Lahore’s gardens, monuments and personalities, it perhaps would be best to send out the jury on Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. Dr. Saifur Rehman Dar feels that the Sikhs never had the time to rectify the damages they dealt to Muslim monuments in Lahore. In order to embellish their own buildings, they denuded almost every Mughal edifice in the city. They did not even spare mosques and mausoleums. They took away costly marble and sandstone veneers from these monuments, removed precious stones set in decorative panels, but also made ugly embellishments of their own. The clumsy way in which they decorated the Golden Temple in Amritsar with looted Mughal beauty is a case in point. All this can only be described as vandalism, not to speak of the manner in which the Badshahi Masjid and Masjid Wazir Khan were used as stables, and countless mosques, tombs and other edifices were turned into ammunition dumps. This latter practice was carried on by the British when they took over the reins of government.

However, if one is to be absolutely unbiased then one must admit that The Lion of the Punjab was a great lover of natural scenery and greenery. He passed an order that not a single spot of barren land should be visible along the five miles linking Delhi Gate with Shalimar. The GT Road was thus lined on both sides by eager courtiers and noblemen, vying with one another to plant trees, gardens, parks and green fields. In 1837 the C-in-C of the Indian Army, Sir Henry Fane, was full of praise for this verdant road. And so Lahore was in truth turned into a city of gardens. Perhaps then, when the jury returns, it will give a verdict of Not Guilty to the errant Maharaja, who is a case in point as far as a display of bravura is concerned.

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2 responses to “Lahore: Blossoms, bricks, bravura

  1. You made me want to travel the GT road to Lahore and visit the shrines. I am working on a project about the Ayyubid sultans of Egypt and being reminded that Islam spread in South Asia through “bhakti” and not by the sword.

  2. Hi All,
    Does anyone has clue when BASANT will be celebrated this year 2011 in Lahore?

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