Salma Mahmud writing for The Friday Times mourns the past magnificence of Lahore’s little hamlets
‘Nothing can be more sublime or more heart-rending than the sight of these wrecks of departed glory. They convey at once to the mind how transitory and unstable worldly eminence is. Those palaces are now in ruins, which were once the residences of the vanquisher of Banda Bahadur Bairagi, and his son the reconciler of the fierce Nadir Shah, where with all the pomp and pride of viceroys they sat giving orders to their umerah and officers.’ Thus, in 1892 or thereabouts, wrote the eminent historian of Lahore’s past greatness, Khan Bahadur Sayad Mohammad Latif, as he stood amidst the shattered domes of Begumpura. He was viewing the destroyed remains of a once wealthy and powerful suburb of Lahore, which was founded in the 18th century by Abdus Samad Khan Daler Jang, and named after his senior wife Nawab Begum Jan, also called Nawab Begum Kabir.
The whole wealth of the Punjab flowed into the coffers of Begumpura for thirty-eight years, from 1717 to 1745, during which time the Punjab was relatively peaceful. All the assets from a rich and prosperous province served to make it the cynosure of neighbouring eyes. But what a dirge, what an epitaph to be recited upon departed grandeur and the transitory nature of earthly glory.
Maaey nee main bhaeey deewani, dekh jagat mein shor,
Iknaan doli, iknaan ghori, ik siwey ik gor,
Nangey paireen jandrey dithey, jin key lakh karor
So said Shah Hussain in the 16th century, and like Byron’s Childe Harold musing on the ruined empires of the Mediterranean, Latif in the 19th century stood and viewed the devastation of a once powerful seat of government.
Yet today the ambience, the essence, of Begumpura still hovers over the truncated beauty of its remaining monuments. The most mournfully poignant of these is the Sarv Wala Maqbara, sacred to the memory of a pious lady, Sharfunissa Begum, the sister of Nawab Zakariya Khan, son and successor to Abdus Samad Khan. The superlative design of this Cypress Tomb is unique, as there is none other of its kind throughout the sub-continent, and the lady in question is said to have designed it herself. It is a tower which was originally encased in bronze on its lower half, standing around sixteen feet in height up to this point, and then tapering slightly in its upper half, which is decorated with unique white enamelled tile mosaic work on a plaster base, painted with four green cypresses on each side, interspersed with delicate red flowers between the trees; the cypress being a symbol of eternity, beauty and love in Eastern mythology. On top of the tower, which can only be accessed by a wooden staircase, is a shelf or ‘chhajja’ on the outside, and that is then crowned with a small dome. The bronze encasing has been removed by marauders, who obviously could not reach the tiles, which have survived more or less unharmed. They shine and gleam from afar, the only comparatively undamaged testament to the glory of Begumpura. Nawab Zakariya Khan’s mosque, close to Shah Hussain’s mazar, is in a sorry state, and the marble-embellished family graveyard was looted long ago.
There is a story attached to the Cypress Tomb, which reflects many tragic nuances of Begumpura’s history.. Sharfunissa Begum, who was unmarried, used it as a place of meditation and devotion, for she visited it every day to read the Holy Quran up on the top storey. She would leave a jewelled sword behind alongside the Quran when she climbed down. Upon her death bed she expressed the wish to be buried in her Cypress Tower, with the Quran and the sword placed atop her grave. Her wishes were complied with and the entrance to the tower was blocked with bricks and mortar in order to protect it. After the destruction of Begumpura, Sikh vandals who had heard of the legendary sword, broke into the tower and stole the sword along with the Quran, thus destroying the sanctity of Sharfunissa’s retreat and burial chamber.
But why should we complain about Sikh vandals, when recent photograph of the Cypress Tomb showed a very visible electioneering wall-chalking painted on the tower’s base? And right behind was an advertisement for a neighbourhood primary school. In any civilized country this tower, the nearby magnificent Gulabi Bagh Gateway and Dai Anga’s exquisite tomb would be a part of the nation’s protected heritage. We, on the other hand have wreaked more havoc on our tombs, havelis and gardens in the last sixty-two years than what was done during various periods of earlier devastation. A recent photograph in a daily newspaper showed a large orange-coloured rubbish tip placed right in front of Dai Anga’s Tomb. Is this an existential statement about environmental protection by our local municipal authorities? The mind boggles. And Ali Mardan Khan’s tomb in nearby Baghbanpura is completely surrounded now by railway workshops. So this is the ultimate resting place of one of the premier noblemen of the Emperor Shahjehan’s court, a Haft Hazaari and Viceroy of a Punjab which at that time stretched from Kabul to Delhi. He is also remembered for many engineering and public works, including the Shah Nehar which provided water to the Shalimar Gardens.
The Gulabi Bagh Gateway is a part of Begumpura’s remains, although built during Shahjehan’s time by Mirza Sultan Beg, the Emperor’s Admiral of the Fleet. It was the imposing entrance to a vast rose garden, of which not a trace remains today. The delicate brickwork, embellished with fine kashi kari: tile mosaic decorations, make it one of the finest of extant Mughal monuments. It is a lofty Timurid gateway, rising to a two-storeyed height, with panels defined by brick borders, profusely embellished with multi-hued tile mosaic. Thus humble brick is given an exciting veneer of beautifully crafted mosaic, each brick being cut to the exact form of a petal or a leaf, and then closely joined together with the tiles in a unique art form. The rose garden is said to have had vast pavilions, arches, paved floors and gates on all four corners. Today we can see that the rear side of the gateway has been damaged to a large extent.
Within the grounds of the Gulabi Bagh stands Dai Anga’s tomb, built in 1672. Dai Anga, who lies buried here along with her daughter Sultana Begum, wife of Mirza Sultan Beg, was the Emperor Shahjehan’s wet-nurse. Her imposing tomb, in spite of the Lahore Corporation’s rubbish tip, is a perfect example of the local style of brick and tile work, which produced a highly imaginative series of decorative panels both inside as well as outside the structure. The interior of the dome is splendidly baroque in its grandeur.
The question has now to be answered as to why Begumpura was destroyed in such a ruthless manner. The first attack came from the outside, from Iran, when Nadir Shah launched his campaign against India in 1738. Along the Grand Trunk Road his first logical stop was Lahore, more specifically Begumpura, where the tactful governor Zakariya Khan, getting no aid from Delhi, parleyed with him, bribed him, and concluded negotiations most pleasantly, thus saving the citizens of Lahore from the fate that was meted out to Delhi soon after. From there Nadir Shah plundered the Peacock Throne and the Kohinoor Diamond, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction, and taking away countless slaves to boot.
The next attack was the beginning of the end for Begumpura. In 1746, when Zakaraiya Khan’s debauched son Shahnawaz Khan was governor, he received a delegation from Sabir Shah, the favourite pir of Ahmad Shah Abdali, ruler of Qandahar. The pir reminded the governor of an earlier agreement he had entered into with Abdali, inviting him to attack the Punjab with his support. By now Shahnawaz Khan had reneged, and ordered that molten lead be poured down the throat of the saintly emissary, and his body be abandoned to the elements. Later however, well-meaning Afghans accorded him a proper burial outside the Badshahi Mosque.
The fury of Ahmad Shah can well be imagined. He arrived at the outskirts of Begumpura
and launched a concentrated attack against its ramparts. Shahanawaz Khan fled to Delhi, taking with him much of the wealth of the provincial treasury. Ahmad Shah gave his soldiers orders to begin looting the defeated Punjab headquarters. There was so much of coinage, jewellery, buried treasure, cannon, horses and elephants to plunder, that the soldiers did not want to proceed any further. A delegation of elders from the main city came to Ahmad Shah with a bribe, and successfully pleaded with him to spare the hapless citizenry from any further damage. And thus began the woeful tale of the destruction of this once powerful seat of government.
Once Mughal power declined and the Punjab was at the mercy of various Sikh adventurers, Begumpura was looted over and over again. The cause of this vengefulness was that the family of Abdus Samad Khan had controlled the Punjab and its rebellious Sikhs from here. Most specifically we can refer to the seven year campaign against Banda Bahadur Bairagi, the Sikh vagabond who had been appointed by Guru Gobind Singh to take revenge against the Mughals for the murder of his two young sons. Banda Bahadur roused the Punjab peasantry, mainly Sikhs, against their Muslim landlords, and created havoc throughout the province, but was eventually defeated by Abdus Samad Khan’s army. He was taken to Delhi in chains, accompanied by Zakariya Khan, and was there cruelly tortured upon the orders of the Emperor Farrukh Seyer, and put to death because he refused to accept Islam. Opinions on Banda Bahadur vary between Sikhs and Muslims, but even Khushwant Singh in his ‘History of the Sikhs’, admits that Banda’s wild lawlessness had turned the Muslim peasantry against him. However, his memory is still revered by the Sikhs.
As far as Zakariya Khan is concerned, the stories of his just rule over the Punjab are manifold, and will be continued in the future:
What I have written so far is but a shadow of the embellishments of the fallen walls of Lahore’s vanishing villages.
Salma Mahmud is a features editor at TFT