Mughal Empress Noor Jehan (d. 1645) was prophetic when she composed the epitaph for her own grave. It runs thus: ‘Pity us, for at our tomb no lamp shall light, no flowers seen/ No moth wings shall burn, no nightingales sing’. What she did not foresee was that a similar fate would befall the nearby tombs of her brother Asif Khan and husband Emperor Jehangir at Shahdara.
They too were laid to rest in the empress’s once delightful and sprawling Dilkusha Gardens across the Ravi river from the imperial Lahore Fort. The legendary Mughal couple so cherished Lahore that both chose it as their last abode. Little did they know that in times to come, an indifferent archaeology department would be made the custodian of their tombs. Bureaucratic procrastination has delayed the conservation and restoration work that the department planned and got approved in 2005, as a recent report suggests. Now the file awaits Prime Minister Gilani’s approval before further action can be taken. Meanwhile, the fast-decaying 17th-century tombs that have no rivals across the border in India, save the Taj Mahal, and that should have been the pride of Pakistan have become a sight of neglect.
The process of decay was hastened in Gen Zia’s time when Nawaz Sharif, then chief minister of Punjab, ordered all cattle pens out of Lahore city. Government apathy dictated that some of them must be relocated to Shahdara, and what better land to occupy than the tombs’ immediate neighbourhood? Punjab’s 19th-century Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh is censured by Muslim historians for using Jehangir’s tomb and the adjacent Akbari Serai as a stable for his army’s horses; subsequent British rulers of Punjab are also blamed for laying a train track that cut through Dilkusha Gardens before they understood what they did and made amends by somewhat restoring the tombs. But no one expected the return of farm animals and a total decimation of the gardens that once stood there. It seems that the Taliban are not the only ones who have little respect for graves or national heritage.