Rai Bahadur Kanhaiya Lal’s Lahore is gone forever

This piece by Salma Mahmud first appeared in The Friday Times

So sad, so strange, the days that are no more…

Oh death in life, the days that are no more… Tennyson

Rai Bahadur Kanhaiya Lal was one of the most prominent engineers of his time, as well as being a well-known poet in Urdu and Persian and a cultural historian, who belonged to a Kayastha family of note.

The Kayasthas are an Indian caste group who are referred to as the direct blood progeny of the Vedic god Brahma in Hindu religious texts, having sprung from his kaya or body. It is said in the Vedas that they have a dual-caste status, being both Brahmin and Kshatriya, and they are mainly spread across North India. Their ancient profession was writing, and they have been noted for their ability to adapt and mingle with all around them. Many recent eminent Kayasthas have included Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Dr. Rajendra Prashad, the Bacchan family, and the Marxist actor Utpal Dutt. They have remained scribes, scholars and advisors to various administrations over a long period of time, and their sophistication and cosmopolitan attitude is legendary. That sophistication and its inherent elegance colours the mood of Kanhaiya Lal’s elegy on a city that he loved, so potently evident in his ‘Tarikh-e-Lahore’.

This is just one of the many writings of this civilized executive engineer living in Lahore during the latter half of the 19th century. He speaks in the preface to his ‘Tarikh’ of how difficult it was to set aside the time at night once his official duties were over, for writing eight varied volumes of poetry and prose, most of them going into several editions. One of his poems of which he was exceptionally proud was a masnavi on Heer Ranjha in Persian, titled ‘Nigareen Nama’. He mentions that a number of poems had already been written in Punjabi on the renowned lovers, but this restricted their readership to a Punjabi audience, whereas a Persian version could be read by a larger number of connoisseurs of literature. This throws an intriguing light on the large number of people who were still familiar with Persian at that time, even though a British administrative action had already dealt it a death blow, by taking away from it the status of an official and revenue language.

Kanhaiya Lal served as an engineer in Lahore’s PWD for thirty years, and supervised the construction of many noteworthy buildings in the city, including the Mayo School of Arts, and what is now the Quaid-e-Azam Library on the Upper Mall, originally the Montgomery and Lawrence Halls, which he very skillfully combined into one structure. He also worked on the renovation and repair of remarkable historic edifices such as Dai Anga’s Tomb, the lovely Cypress Tomb of Sharfunissa Begum, the marble tomb of the ill-fated Prince Pervaiz, son of the Emperor Jehangir, and then Jehangir and Asif Jah’s tombs in Shahdara. That he should be put in charge of preserving such significant structures is a mark of the high regard in which he was held by the British authorities.

The ‘Tarikh-e-Lahore’, which was written after his ‘Tarikh-e-Punjab’, begins in the traditional manner, with an invocation to the Almighty, followed by an insight into Kanhaiya Lal’s immediate ancestry. He was the son of Lala Har Narain Kayastha, and a resident of Lahore, the city he was to bring alive so unforgettably in his book, which was concluded in 1884.

He commences by detailing the thirteen gates of the city, giving a brief explanation of each one’s name. This provides the reader with a fascinating cameo of Lahore’s history during the time when these gates were constructed. He then goes on to give a synopsis of Lahore’s past, beginning with the ancient mythical era of pre-history which includes the tale of Luv and Kush, the sons of Rama, who were believed to have been the founders of the cities of Lahore and Qasur. He then continues right up to the nineteenth century, detailing the many attacks on the city over the centuries, from both foreign as well as native aggressors, and makes the reader realise how these affected its unfortunate citizens. He is all too aware of the fate of the average citizen during Lahore’s chequered history, as well as of the fluctuating fortunes of its various rulers. All this is described by him in agonizing detail, and it makes us aware of his intense love for Lahore. This emotion is what shines right through this treasure trove of a book.

Where the city gates are concerned, Kanhaiya Lal describes how the basic current structure of the Lahore Fort owes its existence to the long stay of the Emperor Akbar in Lahore. He had a high wall of baked bricks built around the city, based on the ancient foundations, with thirteen gates constructed all around it, beginning with Delhi Gate. One of these, Sheranwala Gate, is of especial interest, as it had two cages containing live lions placed inside it during the reign of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. These were later removed by the British authorities.

He goes on to note that the city’s history varied between prosperity and destruction, with the most successful periods occurring during the reigns of the four great Mughal Emperors: Akbar, Jehangir, Shahjehan and Aurangzeb. Many large and beautiful residential areas were established outside the city walls, where princes and city noblemen lived, but after Aurangzeb’s death a decline began which finally ended with the establishment of Ranjeet Singh’s rule.

Kanhaiya Lal decribes what he calls the thirteen ‘Sorrows’ which were experienced by the people of Lahore over a period of nine hundred years, beginning with the attack on the city in the eleventh century by Mahmud Ghaznavi, and finally concluding with the looting of the city by Raja Heera Singh’s forces at the time of Maharaja Sher Singh’s arrival in Lahore to take over the reins of government after Ranjeet Singh’s death.

The most distressing of these many sorrows is perhaps the ninth one, when in the sixteenth century Babur entered India and attacked Lahore on two separate occasions, as a show of military strength. The second attack was when he plundered and set fire to Lahore. This was but one example of the many mindless military savageries that beset this city from time to time. Through these examples, Kanhaiya Lal brings the sufferings of the common man into sharp focus, and his humane morality is revealed in this way.

His talent for elegiac tributes can be observed in many sections of the book, but especially in his descriptions of Begumpura and its graveyard, that contained many remnants of Mughal splendour, which were already in a state of disrepair during the nineteenth century. He was asked to repair the magnificent mosque built by Khan Zakariya Khan, the eighteenth century governor of the Punjab, but today once again that mosque lies in ruins.

In some ways the most readable portion of this delightful history is the author’s description of the disreputable Mohammad Sultan Thekedar, a Kashmiri contractor who made his fortune by selling the bricks of dismembered Mughal monuments to the British authorities, including the countless mosques and palaces of Begumpura, and the muhalla of Chowk Dara Shikoh outside Delhi Gate, unrivalled throughout India for its splendour. Muhammad Sultan used these very bricks to construct Landa Bazaar. It was said at the time that his having built his fortune on the ruins of the saintly Prince Dara Shikoh’s muhalla was the cause of his own decline, illness and ultimate death.

This notorious contractor who himself lived inside Delhi Gate, began his business as a trader in soap, and was interested in wrestling as well. He may have been a man who was on the make, but he also constructed many buildings through which people found employment, and was known for his charitable works. However, his insatiable greed was his besetting sin, exhibited in the manner in which he destroyed beautiful buildings such as the legendary Pari Mahal of Nawab Wazir Khan, Governor of Lahore during the reign of Emperor Shahjehan. This palace was situated within the Shahalmi area.

Mohammad Sultan died a pauper. Kanhaiya Lal sums it up thus through a Persian couplet:

Many a flower has blossomed in this garden

To crumble into dust and then decay

His account of the numerous festivals as well as of the many Hindu mandirs that were scattered across the walled city and its environs are an indication, more than anything else, of the sad fact that the old city of Lahore will never be restored. It has vanished forever, like those festivals and those places of worship.

The most important festival of all was the auspicious Bhadar Kali Mela which was celebrated at a distance of six kos from Lahore at the village of Niaz Beg during the month of Jeth, the hottest month of the year. Hindus as well as Muslims from far and wide flocked to this mela in enormous numbers, right up to 1947. It was said to be an ancient festival, though no one knew exactly how old it was. A platform was built at the place of worship, with a small brick canopy on top. The goddess Kali had appeared to her priests in a dream and instructed them not to place her effigy under the grand structure that had earlier been erected for her.

All the way from the city, in order to provide relief from the summer heat, charitable worshippers made arrangements for cold water, sharbat and ground bhang drinks to quench people’s thirst. Ponds and gardens already existed there, and tents were erected for the day and night that the festival lasted. Shops selling sweetmeats did a roaring trade, and the donations to the goddess were lavish enough to support the priests throughout the year. Those devotees who were not able to reach the village of Niaz Beg for the festival would worship at the small Bhadar Kali temple in Mohalla Lakhpat Rai.

Kanhaiya Lal then describes a renowned temple for Kali Devi in the Gumti Bazaar area, called Mata Ki Gali. This temple contained a traditional black marble effigy of the goddess, and was so sacred that people passing by in the street would express obeisance at its entrance if they were not able to go in for some reason. Hindus from outside India would also come to worship at this richly endowed temple.

Though Lahore contained many temples where Shiva, Radha-Krishna and Sita-Ramchandra were worshipped, yet there appears to have been a distinct cult of Kali Devi in this city. There is a statue of the goddess in existence within the foundations of the ancient section of the Lahore Fort, which can be accessed by a wooden staircase. This possibility of a cult surely deserves serious anthropological research.

Another noteworthy festival which was celebrated in Lahore until very recent times is the Basant Mela, associated with Madho Lal Hussain’s mazar. Kanhaiya Lal describes how during the reign of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, the ruler would proceed at the head of a grand procession in the company of Rani Mauran, his Muslim consort, to Shah Hussain’s tomb, after having paid a visit to the Samadhi of the Hindu martyr Haqiqat Rai in Koth Khwaja Saeed where a Basant mela was also taking place. In the former gardens surrounding Shah Hussain’s tomb and in the Shalimar Gardens close by, lavish celebrations took place. It should be noted that during this period the ruler of the Punjab presided over the Basant celebrations, rather than banning all merriment. No better example of eclecticism could surely exist, and one can only mourn the absence of all tolerance and broad-mindedness that is so evident today. Kanhaiya Lal’s history is a lingering memory of all that was once a part of our heritage.

However, having praised Ranjeet Singh for his tolerance, Kanhaiya Lal nevertheless severely condemns him and the Sikha Shahi that preceded him, for the mindless acts of vandalism carried out by them against the ancient monuments of Lahore. The marble of Prince Pervaiz’s tomb was removed and taken to the Golden Temple, and the exquisite tombs of Asif Jah and the Emperor Jehangir were relentlessly stripped of their marble and semi-precious stones, which were also taken to the Golden Temple. Ranjeet Singh then gave Sultan Mohammad Khan, brother of the ruler of Afghanistan, large jagirs in Shahdara. The nobleman and his wild Afghan entourage stayed in Jehangir’s tomb for several years, devastating the building and its gardens completely. These actions must be placed in contrast to the positive elements of Ranjeet Singh’s complicated personality. He regularly donated large sums of money to the tomb of Data Sahib, yet destroyed all the irreplaceable buildings around the area surrounding the tomb. Ruthlessness and generosity battled in equal measure for possession of his soul.

Kanhiaya Lal’s ‘History of Lahore’ may not be as well-known as some of the architectural histories of Delhi, for various academic, political and administrative reasons. However, it is an extremely important document that records the social, cultural and archaeological spirit of a city that has gone forever. People have loved Lahore over the past ages, and many do so even now. It is time that Lahoris wake up to the depredations being meted out to the city due to greed and corruption.

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11 responses to “Rai Bahadur Kanhaiya Lal’s Lahore is gone forever

  1. Beautiful piece, thank you!

  2. Excellent post and article. Thank you.

  3. Excellent piece…

  4. Beautiful Raza….I am dying to learn more about the Kali Devi cult…fascinating! Was a wonderful read and am itching to read Kahaiya Lal’s work now…Lor Lor ay..jinne Lor nai takiya o jamiya nai:)

  5. Thank you so much Salma, for a wonderful article.

  6. Raza, once again a job well done!
    has the book been translated into English?
    also any traces of the ‘Heer in Persian’? Would love to see that too.

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

  8. sh. mohsin jawaid

    nice work,unfortunately the article seems to be on the history of lahore and does not through light on the life of rai bahadur kanhaiya lal hindi.it would be most helpful if his authenticated biography may be added.

  9. Amrendra Kr Srivastava

    Good Article about Rai Bahdur Kanhaiya Lal. For further information, He was First Indian Gradute of Thomson College of Civil Engineering in 1852 [renamed as University of Roorkee in 1949 & further reincarnated/ renamed as Indian Institute of Technology – Roorkee (India) in 2001].
    Still remembered as Notable Alumni alongwith A.N Khosla & Sir Gangaram.

    – Amrendra Kr Srivastava – New Delhi (Graduated in 2003 from same Institute)

    • Javaid Iqbal Waseer

      May Allah rest soul of Rai Bahadur kanahiya Lal in peace . Aamin . I am interested to know when was he died and where are his siblings now in India ? Pls do something collectively to restore Basant festival and walled city as well . Efforts being made by Kamran Lashari are really appreciable .
      Javaid Iqbal Waseer

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