A visit to a Lahore monument leads to lessons in history and sociology
uring my research for my MA thesis titled Domes at Lahore under the supervision of Waliullah Khan, I discovered many domes in Lahore, especially in the royal necropolis in Mughalpura. Ali Mardan Khan’s tomb is the tallest in Lahore. It is located on Grand Trunk Road in front of the University of Engineering and Technology, facing the Gulabi Bagh gateway and behind the Buddhu ka Awa. Finding one’s way to it is quite a struggle. There is something paradoxical about its high visibility and the difficulty of access.
When the largest locomotive workshop in South Asia was founded in Lahore during the second half of the Nineteenth Century, this imposing tomb came to be surrounded by the railway junkyard. The Archaeology Department negotiated long with the North Western Railways for access to it. Finally, a narrow lane - not more than six feet wide and nearly half a kilometre long, was provided between two walls. A tightly knit steel mesh formed its roof to prevent pilferage of steel from the decommissioned railway carriages. (Oral history suggests us that the pilferage went on and that many a local industrialist benefitted from the larceny.) The Archaeology Department also carried out some repairs to this tomb. The interventions have been documented.
As I cycled to the entrance, I was greeted by its watchman, who hailed from the Northern Areas. Gulab Khan eventually became my lifelong friend. For many months, I visited this bewitching monument almost every day. It looked haunted. It also looked interesting. Surrounded by a quadrangle, it was originally located in a vast garden with probably four gates, of which only one in the north has survived. The triple-arched entrance is double-storied. On the outside, it is covered with very eye-catching kashi kari, with floral motifs cut individually and pieced together. This gate faces the GT Road.
The main tomb is a monument of great importance. It is raised over an octagonal high plinth approached by steps from four sides. There is a small water tank with indications of a fountain. The structure itself is three-storied. It has a well-lit basement with a sloping aperture on four sides. Ali Mardan Khan built this tomb for his mother, who lies buried in the centre. When Ali Mardan Khan died in Kabul in 1657, his body was brought to Lahore to be interred beside his mother. The third grave is much smaller and seems to be that of an unknown child.
Islam does not encourage sepulchral architecture. However, over the centuries, this gradually became the norm. The earliest known tomb of a Muslim ruler was Qubbat-us Sulebia, in which caliph Mustansir was interred in 862 AD. It was built in Summara. Its octagonal chamber is topped by a dome. It was likely inspired by the Dome of Rock, built in 691 AD in Jerusalem. The octagon topped by a dome became very popular later in South Asia, especially in Lahore. Tombs of Asif Jah, Shah Abul Muaali and Anarkali are examples of this. Ali Mardan Khan, too, chose this design.
Ali Mardan Khan’s tomb is the tallest in Lahore. It is located on Grand Trunk Road in front of the University of Engineering and Technology, facing the Gulabi Bagh gateway and behind the Buddhu ka Awa.
Ethnically, Ali Mardan was a Kurd. He had been a favourite of the Safavid king, who had appointed him as governor of Kandahar. Ali Mardan Khan switched sides in 1638 and handed the province over to the Moghuls. In return, he was appointed to important positions in the Moghul empire. He is said to have been an expert in hydraulic sciences and architecture. He is credited with building the Shalamar Bagh and Shah Nehr to irrigate it. He had also built a garden with canals in Qandhar. He had a genuine aesthetic sense of landscape architecture, and many monumental buildings are attributed to him. Perhaps the best one he built was for his mother.
The tomb bears a strong resemblance to that of Asif Jah. The octagonal structure is three-storied, comprising the basement, the main tomb structure and a double dome making the third storey. The eight sides are formed by recessed arched. The actual entrance has a small window. The high dome is covered with very thick stucco mouldings depicting grape vines, which are also found in Asif Jah’s tomb. There are stairs leading to the windows, which form a gallery around it. More stairs give access to the flat upper storey around the high neck of the bulbous covering dome. On one side of the neck is a window leading to the inside space between the two domical roofs. There is a prominent ring where the neck joins the dome on the outside. This device is called a cavetto (hollowed-out joint) for the bulb of the dome. There are some holes all along the ring. These may have been provided as expansion joints. All eight corners of the structure had a small cupola or small dome, each supported by eight small arches or chhatris. Only three have survived.
The dome was likely adorned with black marble inlaid with oval motifs. The entire building seems to have been adorned with inlaid marble cladding that was removed during the Sikh period. The saddest part of the story is that the materials were torn ruthlessly, leaving not many clues or traces. Some repairs were carried out in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Recently a repair budget has been approved and the work is about to be undertaken. A word of caution is in order. While whole spaces are being scraped and redone for the missing frescoes the under the arches, the surviving original pieces need to be retained for authentic reference. In my discussions with Asim Dogar, I found some approaches questionable. The constraints imposed by the Charter of Venice seem to have been ignored. I did not get to talk to the project director, Architect Malik Maqsud. Ms Zobia, a professor of visual arts, tried to discuss the sanctity of the original pieces, but to no avail. The dome has been the abode for thousands of small bats for generations. Their droppings cover the whole floor. Once the repairs got underway, the nocturnal mammals emigrated.
This column is dedicated to Gulistan Khan, a watchman at Ali Mardan’s tomb.
Postscript: Following the publication of my column, When Rosemary Tylka visited Lahore, somebody forwarded the piece to her. This thoughtful action has brought us in touch after thirty-four years.
The writer is a painter, a founding member of the Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of the NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at email@example.com