Lahore has been my city ever since -- V

November 3, 2019

Painter and conservationist Dr Ajaz Anwar dedicates this dispatch to Mahnaz Rafi, one of the earliest PTV artistes, a resident of Chauburji Park that was built on leased land which cannot be transferred or sold because it is an archaeological site

Lahore has been my city ever since -- V

Egyptian Pyramids have long been associated with the dead and, hence, the shape has been used in tombs variously in many countries. Lahore, too, had its share especially in the tombs of Zaibun Nisa, Sharafun Nisa and in the shrine of Mian Mir. A more modern version was used in the construction of Qutbuddin Aibak’s tomb.

It may be recollected that this first king of the Slave dynasty died in Lahore while playing polo, and was buried in this very ground. It remained a simple grave because his successors Altutmish or Razia Sultana did not have time to attend to it. Over time it came to be surrounded by small houses as the city spilled outside the walls. It was only during the early 1960s that the houses encroaching upon it were bought and the grave salvaged. Under Waliullah Khan’s supervision a plan was drafted, inspired from the mosque and tomb of Nasiruddin Mahmud Sultan Ghari, Delhi. An eight-side pyramidal roof was used as a source of reference to surmount Qutb’s tomb in Lahore. True arch and dome had not been introduced in Delhi and elsewhere in the subcontinent till the construction of Alauddin Balban’s tomb in 1280.

Zaibun Nisa’s tomb is different in the sense that it has a proper dome on the inside supported by squinches at the corners of the square chamber. On the outside the dome was given a curvilinear pyramidal shape. Same is true of the simpler pyramidal roof of Hz. Mian Mir.

Over a century later when the tower was built for Sharafun Nisa, a similar pattern was followed (she was later interned in it).

The tower itself was a new shape in this part of the world. Tower-tombs had their origins in the tomb of Oljeitu, Sultaniya, Iran (1007); followed by tower-tombs in eastern Turkey. Sharafun Nisa, sister of Khan Bahadur Nawab Khan, seems to enjoy a privileged status. It’s a one-storey high solid tower over which another room has been built with a single entrance to be accessed by a ladder. Here she had a jewelled sword and a copy of the Holy Quran that she recited. It was here that she was buried along with these, according to her wishes and the entrance was walled up. A fairly large garden had already had been laid out around it.

The upper portion of the structure has green cypress motifs in glazed tiles; hence, people forgot her name, and it came to be known as Saru Wala Maqbara. Oral history, however, gave it a romantic twist. This scribe saw this place all green till the 1960s and even 70s. It was only after a sizeable chunk of its land was given to the then high priest of Lahore for a pittance, who afterwards sold it off, that small houses mushroomed around it ignoring the mandatory distance from a historical monument. Resultantly, now one has to seek directions to visit it.

Lahore Conservation Society’s scheduled monthly meeting was held at Zaibun Nisa’s tomb, to get on-the-spot feedback. Archaeology director and architect Maqsud Malick and his team welcomed the members. But the site presented the Sobha Singh’s haunted legacy. Overshadowed by the Orange Train pillars and beams, it is a tale of broad daylight land grab. The encroaching furniture and timbre merchants have registration khasra numbers. They legally own what the site clearly demonstrates as part of the tomb. Entry to the protected site has been blocked from all sides, making it a land-locked territory.

The archaeology department, with greatest of persuasions and hard bargaining have purchased a chunk of their own (rather national) land to gain access. Yet there were more troubles to come. Encroachers with no legal rights have gone to the courts, thus preventing the department from putting a gate on the land thus acquired. There are domed pavilions on the backside which all are now inaccessible and walled up.

It presents the look of an occupied territory. To see traces of these pavilions, one has to circumvent the back alleys. Even the area secured by the wall have windows and air-conditioning units peeping through. The ancient well, though not functional any more, is secure. The ancient peepal tree seems to be some two centuries old, only some of its trunks have been butchered. The neem and beri too have survived the ravages of time, as seen in SM Latif’s 1892 book.

Architect Maqsud Malick showed us around. He has done a commendable job by securing the courtyard and carrying out scientific research before restoring it. Though, I have some reservations on his approach between minimum and maximum intervention -- the main structure on the outside and inside has been minimally interfered.

The foundations have been secured and strengthened with Fatehpur Sikri red sandstone. Drain pipes, in the same hardy stone, have been provided at four corners of the parapets. On the inside too, taking cue from the bits and pieces surviving here and there, the delicate patterns have been revived. No record exists as to who lies buried here, but the delicate, inter-lacing geometric star patterns in most creative shapes suggest the person had a very high taste and place among the royalty and that could only be Zaibun Nisa who as luck would have it was denied a chance to be buried here.

The grave in marble has been provided only recently. It has been kept simple yet elegant. All openings have been fitted with grills, again in red sandstone. It is safe from pigeons (rats with wings) and the delinquents.

While thanking for the opportunity to see the good work being done there, prayers were offered for a successful, favourable conclusion of court cases, towards which accompanying member Mirza Zia ur Rehman had assured us.

Maqsud Malick suggested the next meeting of LCS be held at Nur Jahan’s tomb. The next "last Wednesday of the month" being November 27, anniversary functions at the House of Nannas, to which all members of LCS and the interested ones were/are invited, it was decided to meet at Nur Jahan’s on December 25, which incidentally is a public holiday. Sharafun Nisa, Kurri Bagh, Buddhan Shah, Mai Laado, and Dai Aanga, all power-wielding ladies are also on the list.

To be continued

Lahore has been my city ever since -- V