Hiran Minar, a political satire

February 16, 2020

Shaikhu Baba, as Mughal Prince Saleem was reverently addressed in his childhood, was fond of flora and fauna. The Mughal school of miniature paintings was founded by painters Shah Tehmasp asked to accompany Humayun as a parting gift. It climaxed during the reign of Jahangir. Large albums illustrating botanical and zoological subjects were produced during this period, so was portraiture.

— Image: Supplied

Shaikhu Baba, as Mughal Prince Saleem was reverently addressed in his childhood, was fond of flora and fauna. The Mughal school of miniature paintings was founded by painters Shah Tehmasp asked to accompany Humayun as a parting gift. It climaxed during the reign of Jahangir. Large albums illustrating botanical and zoological subjects were produced during this period, so was portraiture.

Lahore had two very important milestones. One of these was Delhi 311 Miles, in front of Ritz cinema on McLeod Road, which was gutted in the wake of the Orange Train fiasco. The other was Zero Mile that stood in the shadow of the Government College wall the facing district courts. It displayed distances in miles to all the various cities of the then West Pakistan. Mile 1 was on Ravi Road, opposite Khan Bahadur Abdur Rehman Chughtai’s house; Mile 2 was alongside Shish Mahal hosiery; and Mile 3 was in the middle of the Ravi bridge, which had been declared dangerous, yet not decommissioned at the time; here, the Lahore district ended; and beyond it was Shaikhupura district. The Zero Mile was tragically removed while widening the Lower Mall. One of the cities mentioned on it was Shaikhupura 24 Miles, but I always interpreted it as Hiran Minar, which is another six miles from the place.

The name comes from Shaikhu; while “Pura” is Turkish for “here.”

My childhood memories of the time remain fresh. One event that I remember was when my father’s friend, Zia Naqvi, came to visit Pakistan in 1953, along with his British wife. My father took his college mate from Ludhiana days out for a picnic cum fishing trip to Hiran Minar. Mr Brown, a fireman at NWR had gladly lent his Vauxhall. Also sardined into the car were Mrs Alys Faiz and her two little daughters.

Ignoring the minaret, my father went for his rod and cast the line, aspiring to catch the biggest. He did land one, which he tied to a ‘leash’ and handed over to me. I merrily took it around the big water tank. The fish was in swimming mode, while I preferred to walk on the land. Just as my father asked me to come back, I let it go. Once released, it happily swam away bestowing upon me flying kisses, I am sure.

Mr Naqvi fetched us the landing net, and tried to pull it from the vast water. But it was an unequal match. Some fifty years later, when he came to visit us again, and stayed at Chamba House in GOR 1, he reminisced the incident with a big laugh. “We caught a fish after a huge effort, and Ajaz let it go,” he recalled.

It was a delightful moment. The fish could not have been more delicious had we fried it.

Mr Naqvi’s now grown-up daughter Muneeza Naqvi, a laureate fiction writer settled in England, too laughed.

All these years I have made four trips to Hiran Minar on my bicycle and tried to locate the fish that must have grown big considerably. On one such trip, I chose to visit the Shaikhupura Fort, only to find it sadly colonised by a police station. The SHO of the police station was kind enough to greet me because as a 16-year-old I had cycled all those 24 miles. But he wouldn’t let me see the prohibited area, which is famous for being Mai Jindaan’s last refuge. Nor did he consent to my making a sketch of it (a high security situation that I faced years later while visiting the Tower of Ghazni and the Fort of Aleppo built by Salahuddin Ayubi). The world-famous murals/frescoes inside the fort became the subject of Prof Khalid Mahmud’s doctoral thesis.

In 1984, my teachers Professors Cevat Erder and Dogan Kuban came from Turkey. I took them to the vacated fort as well as to Hiran Minar. They were much impressed by the subject matter of the wall paintings. To them, Hiran Minar was a perfect picnic spot, the likes of which are not to be found anywhere in the world. For them, it surpassed even the Hauz-e-Khas at Delhi (built by Ferozshah Tughlaq, circa 1375).

The complex is best viewed from the minaret. It still is surrounded by vast thickets and trees. The large water tank, measuring 750 by 895 feet, is defined by four small pavilions with pyramidal roofs. A ramp descends into the water from the centre of each side. A monumental gate is set off-centre of one side. The arrangements seem to facilitate the wild animals to drink water. An octagonal pavilion has been built in the off-centre. It is three storied, topped by a dome, and bears much resemblance to the library in Delhi from which Humayun had a fatal fall. This pavilion and the gate are connected with a bridge built over a series of arches the central one of which is protruding (this arrangement later inspired the Jahangir’s tomb, discussed in the previous dispatch). There are stairs for all the storeys but the risers of the steps are much too high and inconvenient.

The minaret has a raised platform on one side, over which once stood a statue of a deer, it is said. The complex derives its name from it.

The surrounding forest used to be a hunting resort. During one of his hunting trips, Jahangir is said to have caught hold of an aggressive deer and took fancy to it when it domesticated itself in a very short time. Jahangir named it Mansiraj. When it died, upon completion of its natural life cycle, the emperor was much grieved, and ordered to build its tomb.

To understand the complex one needs to go down history which, intentionally or unintentionally, seems to be more of a political satire. Shershah Suri who had ordered the city of Lahore to be razed to the ground, himself died in a gun-powder blast at Sahsaram, Bihar. He was buried there in an octagonal tomb inside a vast water tank. Mughals could not have been happier for what he did to Humayun. As such, Jahangir built Mansiraj’s tomb complex resembling that of Shershah. The minaret has six-sided ground storey, over which there is a 24-side second storey. The subsequent stories are cylindrical; each of them is marked by a slightly projecting ring. There are windows at levels dictated by the spiral stairs on the inside. The top is open to the sky, not covered by any roof or dome — it is reminiscent of the original design of Minar-i-Pakistan designed by Murat Han, where he did not want it to be covered by a dome as it was subsequently done, contrary to his envisaged shape; he wanted his design to show further growth (a topic to be discussed with his daughter Meral).

The body of the minaret has small square holes that accommodated bamboo scaffoldings. These holes also serve as expansion joints during changing heat patterns and humidity. (Parrots don’t build nests, they nestle in the hollows of tree trunks. In this minaret, they resided in the square holes when they flourished in large numbers. Today, their numbers have dwindled.)

To interpret this as a Mongol skulls’ minaret would be too rude. Though history has mostly been written by the victors, Mongols got a very bad press (ref: Tariq Ali). This minaret may resemble some tower tombs in Erzerum, or Gaur-e-Mir, or Gumbad-e-Qaboos. Though, its function is still not clear. It is certainly not a watch tower or kos minar. It is only a commemorative landmark dedicated to the antelope.

The tank was supplied with water through an elaborate hydraulic system of smaller tanks linked to drains which ultimately descended into the tank. Nowadays, water is supplied through electric tube wells. The Fisheries Department regulates the anglers, as they did once at the Waris Road water tank before the latter filled up with garbage to be usurped at an opportune moment.

The Shaikhupura Road in good old days passed through verdant fields. Any construction within 120 feet from the centre of the road was prohibited. There were many streams with pristine clear waters, including Bhed, Choati, and Barri Dek. Now these fine fishing places have been polluted, and all the picturesque landscape has been replaced by factories and brick-kilns belching out thick black smoke containing high levels of nitrogen dioxide contributing to air pollution that cost the world $2.9 tr last year (ref: news item, printed on February 12).


This dispatch is dedicated to Zia Naqvi

The writer is a painter, the founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Note: Free art classes at the House of NANNAs on Sundays. No age bar. Benches are provided. Bring your own lunch.

Reminder: Lahore Conservation Society meeting on February 26 at Tollinton Market. Time: 3pm. This week’s agenda includes: Reference in memory of Haji Fazal Karim; and elections of 12 board members of the LCS. Open to all

Hiran Minar, a political satire