The land grab at the GFJC

August 1, 2021

Dr Ajaz Anwar talks of the massacre of historical monuments and the free reign enjoyed by land mafias, with special focus on the Government Fatima Jinnah College, situated inside the Kashmiri Gate, in Chuna Mandi

The octagonal tower in ancient bricks, encroached by modern bricks. — Image: Supplied
The octagonal tower in ancient bricks, encroached by modern bricks. — Image: Supplied

The Walled City of Lahore has many havelis, the largest and most historic being the one identified with Asif Jah that is now home to a girls’ college, named Government Fatima Jinnah College. Situated inside the Kashmiri Gate, in an area popularly known as Chuna Mandi, not far from the Lahore Fort, the place was built over a steep mound. It is surrounded by a thick wall, supported by semi-octagonal turrets at various intervals.

High, fort-like gates on the northern and southern sides provide access to the college.

The written and folk history tells us that this serai was built by Asif Jah. It served as a rest house for the petitioners seeking an audience with the king at the Diwan-i-Aam inside the Fort close by. It has several large halls and beautiful jharokas, more like shah-nasheens, open courts and other chambers, and a large, fully functional hammam (bath) for the guests.

Currently, the main entrance is through the gate on the northern side. A steep ramp leads to the open court that has an inner, equally imposing gate beyond which you find the various halls, residential chambers and the hammam.

Asif Jah was the most important man in the administration of his son-in-law, Shah Jahan. He helped Prince Khurram prevail in the war of succession against his sister Nur Jahan who wanted Prince Shehryar to marry her daughter, Ladli Begum and succeed Jahangir. Thus, Khurram, who was born in Lahore, ascended the throne in the very city and assumed the title of Shah-i-Jahan. The rest is history, known too well.

When Asif Jah died, the emperor was deeply grieved and said, “Zahe afsos, Asif Khan!” He built a tomb for him with a unique bulbous, double dome of amroodi shape, the like of which isn’t found anywhere in the world.

After the fall of the Mughal empire, in due time, along with other buildings, the serai came to be occupied by the Sikhs. During the early days of the British Raj, the place is believed to have served as the residence of the officers who built a badminton court inside a levelled-up water tank.

Not unlike Lahore Fort, many frescoes in the serai halls were whitewashed. In 1864, a public college was founded here. Later, it was converted into a police station like the Sheikhupura fort and many other historical buildings. The monument, thus, suffered great damage, only to be retrieved after the Antiquities Act, 1975, was enforced.

I remember taking my respected teacher, Prof Dogan Kuban, to the serai, circa 1981. It stood majestically in an open area with no settlements, or shops, abutting it. We were able to drive right up to its two gates. Nowadays, negotiating your way through the narrow lanes is a herculean task.

The Walled City of Lahore suffered a lot in the Partition riots. The tragic events in 1947 led to the gutting of a large portion of Shahalami. Though its gate had survived, it was demolished during the rebuilding activity later on. It could have been enclosed in a roundabout, as they have done with the Turkman Gate in New Delhi.

The double road, built to cut through the old settlements, was a big mistake. Later, Azam Cloth Market sounded the death knell for the Walled City. It started a tussle among the residential and commercial areas, with the citizens continuously losing ground. Eventually, most of the old houses were sold off and pulled down to expand the cloth market that continues to expand.

Few old residents have got ownership papers. Most sales are performed verbally, with a share for the local mafias. As the land became scarcer, driving the prices sky-high, all illegal means were resorted to, including arm-twisting. Today, the prices aren’t fixed by kanals or marlas but per square foot. Most shops being built there have basements, sometimes three-storey deep. The structures could collapse any day. The lanes are too narrow, and their curves make rescue work in the event of a fire or something impossible.

Depopulated areas are a no-go at night time when ‘anti-social’ elements reign supreme.

The serai, once cleared, was used by influential parties as a venue for events. Some 20 years ago, a multi-national company arranged a musical night for which guests were shuttled in colourful tongas to hear Bushra Ansari sing. Incidentally, the area is considered a PML-N stronghold. Shehbaz Sharif is credited with restoring the serai and setting up a girls’ college which he named after his brother, Nawaz Sharif (though the later never made any donation to the place.) With the change in political alleys, the college was rechristened Government Fatima Jinnah College for Women.

Because of this intervention, the college, which once stood in an open field, is now surrounded by a horde of shops as well as banks, while the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA) looks the other way.

In fact, the Authority wanted to set up a hotel on the premises of the haveli but the idea was strongly opposed by the civil society and bureaucracy. The southern wall, in particular, came to be occupied by clusters of shops which were named the New Azam Cloth Market.

Shops abutted its peripheral wall and, at many places, the ancient bricks were removed to create voids for illegal structures. A shrine can now be spotted in a place thus carved.

The locals did not have the courage to raise objections. Many of them are believed to be among the beneficiaries.

The Punjab Special Premises (Preservation) Ordinance, 1985, prohibits any such construction around the protected monuments, but who cares. The Archaeology Department should own its responsibility. More recently, an incident of land grabbing was reported. Thankfully, action was taken by the authorities and the police. A large, reinforced concrete slab, supported by pillars and beams, had already been laid in the dead of the night. A basement under it was also being planned. The back wall was already stressed and buckled. The police cordoned off the entire area but the building material still lies at the site to be used at an opportune moment.

Two members of the Lahore Conservation Society (LCS), namely, architect Fauzia Qureshi and environmentalist Naeem Bajwa, braved the hot and humid weather to inspect the violation while the college was closed, and prepared a video report to be shared with the other members.

I too visited the site. It turned out to be a highly educative tour. I found that all the shops and markets, especially along the southern wall, were illegally built on state/heritage land. There’s no question of any one having any ownership papers for these encroachments. Even the octagonal towers have been incorporated in the illegal double-storey structures, some having basements dug into the foundations of the historic serai.

Trees are rare in this area, but I found a banyan tree taking root in the ancient walls of the place. Water from food and tea stalls was also seen seeping into the foundations of the building.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Prof Saadia Shaikh who died in a road accident while returning from the GFJC)

The writer is a painter, a 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]

The land grab at the GFJC