An artist’s canvas

April 17, 2022

The Kala Burj and Seh Dari paintings evince many a question about the vision of not only the emperors and master artists who planned these ‘installations,’ but also the artists who executed these, their involvement in art-making and the materials they used

Kala Burj (Black Tower). — Photos: Supplied
Kala Burj (Black Tower). — Photos: Supplied


n the teaching of art history in Pakistan the Mughal era is strangely skimmed over as if it had no relevance to today’s art. As a result, research, scarce as it is, becomes scarcer where art history is concerned. This is all the more reason to describe some fantastical areas of the Lahore Fort that would invite and intrigue artists of all ages, if only their existence were better known.

Amongst the floral, biomorphic and geometric architectural embellishments, carved sandstone fauna, spectacular pietra-dura and the renowned mirror work of the Sheesh Mahal, a few unusual wall paintings remain enshrouded in mystery at the famed Shahi Qila (Lahore Fort). The Kala Burj and Seh Dari paintings, which have been explored by eminent scholars such as Dr Ebba Koch, Ilay Cooper, Dr Kanwal Khalid, and Dr Mehreen Chida Razvi, have either been closed to the public for long or have been scratched out of existence by the Rimshas and Imrans who so love to leave their mark on our historical monuments.

Kala Burj — Early 17th Century (Jehangir’s Period)

The Kala Burj (Black Tower) is located along the north wall of the Lahore Fort, and is the western counterpart to the Lal Burj (Red Tower), which stands a few metres away.

From the outside, the tower is an unassuming building. Its central chamber has retained the remains of painted layers which illumined the interior, starting from Jehangir’s period and traversing the Sikh and the British eras. The best preserved area of painting remains the dome, which features fantastical creatures, angels, fairies, possibly djinns, serpents, surrounded by peacocks in full plumage, gold stars featuring birds in flight, regularly interspersed with jewels, coloured bio-morphic muqarnas and diamonds.

In some areas, the layers of paint reveal an ochre under-paint, followed by the painted layer of imagery, followed by a layer of blue. The last layer is a white one, said to have been executed by the British (the Fort was converted into barracks and an administrative office), who used the chamber as a bar and were not much enamoured of the murals surrounding them.

As per general Mughal embellishment schemes, the lower half of the chamber is painted with trees, some flowering and others fruiting, followed by a band of animals of the hunt reposing in lush foliage. Above this band is a plinth which juts out, and has been covered with Persian calligraphy, gold painted in cyan-blue letters within the tilli-murabba pattern, possibly an Asjadi qaseeda from the 13th Century, glorifying God’s generosity, and as was the norm in contemporary poetry, simultaneously glorifying the generosity of the emperor.

The calligraphic band creates the line of horizon between the physical and metaphysical realms, and the imagery above the calligraphy is resplendent with more foliage, birds soaring towards angels and fairies, each engrossed in a different activity. Each character has a unique identity. Finally, there are two phoenixes encircling each other in a lapis blue sky in the centre of the dome.

Through the magnificent, opulent and naturalistic paintings of the Kala Burj, Emperor Jehangir seems to have recreated a fantastical image of his world, both physical and spiritual. One can only imagine what the impact of the chamber may have been in its heyday. The attention to detail and the quality of painting is as breathtaking as any Mughal painting found on paper.

A striking feature of the angelic creatures is the development of painting style, of which parallels are found in album paintings from the period.

Seh Dari (Three-door Pavilion) — Early 17th Century

Seh Dari (Three-door Pavilion).
Seh Dari (Three-door Pavilion).

Also entrenched in the north wall of the Fort, is the Seh Dari or Seh Dara (three-door pavilion). Its condition is dismal. It is open to the public.

The Seh Dari differs from the Burj in the intimacy of space provided by the small chambers. The building features three domed chambers, the central one being the largest with the highest ceiling. Arched entrances are placed on the three sides which open into the Diwan-i-Khas quadrangle, while the fourth side features geometrically carved sandstone screens which would have aired the cool breeze of the river Ravi before it changed its course.

The disintegrating walls can in this case be considered fortunate, as they reveal extraordinary paintings on previously hidden layers. The interior of the entire pavilion seems to have been repainted a number of times. Its function prior to the Sikh era, when it was used as an office, is unclear.

An artist’s canvas

The central chamber features painted panels with intricate borders. The wall panels consist of figural paintings, at variance in scale, style and palette of the usual Mughal/ South Asian idiom.

The five remaining painted panels are painted on the walls just below the dome. Each panel features a unique male figure, robed, bearded and holding a different symbolic item in its hand. The most visible painting is that of a heavily robed, capped and bearded figure with long flowing hair, painted in black, showing a green cassock and gold trimmings. In his hand he’s holding a papal triple cross, the gold of which still glows here and there. He is painted looking at a book which is placed on a table towards the bottom edge of the frame.

Another bearded figure has a long white beard and is leaning on a brown staff which he holds with cupped hands. A seated figure in a pink robe holding a book with a gold border adorns another panel. Like the faces of all the other surviving paintings, his face has been scratched out completely.

Apart from the startling divergence in imagery from the general Mughal norm, the aesthetic refinement is congruent with the manner defined by Mughal painting. Unfortunately, as can be seen in the pictures, most of the paintings have fallen victim to vandalism, and not much evidence remains of what may have been there.

A saintly panel bordered by typical Mughal biomorphics. Papal cross in hand.
A saintly panel bordered by typical Mughal biomorphics. Papal cross in hand. 

The Kala Burj and Seh Dari paintings evince many questions about the vision of not only the emperors and master artists who planned these “installations,” but also the artists who executed those, their involvement in art-making and the materials they used. They seem to have experimented with medium, technique and imagery, executed in so superb a manner that only those with acute knowledge and experience could produce.

The layers of paint and the erasing may hold a clue to why as a nation we are what we are today.

The writer is a PhD candidate at Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, Colombo

An artist’s canvas