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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 25 New Delhi June 13, 2015

Passage to Lahore: A Mughal City

Saturday 13 June 2015

by Chitralekha Zutshi

I recently spent a week in Lahore. This was my first trip to the city and indeed also to Pakistan. As I crossed over the Wagah border from Amritsar into Lahore, I had no idea what to expect. A few weeks before the crossing, I had attended the flag-lowering ceremony at Wagah, which is usually how Indians usually interact, if at all, with this border. After having experie-nced this overly histrionic nationalist ceremony that included the requisite amount of drum-beating, flag-waving, and slogan-shouting on both sides of the border, I was admittedly a bit apprehensive about actually walking over to the other side.

To most Indians, even liberal ones, Pakistan remains shrouded in a spectre of state-sponsored terrorism, extra-judicial killings, military dictator-ship, and always, its role in Kashmir. In part this is because these are the only images of Pakistan we see in the media. A case in point is the media’s whipping up of jingoistic sentiments at the waving of Pakistani flags at recent rallies in Srinagar, shrilly calling for the arrest of the participants. And this despite the fact that Kashmiris have been waving Pakistani flags for one reason or another since the late 1940s. Perhaps we need Pakistan to represent everything that we do not want to be, or at least everything we claim not to be. It remains for us, thus, after almost 70 years of independence and partition, a necessary enemy.

Borders are designed to remind those crossing them of their nationality and hence otherness. I too was intensely aware that I was an Indian crossing over into Pakistan, if only because of the number of times I had to show my passport on both sides to have its details recorded in one dusty ledger or another. And yet, the gates that had been firmly shut not so long ago when I had witnessed the flag ceremony were now wide open as a few people walked across in groups or by themselves. As I hung back to observe and absorb the scene, it appeared shockingly sedate and matter-of-fact compared to the nationalist frenzy of the ceremony. One minute I was in India, and the next minute my feet were touching the soil of Pakistan. Even as the portrait of Jinnah greeted me, I turned around to see the portrait of Gandhi fading in the distance.

My first observation about Lahore was that it was clean, surprisingly free of stray animals, whether dogs, cows, or monkeys. Once in the old, walled city, I realised that Lahore was a Mughal city par excellence. While Delhi is a palimpsest of so many different kingdoms and empires, including the Mughals, over the centuries, old Lahore felt intensely Mughal. One only has to glance at the seventeenth-century Mughal histories to recognise that the Mughals, especially Shah Jahan, who born in Lahore, adored the city, and, not surprisingly, adorned it lovingly with the most beautiful architecture.

The Lahore Fort and Badshahi Masjid form the core of the Mughal presence in the city. The Fort, which pre-dates the Mughals, encompasses three generations of Mughal rule in Lahore—Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. Although the first fortifications and building programmes in the fort were undertaken by Akbar, who lived intermi-ttently in the fort for about 12 years, the most visible buildings within the fort are from the period of Shah Jahan. These include remnants of palaces, the Char Bagh, garden pavilions, Diwan-i-Am, Diwan-i-Khas, and a stunning Sheesh Mahal. The splendour of these buildings, with their striking tilework that represent human and animal scenes and intricately inlaid marble panels, is still visible in places.

The Badshahi Masjid, opposite the Lahore Fort, and resplendent in red sandstone with marble domes, was built by Aurangzeb in the 1670s. It remains the fifth largest mosque in the world. Although it looks austere from a distance, at closer quarters one is struck by its highly ornate gateway, made entirely of finely carved and painted red sandstone. Once inside, the inlaid marble decorations and painted ceilings in a baroque style are unlike any other mosque from the Mughal period.

Two other Mughal-era buildings of Lahore are worth mentioning. The Wazir Khan mosque, built by Wazir Khan, Shah Jahan’s Governor in Lahore from 1632 to 1639, is the most beautiful mosque I have ever seen. In part this is because the striking exterior tilework in blue and yellow as well as the interior ceiling paintings retain much of their original colour and beauty (due to recent restoration) and remind one of what Mughal buildings must have looked like when first constructed.

Jahangir’s tomb is another building that retains much of its original splendour. Located in Shahdara, some distance from the Fort, the tomb was built under Shah Jahan’s direction. Entirely in marble, the structure’s entrance is carved with inlay work representing scenes of the earthly paradise, Kashmir, which Jahangir loved to visit. The stonework on the actual tomb is almost in pristine condition, and as the sunlight seeping through the latticework plays off the red, blue, and green gemstones, the effect is dazzling.

Of course Lahore is much more than the old Mughal city. The Sikhs carried out their own construction in the city, which was their capital, but not much of this architecture remains. The city also has a significant number of colonial buildings, not least of which are the Lahore Museum and Aitchison College, both dating from the late nineteenth century. Gulberg is the commercial heart of the city that also includes posh residential areas. Indeed some residents of this new Lahore may never visit the old city at all in their lifetimes.

Lahore was an intense experience, even for a seasoned traveller like myself. It was like and yet unlike Delhi. The thread of the Mughal past runs through both cities, and the old and new co-exist comfortably and sometimes uncomfortably in both, but Lahore displays a sense of pride in its architectural heritage, evident in its level of preservation and cleanliness, which is missing in many Indian cities, including Delhi. Lahore is not all of Pakistan, but surely we can learn something from it. As the Punjabi saying goes, “You haven’t been born until you’ve been to Lahore.”

Dr Chitralekha Zutshi is a Professor, Department of History, the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virgina (USA). A Senior Research Fellow (2014-15) at the American Institute of Indian Studies, she is the Associate Editor, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. She is also the author of the most recent publication, Kashmir’s Contested Pasts: Narratives, Social Geographies and the Historical Imagination.