harking back : Constant decay of ‘World Heritage Sites’ of Lahore

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, May 4, 2014


When the British pushed the railway line westwards, the numerous Mughal era monuments to the west of Lahore were damaged. At Shahdara the line cut through the exquisite Dilkusha Bagh, which housed the mausoleums of Emperor Jahangir, his wife Noor Jehan, and her brother Asif Khan.

The damaged done then, and before the British by the Sikh rulers when they removed major portions of marble slabs with precious stone inlays, as also fine sandstone, defaced these World Heritage Sites.

The tragedy is that though the British had a reputation for caring for heritage, the reality with regard to these three sites was otherwise. After 1947, one would have thought that some semblance of care for Muslim heritage sites would come through, but the reality proved otherwise.

In this piece, let us concentrate on the exquisite mausoleum of Asif Khan, the Governor of Lahore from 1636 to 1641, whose real name was Abul Hasan ibn Mirza Ghiyas Beg. He was the elder brother of Empress Noor Jehan, and his beautiful daughter Arjumand Bano Begum was the wife of Emperor Shah Jehan, whom he named Mumtaz Mahal, and on whose death he built the famous Taj Mahal at Agra.

When Asif Khan was killed in battle against Raja Jagat Singh Pathania on 12 June 1641, Shah Jehan built his mausoleum next to the Akbari Sarai and the tomb of Jahangir. Later on when Noor Jehan died her tomb was also built in the Dilkusha Bagh just beyond that of her elder brother.

The mausoleum had the finest marble and precious stones inlaid, and the outer was of red sandstone. The tiles were typical Lahori blue ‘kashi’ and the octagonal structure is in small brickwork, which had an excellent waterwork with a filtration plant which led to a reservoir to ensure that the fountains always had sparkling water.

These also fed a fruit garden and beautiful grass lawns. Contained in a huge outer wall, it was, many descriptions claim, more beautiful than the one built for Jahangir.

The first damage to this structure was during the ruler of the three Sikh rulers, who removed major marble slabs. Come the time of Ranjit Singh (1799-1839) almost the entire outer layers were removed and taken to Amritsar. The only things that remained intact were the highly placed blue ‘kashi’ tiles.

The railway line cut through the tombs of brother and sister, with the tremors damaging all three structures every time a train passed, and hundreds of thousands have passed, and continue to still today.

To the north of the outer walls, a huge ‘katchi abadi’ came up after 1947, which today have encroached into the walls of the monuments. The damage continues even today.

After the Sikhs reduced it to a mere empty structure, the British cut a rail line through the garden and then after 1947 illegal structures keep on encroaching, which with greased palms acquire a ‘legal’ status.

While researching for this piece I happened to come across a photograph taken of the structure in 1880. It paints a pathetic picture of utter neglect. A similar photograph taken in 2014 is somewhat similar, only the damage is clearly greater.

To understand the issues involved I went to see the mausoleum on Saturday. The drive from GT Road to the tomb of Jahangir presents problems of its own, with illegal housing and commercial structures, in utter violation of the 200 meters ban on all structures from World Heritage Sites, blocking the way.

The road size has been squeezed and the activities certainly damage the structures, not to speak of the constant vibration that the railways produce.

The new road build as an underpass makes approaching the sites better from the western portion, of this there is no doubt. But the immediate neighbourhood, especially to the north, poses a constant threat.

The condition of the mausoleum of Asif Khan seems to get worse with every passing year, and it is time some programme was put into action to save this exquisite structure.

Mind you the government is legally bound to do something to save World Heritage Sites. Some work, of a reasonable quality, has been undertaken on one portion of the mausoleum of Jahangir, but this small patch of ‘good work’ makes the remaining stand out starkly. In the case of Asif Khan it is one massive stark structure begging to be saved.

The tomb of his sister Noor Jehan, across the railway line, has some modern paintwork done, damaging the original. It is about time these three structures were taken over as one massive work. But with the Lahore Fort also slowly crumbling, it is a matter of priority for our rulers. Surely culture and heritage remain low on the list of the rulers, no matter who they be.




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