Harking Back: Research possibilities in our barren cultural space

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Nov 23 , 2014


It is now an established ‘truth’ -- if that can ever be pinned down in exact terms -- that great nations remain ‘great’ based on their ability to carry out research in all the major sciences. Even the word ‘Iqra’, the first word uttered by the ‘Almighty’ to all Major Prophets, in classical Arabic means ‘research’.

If the ‘once walled’ city of Lahore was comparatively analysed in its pre-Akbar and post-Akbar shapes, we come across an amazing picture of a city that has since evolved along two separate, yet parallel, paths.

The amalgamation of these two is what Lahore is all about. Among the few serious researchers of the city of Lahore is the talented architect Sohail Saeed, who while researching the ethos of various world cities at Bartlett at the University College London focused on the city of his birth.

His 1993 thesis is titled: ‘The City of Lahore: trans-cultural space in historic perspective’.

Sohail divided, in historic terms only, the existence of Lahore into two time zones. The first being the pre-Islamic Lahore by the time Akbar came to power, and the Islamic and post-Islamic shape and influences on the old city.

He reached his segmentation based on how the city was when Akbar came to power and moved to make Lahore his capital, a move made necessary because of the revolts against Moghal rule by the people of the Punjab and beyond. The winning over of the Rajputs by Akbar was the defining moment, and he quickly moved to consolidate in the shape of a new expanded burnt-brick walled city.

Let me describe pre-Akbar Lahore, partly using work done by Khawaja Zaheeruddin and his PEPAC team, meshed in with my own observations of the city, which, thankfully, can still to be seen. If you enter Bhati Gate and walk along Bazaar Hakeeman right up to Tibbi Chowk, you will notice that the entire route has an incline -- a ghatti -- to the right.

Also if you walk along Shahalami Bazaar right up to Rang Mahal, a similar incline -- a ghatti -- exists to the left. Below these inclines lie the foundations of the original baked mud brick walls of Lahore of the pre-Akbar days.

There is an urgent need to undertake extensive archaeological digs at several points to build a picture of that era, and where better than to dig along these ‘ghattis’. So pre-Akbar Lahore’s walls run along the ‘ghattis’ to the west of Mori Gate and to the east of Lohari Gate both meeting at the highest point of Chunna Mandi where today exists the Paniwalla Talaab -- the waterworks built by the British.

This was the original ancient Lahore of the pre-Akbar era with Lohari Gate to the south being the oldest and largest gateway of the city. This was an area that Sohail Saeed researched with complex computer modeling. It was primarily a Hindu-Jain city with a small fast-growing Muslim population based on foreign invaders settling in Lahore. Saeed examined the grids of the main paths and how they joined the main crossroads, and came to the conclusion that this was an ‘outward-looking’ city based on the expansion possibility to the south across the River Ravi which then flowed around the city.

The changing river course allowed Akbar to expand to the west, which always had an open space west of the loo`ping river, and an expanding space to the east of the city as the river erosion saw a slight eastward drift. Hence Akbar moved the city walls outwards to the west and east only, and not to the south across the river, with expansion to the north blocked by the existence of the Lahore Fort.

The new spaces that Akbar created form the space that Sohail Saeed calls the Islamic portion of the city. It might interest the reader to know that the ‘guzargahs’ thus created managed to absorb the military forces of the Moghal armies.

The names of ‘mohallahs’ in Mochi Gate are Mohallah Teerandazan (The archers’ precinct), Kammangaran Gali (The Bow-makers Lane), Mohallah Chabaksawaran (The Cavalry riders precinct), which reflects the fact that this entire area was the first military cantonment of the Moghal ruler.

In the same manner the names of lanes and precincts inside Bhati Gate reflected the newly won-over Bhat Rajput forces and their professions. The name Bhati Gate is named after the Bhat Rajputs. The Bhatti clan is part of that tradition.

In the middle of this new Lahore was the ancient Hindu city. Again computer simulations by Sohail using the same technique came up with the undeniable ‘inward-looking’ mind-set of the new Islamic order. We see the merging of two very different mindsets, both reflecting two different traditions.

This merging of the new and the old produced a cascading sort of population where the way the Punjabi language -- to take just one example -- was spoken at different places within the same walled city varied. This variation exists even today.

The numerous issues that the research of Sohail Saeed and others have thrown up presents an immense opportunity to the new generation of serious architectural, social and linguistic scientists of Lahore, for hundreds of research areas exist on which serious work is needed. Imagine if the city had serious archaeological sites available, the scope for research would open up a whole new world.

It is sad that Pakistan today lacks serious archaeological skills. The land where men like Prof. A.H Dani once treaded is today virtually barren. The seriousness with which an ancient city like Lahore is taken is a reflection of how our rulers think.

Grand ‘illusion’ of being a great nation need to be backed by some ‘Iqra’, call it research if you like. We might, in our collective ignorance, be losing our greatest treasure.

Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2014




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