Prophetic words and Wazir Khan’s tilting minarets

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn February 23, 2016

There is little doubt in the minds of the people of Lahore that the grand mosque built in 1634-35AD inside Delhi Gate by Sheikh Ilmuddin Ansari of Chiniot, better known as Wazir Khan, is the most exquisite and beautiful one in the city. But then, sadly, it is also the one that is in imminent danger of collapsing.

This might sound a bit alarmist, but then one has only to visit the place to experience the now tilting minarets and the growing cracks in the arches under them to comprehend what we are talking about.

Last Sunday with a group of LUMS students specialising in the history of Lahore, we went to the mosque. We already are well aware that the south-western minaret has exceeded a 4.9 degree tilt, and that every nine months the angle increases by approximately 0.01 degrees. By this count, and given the calculated weight of the minaret, it could well collapse on its own within the next 19 years.

But then experts feel that if ever Lahore is hit by an earthquake above 7.3 on the Richter scale, this minaret will certainly collapse, as might also the north-western one. This will be a massive blow to Lahore’s cultural heritage, which already is gravely stressed because of callous human intervention.

But the specific condition of the Mosque of Wazir Khan needs to be explained. In 2015 the US Ambassador’s fund for distressed heritage sites coughed up US$1.1 million for the mosque and the square in front, including the Artisan’s Bazaar within the front mosque structure.

That project is being undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The fact is that this is not enough to cure the threat to the minarets.

The initial damage within the mosque was done three years ago on the orders of a retired ‘culture’ official who damaged the original waterway.

In place of the original cement and pipes were used instead of conserving and restoring the original structure. The end result is that the water tank today is filled with polluted water that is used by the faithful to ‘cleanse’ themselves before prayers.

But what is most interesting is that the two outer arches of the central structures out of the five has an inscription in the middle of the top.

It reads, and I translate from the Quranic verse taken from Sura Al-Rehman: “All things on Earth must crumble”. Amazingly the other three middle arches have verses from the same Sura Al-Rehman, which state: “What Allah wills remains”. Now for the superstitious this could have a hidden meaning, and an indication of things to happen. There is a myth that circulates about this mosque that when 414 Islamic years have been completed, disaster will strike this mosque.

Ironically this almost matches the scientific measure optimum given to the tilting minaret. That this is best left to myth. The world of reality is very different.

If you happen to visit the mosque you will notice that at the top of the two outer arches of the main structure, a widening crack is opening up.

Scientists have installed two metal brackets to measure the speed in the increase in the cracks. The outer limit has almost been reached and the crack now flows right to the top on both sides.

If you happen to stand at the main entrance of the mosque and view the two minarets, especially of the south-eastern one, the tilt is now visible to the naked eye.

Experts are of the opinion that a massive operation to reverse the tilt can be undertaken, but for that special funds are needed and the job must be entrusted to experts. It will be a very delicate operation, and one all of us in Lahore must contribute towards.

Probably the first task that needs to be accomplished is the dismantling of illegal housing towards the south which have encroached deep into the mosque structure. The water seepage from these houses could be one major cause for the tilting. One can see them cemented into the main mosque building. Why these were allowed in the first place is a question that will probably never be answered.

There are other matters within the mosque that have gone wrong. The walls of the inner main archway of the main mosque structure were enamel-painted over by this ‘cultured’ official, damaging the original floral designs. This work also has to be undertaken. The sheer scale of neglect to this most amazing heritage of Lahore is mind-boggling.

The mosque has within it the tomb of the Muslim saint Miran Badshah, and the mosque was built after Wazir Khan promised not to disturb the grave. Before this was built the main mosque of Lahore was the equally exquisite mosque of Mariam Zamani, wife of Akbar the Great, outside Masti Gate. Much later the Moghal emperor Aurangzeb built Badshahi Mosque that became the city’s Jamia Mosque.

One of the features of interest is that the honeycomb engraving patterns in the ceiling are similar to the ones in Spain’s famous Alhambra. These and other artistic features of the mosque are in need of urgent conservation. This opens up an interesting debate on what needs to be done. Should it be conserved, as is the practise among experts, or should it be restored as is the wont of officials without a clue as to what to do. But then the excellent work done at the nearby Shahi Hammam makes the case for conservation a very strong one.

But the icing on the case will be the future outcome of the Artisans Bazaar in the main entrance courtyard. This is where in days gone by manuscripts were written with miniature painting adorning them.

Known as Lahori Manuscripts they are a rare and very expensive collector’s item, each one valued at over a million dollars. Will a project to replicate the original artisans be undertaken? These and other questions need urgent answers.

But it goes without saying that the case of undertaking steps to reverse the tilt of the two western minarets is an urgent one.

In all expectation it will be foreigners who might come to our rescue. Left to our own devises, we would rather wait to see the minarets fall. The verses on their inner arches might yet prove to be prophetic.


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