Harking Back: Getting to know Lahore’s exquisite tile mosaic

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Jan 24, 2016

If ever there was a unique wonder of the world in Lahore, one that most miss when visiting the Lahore Fort, it is the almost half a kilometre long wall picture on the northern and western outer side of the fort. Nowhere else does such an exquisite and large wall picture exist.

This amazingly beautiful gift to Lahore by the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan was an embellishment of the burnt-brick fort his father Akbar had built on the ruins of the original mud-walled fort that stood at the site for over 3,000 years.

In that sense the Lahore Fort is one of the largest and finest forts in the entire sub-continent, and one that needs to be saved. If you study the history of the old forts of the world, the one at Lahore comes among the 20 finest.

The massive, now faded, tile mosaic wall picture of Lahore is 1,450 feet long and 50 feet in height, and consists of a series of tiled pictures that depict the story of life in Mughal Lahore.

From the ‘hidden’ harems to war pictures with elephants with the emperors meeting famous people, including a few European characters, it is all there. Then there are scenes of the life of people busy in their professions. If ever there was a pictorial display of Mughal Lahore, this is it.

The first time these tile mosaic pictures were researched was by P.J Vogel, who using manuscripts from the magnificent collection of rare manuscripts collected by Maharajah Ranjit Singh compiled his amazing book.

A classic in its own right it reproduces some of the mosaic pictures and describes them in some detail. But even Vogel’s ‘Mosaic Tiles of the Lahore Fort’ has just scratched the surface of this magnificent creation.

Sadly, it is not available in any bookshop in Lahore, at least not in the eight major ones that we visited on Friday last.

Never before have all of them been documented, at least not so far. But there is always hope and that comes in the shape of a documentation project being undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture with Norwegian help, a Rs10.9 million grant for a detailed documentation effort, with a plan on how to fill in the missing gaps and a conservation plan to follow up.

This effort should be completed by the end of June, 2016, and we should have, for the very first time, a complete record of Lahore’s exquisite wall picture.

But then who will pay for the ‘to-be suggested’ conservation effort has yet to be determined. Credit must surely go to the Lahore Walled City Authority for fast-tracking the project.

On Wednesday I visited the camp office of the wall picture documentation team, and it was so refreshing to see three young women, all three highly educated and brimming with enthusiasm and very knowledgeable of what they were undertaking. It reinforced my experience that the women of this country are the ones to invest in.

These girls, part of a small team, can be seen climbing high ladders and taking pictures with modern equipment to document each and every detail. They are confident of completing the task on time, and they will have done a great service to Lahore and Pakistan.

But then there is a greater problem that has to be faced once this documentation effort is complete. The walls of the fort are slowly crumbling, and if an immediate effort is not undertaken, just how anyone save these pictures from further damage is difficult to gauge.

We have written a lot about this undeniable fact. Sadly, it was the Department of Archaeology that just never cared for the fort which they had sole possession of till the LWCA took a major portion over just a year ago. The wedding parties and VIP functions in the fort have been stopped.

It goes without saying that the Lahore Fort is in need of a massive conservation effort. It will take time, almost ten years by one expert estimation, and a lot of money to save the mess we have landed Lahore Fort in.

My view is that at least $50 million is needed for this project, and all this money we should not expect to come from foreign grants. It surely has to come from your and my pockets.

We, that is you and me, have to save it, and like war being too serious a business to be left to generals alone, this effort also cannot be a pure government affair.

Happily, inside the fort a few other efforts will soon be underway. For example the magnificent painting ‘The Court of Lahore’ by the Hungarian painter August Schoefft (1809-1888) from the Princess Bamba Collection lies in utter ruins. This is another tragedy in the making. This is how the Department of Archaeology left some of the world’s finest painting, not to mention a collection of Indus Valley research record among which today run huge rates with files lying in thick dust.

Often rain water runs through the rooms. If anything this is a national, if not an international, tragedy.

As August Schoefft was a 17th century Hungarian master painter, the Ambassador of Hungary in Pakistan recently visited the fort to see the painting. One needs not recollect his reaction.

Immediately he promised to pay for the services of a restorer from Hungary. Again it are the foreigners who are more worried about our magnificent heritage, not us. One only hopes things will change.

But as the exquisite Lahore Fort Tile Mosaic Wall Painting, the largest in the world, has the three highly-motivated women from the Aga Khan team documenting it for the very first time, one can only hope that an effort is made to take one small step further to conserve them too.

Mere documentation is not enough. But it is a very important first step. If you ever visit the Lahore Fort, do try to visit the outer walls and see this amazing wall picture, for they show us the real old Lahore of the Mughals.




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