Libraries of Lahore and past ‘illiterate’ benefactors

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Feb 27, 2017

The interest in the Lahore Literary Festival tends to surprise people, even though this year it was a one-day affair. On the subject of books, it would be interesting to go over the creation of libraries in Lahore over the centuries, and how they are treated in this so-called ‘age of learning’.

Probably the oldest-known ruler interested in books, and one who held sway over Lahore, was the emperor Harsha Vardhana, who ruled over the entire north of the Indian subcontinent from 606 to 647 AD. He belonged to the Pushyabhuti Dynasty and this territory was captured from the Huns as well as having defeated the ruler of nearby present-day Haryana. We do know that he converted from being a ‘Surya’ (sun) worshipper to Buddhism, for Lahore was then a major Buddhist city. That Buddhist calm even in these stressful times, probably, remains part of our DNA. One account refers to Buddha advocating the setting up of schools and libraries. The Lahore Library of the ruler Harsha would have been, and this is a guesstimate, somewhere near Mohallah Maulian, inside Lohari Gate, where the Buddha is alleged to have stayed for some time.

An account by the Chinese traveller Xuan Zang mentions the court of Harsha Vardhana in this “Buddhist city of peace” and the justice and generosity meted out to the people. He specially mentions ‘wonderful book collections’. There are three Sanskrit plays attributed to him, they being ‘Ratnawali’, ‘Priyadarsika’ and ‘Nagananda’. Traditional Brahmin sources later claimed he had got them written by others. Modern researchers think otherwise. But at least we are sure that Lahore had some impressive libraries in those ‘peaceful’ Buddhist days.

We know of Lahore being ransacked and flattened by the Afghan invader Mahmood from Ghazni in 1021 AD. In that act, and this is a presumption, every book was lost forever. Amazingly though Mahmood did promise the Persian poet Firdowsi a gold coin for every couplet written in his praise, not abnormal for even present-day rulers. The result was the immortal 20,000-couplet ‘Shahnama’. In the end Firdowsi had to flee to Khorasan to save his life. Mahmood finally paid up when Firdowsi started composing making fun of him. When the grudging payment reached his house, Firdowsi’s funeral was leaving it. Call it poetic justice.


We then see Lahore being rebuilt and destroyed seven times, the last being by the Mughal invader Babar, who ironically was no mean poet and book collector. But it was the unlettered Mughal emperor Akbar the Great (1542-1605), who not only rebuilt in burnt brick the Lahore Fort, but an expanded walled city of Lahore, who built the finest collection of books the city had till then seen. He would himself set off to pick up any rare manuscript, and always travelled with his librarian, even when at war. In his days the Lahore Fort had a collection of over 24,000 books and rare manuscripts in a number of languages.

Just why would an unlettered (not illiterate) emperor have so many books? The answer is simple, and that being that he wanted to learn. Every morning and evening he would have people read out to him books from his collection. It is claimed that he had a phenomenal memory and never forgot anything read to him. After every reading he would discuss and debate what he had heard. For this he had his Nine Gems (Nau Ratan), a collection of highly literate and accomplished men.

After the death of Akbar, known in history as an ‘illiterate genius’, we see a constant decline till in 1799 when another ‘illiterate genius’ came to and conquered Lahore. He was Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who ruled till his death in 1839. This military genius expanded his empire and his Punjab was the only country not under British rule. His genius was not only his French-trained army, but also his ability to reach peace agreements when he knew there was a chance of defeat. Within ten years of him passing away the East India Company had taken over.

This amazing maharajah started collecting, like Akbar, any rare book or manuscript he got to know of. From the Lahore Fort’s ‘Toshakhana’ record, compiled in 1849 by Dr Login, the library of the Lahore Fort had over 27,570 rare books and manuscripts, most of which were sent to London. Like Akbar 200 years before him, the Lahore Fort had compiled another amazing library. The Sikh ruler also had a phenomenal memory, and would listen to books of every sort in the morning and evening, which were followed by discussion with men of eminence. As a British military general was to comment: “He seems the most intelligent man I have met in the entire of India, for he asked so many questions that it boggled the mind”.

The British then decided that Lahore was the one place where educational activity would yield the best results for their colonial ambitions. The city saw the creation of a record number of schools and colleges, and a massive brigade of ‘brown sahibs’ came about, the legacy of which even today sees these ‘local foreigners’ ruling Pakistan. In the process the amazing Punjabi language was crushed to such a degree that Punjabis themselves feel ashamed to speak it in their homes. To crush a people crush their language, advised Macaulay. That is a tragedy that is today seeing a mother-tongue movement, one that needs the support of all sensible people, especially writers and poets.

But then Lahore, because of British efforts, saw the rise of many fine libraries, the two most important being the Punjab Public Library and the Punjab Archives Collection. But then the ‘brown sahibs’ of Pakistan have done more damage to their own culture and civilisation than could any foreign invader. All you have to do is to visit these two places. It will be an eye-opener for any person with a conscience. We have done to ourselves what no extremist could manage. Let me describe these two places, very briefly at that.

At the Punjab Public Library, and this is three years ago, some of the world’s rarest collection of Sanskrit texts was found lying in one corner on the floor, some with mold on them. With the library, one of the oldest in the subcontinent, unable to modernise, one can imagine the degree of pilferage that had eroded their rare collections. It today is a sad reflection of what a library should not be. All attempts to assist, even by foreign donors, have been resisted by our ‘brown sahibs’, who seem hell bent on taking forward the mission of the EIC and the British Raj.

But even more tragic is the Punjab Archives, which were removed on wheel-barrows by a former chief secretary to the old horse stables of the Raj era. There they lie in terrible conditions, this the finest collection starting from Mughal times, right through to the entire Sikh era record to British Raj records and early Pakistani record. All this because the ‘brown sahib’ CS wanted a lot of room to rest and relax. When I last visited it a laughing secretary of archives showed me a letter of Mirza Ghalib found on the floor. He was pleading with the ‘Company Bahadar’ to restore his royal pension.

So it is with the libraries of Lahore. Of recent the impressive library of LUMS has seen some fine collections being donated, especially the one by the famous legal expert Khalid Anwar. As the library expands it is becoming the new pride of the city, long known as the city of gardens, colleges, poets, writers and men of the arts and sciences. Let us hope we soon get another ‘illiterate genius’ to save our books.


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