‘She is the only man left in Punjab’

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Feb 08, 2015


Over the last one week I have visited the Shalamar Gardens twice, more so to mourn the slow and steady destruction of this World Heritage Site. A friend informs me that it is now, like the Lahore Fort, on the ‘world heritage watch list’ that precedes it being declared a ‘threatened site’.

Over the last few years, it seems that Pakistanis are less concerned about their heritage and history. That is why saving the Shalamar Gardens and the Lahore Fort are so critical. Civil society seems least concerned because there is no profit to be made by worrying about our heritage. A better co-operative effort is needed because government organisations on their own are today incapable of providing the sensitive urgent indulgence needed to raise the funds, and a lot is needed, and the technical expertise to complete the work. With such thoughts I walked through the brown dry lawns by the fountains that refuse to function.

As I passed by the eastern structure that housed royalty and their families, a thought passed my mind and I pictured the last Sikh ‘ruler’ before the British took over. That young boy was Maharajah Duleep Singh who was imprisoned in the Shalamar Gardens. On the other side of Lahore in the Sheikhupura Fort was imprisoned his mother, Maharani Jindan, a proud Punjabi if ever there was one. It was not without reason Lord Dalhousie is quoted as having said when trying to explain why the woman needed to be imprisoned: “She is the only man left in the Punjab.”

The story of the young maharajah is a sad one, but much more inspiring is the story of Rani Jindan. I decided to drive to Sheikhupura to see the fort. It is completely a shambles. If in the next few months the existing structure is not stabilised, let alone conserved, this historic fort will be a heap of old bricks, some of which already are being used by locals to build their houses.

A bit about the Sheikhupura Fort. This is an ancient structure which Akbar rebuilt to house his army. The surrounding settlements are known to archaeologists as ancient sites, important enough for a mint to have existed here. The present brick structure is ascribed as having been built by Akbar. Another account dates it much earlier. But for sure the fort, even if it was a mud one, is well over 2,000 years old.

This was a favourite hunting lodge of Mughal emperor Jahangir, who nearby built a tower in memory of his favourite antelope. A grave also allegedly exists nearby. It was used by all the Mughal emperors and their families, and as such was an important place in the scheme of royalty and well-looked after. When the Sikhs came to power it was snatched by Lehna Singh, who was displaced by Afghan ruler Shah Zaman, who was replaced by a local Sikh ruler until Maharjah Ranjit Singh took over and handed it over to Kharak Singh and his mother Rani Nakain. When the East India Company took over in 1849, they imprisoned the Maharani of Lahore at this place.

But then British intelligence started to provide proof that she was in contact with the militant portion of the old Sikh Army. They reduced her allowances and removed her outside the Punjab to Benaras. Even there she was busy in organising anti-British forces. They moved her further away to the fort at Chunar, from where she escaped and went to Nepal. After running into trouble with the Nepalese ruler she agreed to go with her son to England, where she died in 1863.

So to the west of Lahore the Sheikhupura Fort decays and to the east Shalamar Gardens decays and in the middle the Lahore Fort is decaying the fastest. The Lahore Fort is now the business of the Lahore Walled City Authority, while the Shalamar Gardens and the Sheikhupura Fort remain with the Punjab Archaeology Department.

The condition of Sheikhupura Fort got the US ambassador to Pakistan to promise a grant of $1.0 million (so we learn from reliable sources), but he insisted that he be satisfied that it will be used correctly.

The federal minister for ‘culture’ wanted the money to be sent to his department. The envoy was wiser to this request. Then the Punjab Archaeology Department also cast their eyes on this money. Still the American envoy is uncomfortable. Now it seems a number of concerned citizens want to join with the Punjab department to halt the decay as a first step. But then will the people of Sheikhupura and the Punjab also donate to conserve this excellent piece of our heritage.

The truth is simple. Unless we ourselves donate towards this cause, nothing will ever happen. We see three major heritage sites decaying. Now is the time to encourage technical competence, honest governance and participation of the people in their history. We must take care of ourselves in the spirit of Rani Jindan, for she was then the only man left in the Punjab.



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