Harking Back: ‘Oldest’ hujra of Lahore and the mysterious Mahdi

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Mar 22, 2015

As we continue our trek through the northern portions of the city, in Kot Khawaja Saeed to the east of the tomb of Prince Perwez, there is a ‘janazgah’ and an ‘Eidgah’, and next to it is the ‘hujra’ of Mir Mahdi. Experts claim this is the oldest monument of Lahore.

Who was Mir Mahdi and who built this oldest known monument of Lahore? Research into the origin of this monument has proven to be a hard nut to crack. Much more work remains. But before we set off on a trail to find details about this ‘hujra’, let us date this and put forth the person and times in which it was built.

We know that this was built by Syed Mubarak Shah II in 1422. Mubarak Shah was the ruler of Delhi and he moved his forces to take Lahore after it lay devastated and absolutely empty following the ferocious raids and pillage of the Mongols under Taimur Lung in 1398.

For seven long years the entire city, then a mud-walled one, lay empty. This was known as “the city where only owls live”.

After Mubarak Shah retook the city, he set about rebuilding the city, and invited businessmen from all over the sub-continent to come to Lahore and resettle it.

He sent his officials to all the villages around the city as far as “a day’s horse ride away” to find out who had left Lahore, and urged them to return.

Initially a lot did come back, but all of them without their female family members. From being a city ‘where only owls live’, it became a city where ‘no woman lives’. But then slowly they did return and Lahore came back to life.

In this time period 1422-1441 Mubarak Shah undertook to build ‘kos minars’ like Sher Shah had before him. Experts believe that this was undertaken on popular demand to warn the population against yet another brutal Mongol attack. The Lahore Fort in his period had the first brick construction inside the mud-walled fort – a small house for the ruler.

In later periods this was abandoned and it would not be a bad idea if after a proper radar scan some archaeological digging was undertaken to reach these lost houses inside the fort.

In 1952 one such effort was made and dwellings were found to six levels, which just showed how ancient the city really is.

But then Mubarak Shah took a special interest in building a ‘hujra’ to the north of the city in a ‘high mound’ on the other side of the River Ravi.

You might feel that this is a misnomer, but reassured that in those days the river curled between today’s Kot Khawaja Saeed and the Lahore Fort and then curled around the walled city, which was in those days an oblong city west of today’s Shahalami Bazaar and east of today’s Bhati Gate Bazaar.

It then curled between the mound on which today exists Government College and then flows westwards past the mound on which was built the District Courts. To a large extent the shape of modern Lahore has been dictated by how the river moved then as in slowly shifted westward.

That is why much later the ‘buddha darya’ arc was left behind when it moved further westward in the 1800s.

The construction of the ‘hujra’ of Mir Mahdi is clearly Lodhi period construction. This is the place where much later Hazrat Mian Mir used to stay before the mysterious graves of Prince Perwez and the children of Dara Shikoh came about.

In 1441, Muhammad Shah, the ‘wazir’ of Mubarak Shah, killed him in Delhi and took over power. He appointed his trusted army general Bahlol Khan Lodhi as the Governor of Lahore, only to see him revolt against him.

Now back to the central proposition: ‘Who was Mir Mahdi?’ In the period just before Mubarak Shah took over Lahore, the ruler of Kashmir was Raja Zain-ul-Abedin, who introduced Iranian ‘paper mache’ crafts to Kashmir, and spread education throughout his kingdom.

His liberal ways saw him translate the great books like ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’ from Sanskrit to Persian, as well as the Quran and the major Hadith books from Arabic into Persian and further into Kashmiri.

Like Mubarak Shah, the Kashmiri ruler was a Syed and on very friendly terms with each other. The foundations of liberal traditions of Lahore were well and truly laid in that period of enlightenment, which ended with the coming of Bahlol Khan, who was much later to attack Delhi to set up the Lodhi Empire.

Mubarak Shah himself was of Iranian stock, and was related through an uncle to Zain-ul-Abedin of Kashmir.

In his youth he was a disciple of Mir Majzub Mahdi Shirazi ibn Mas’um Ali Shah Shirazi, a renowned religious scholar of his days.

He was known as ‘Mulla Sad’ra Shirazi’. The ‘hujra’ of Mir Mahdi could have been named after this great religious scholar by Mubarak Shah. He was after-all his ‘ustad’ and a much honoured man.

This has also been mentioned by Dara Shikoh in his masterpiece ‘Safinah-al-Awalia’. In another book ‘Hasanat-ul-Arefin’ he specifically mentions Mulla Sad’ra Shirazi as a great Sufi and says he heard of him from Hazrat Mian Mir. This makes sense for the great Lahore sage also liked to stay in this ‘hujra’.

Let me make it clear that as no local record, or even court records, of the period exist, it is not possible to research further into Mir Mahdi. The only hope is for some researcher, well versed in Persian, to go through the library of the Department of Oriental Studies of the British Museum Library, to find more about this scholar.

The British removed nearly the entire record of educational institutions in Iran during their stay there as colonialists and parked them in various libraries. Ironically most Muslim invaders of Iran, Afghanistan and India tended to burn books instead of conserving them. This trend still exists.

So, it seems, we have with ‘relative accuracy’ pointed to the possible origin of the name Mir Mahdi. His ‘hujra’ stands today in a terrible state. As we explore the northern portions of Lahore, it is clear that the earlier periods of our history are strongly enshrined in that part of the city.

Just one thing needs to be said. The graves of Ali Hasan of Hajvery, of Aibak the first Slave King, of the two Zanjanis, of Shah Ismail and a few others are surely older. But they had simple graves in small rooms.

Any monument or tomb came much later. The ‘hujra’ is surely the oldest monument of Lahore that exists, and in this fact lies its value as a treasure worth saving.



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