Harking back: Exquisite Naulakha Pavilion and its amazing origins

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, July 18, 2015

Description: The architecture of the amazingly beautiful structure that is Naulakha Pavilion has a curious history. —Wikimedia commons

The architecture of the amazingly beautiful structure that is Naulakha Pavilion has a curious history. —Wikimedia commons

Every time I visit the now decaying Lahore Fort, the one structure that continues to fascinate me of the 21 monuments in the fort now listed in the World Heritage Monuments list, is the Naulakha Pavilion. I can watch it for hours.

The architecture of this amazingly beautiful structure has a curious history. Experts believe it is a fusion of the Bengal tradition of constructing sloping roofs, an extension of the huts seen in the landscape of Bengal, and the Baldachin structure style, an amalgamation of ‘baldacchino’, a canopy of state in the fashion of a tent over the head over the emperor or king. This is a tradition taken from the Crusade days when Sultan Salahuddin Ayubi met the English and European commanders in his canopy. Most European rulers used this ‘baldachin’ structure of a special cloth imported from Baghdad during their coronations. Most linguists insist that the very word ‘Baldachin’ is a corruption of the word Baghdad, and my research using a number of dictionaries does indicate this to be true.

The Kurdish strain in the Moghals brought this structure to the sub-continent, and being that similar wooden structures existed in Bengal - an extension of their tradition reed constructed huts - this proved to be a beautiful merging of styles, probably both strains from the same source. The end result is, without doubt, exquisite. Though it is located next to the over-decorated Sheesh Mahal, yet on its own stands out.

Built in 1663 on the orders of the Moghal emperor Shah Jehan, this structure was designed as his summer resting house and completed at a cost of 600,000 rupees then. In relative terms if we take the cost of gold as a medium of judgement, then by current standards it would cost Rs66 crore. This amazing price has been used taking the price of gold as given in Moghal records of 1663, and using Rs60,000 as the price per ‘tola’ today in the 21-carat grade. In those days (24 December, 1663) in Britain gold was £4.01 per ounce.

Located on the western side of Sheesh Mahal premises, it stands out even today with its prominent central arch and its extraordinary curved roof. But then what was the wonder of this structure. Its wonder remains the fact that no joints exist. It is perfectly balanced to equalise the strains and stresses of each piece of pure white marble used. It is almost like a modern Lego construction. Not a single joint was used then. To hide from view from the ground, the joints had ‘merlons’ capped at the edges.

If you take a closer look at the marble slabs on the sides, you will see beautiful floral lines. These were once filled with semi-precious stones, with the flowers themselves made from rubies. The ‘jalli’ marble makes up the western side of the structure, which when it was built looked out on the Ravi and beyond to the immense forest greenery. The ‘jalli’, so one description tells us, was covered with a silver lining in the exquisite and delicate ‘parchin kari’ ornamentation, which is even today considered among the finest in the world. Lahore was even then known for this art.

In its days it must surely have been a temple of peace and harmony, with small fountains playing their soothing tunes in the courtyard to the east. There is one description that states that originally the upper layer of the marble roof was covered with a thick gold leaf. This could explain why it cost so much even then. But then an emperor could afford it and the mellow golden colour surely meshed with the white marble to give the look of royalty.

Emperor Shah Jehan loved beautiful structures, and none less than the Taj Mahal goes to his credit. Inside the Lahore Fort he got other structures made, but he liked his ‘Naulakha’ the most and spent his time, when in Lahore, most under its cool shade. There are many who feel that the emperor, when in Lahore, wanted to build a small monument to honour the love of his life, his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Many experts are of the opinion that it was designed by Ustad Ahmed Lahauri, the man who designed the Taj Mahal. The Naulakha design is also attributed to an Italian by the name of Geronimo Veroneo, a famous jeweller from Italy who many ascribe as also being involved in the Taj Mahal design. The Italian connection cannot be verified, but what we do know is that the Italian stayed in Lahore and died after he visited Agra, where even today his grave exists.

But then once the emperor died, this much loved pavilion fell into disrepair. It was a process that makes tragic reading. There are verifiable descriptions in court documents of the last great Moghal emperor Aurangzeb using this space to pray at night, for its alignment is perfectly towards Mecca, as was his Badshahi Mosque, he preferred this space for himself. Then came the Afghans and each raid some more precious stones were ‘knifed out’ from the glazed tiles. It goes to the credit of the Sikhs that they did minimal damage, even though many attribute the damage to the golden roof to them.

Come the British and this space was occupied by soldiers of the East India Company. The first soldiers are known to have stolen a lot of semi-precious stones, with some even scrapping out some gold left in the crevices in the rooftop. In the days after 1947 the structure faced defacing, wall chalking in ink and discoloration because of the ever-increasing threat of sulphur dioxide and motor engine emissions. The effects of this can also be seen in the structure of the Sheesh Mahal next to the Naulakha Pavilion.

This structure inspired the writer-journalist Rudyard Kipling to name a novel after it, and when he settled down in rural Vermont in the USA, he named his house after it. The original Pakistani one-rupee banknote had a motif of it, but was then replaced by the tomb of the poet Iqbal. In 1981, Unesco declared it a protected monument as part of 20 others in the Lahore Fort.

So today we have this exquisite monument slowly degrading. Humans still manage to deface it. Emissions by motorcars and trucks continue to discolor the marble. The very few semi-precious stones left in the marble slab continue to fascinate visitors, with a few always trying to pull a fast one. As different authorities fight over possession of the entire Lahore Fort, the Naulakha and other collapsing monuments face an uncertain future. Reminds me of Oscar Wilde and his famous lines: “For each man kills the thing he loves, yet each man does not die”. Collectively, we probably are killing what we love … our heritage.



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