HARKING BACK: Why an old city like Lahore has no ancient monuments

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Aug 16, 2015

As one roams the streets of most famous old cities of the world, be it the English university town of Cambridge, or Prague, or even old Cairo in Egypt, it is normal to find structures older than a thousand years. In Lahore that timeline is just 500 years.

There is a reason for this sad fact, even though the city is surely among the oldest in the world. Probably the oldest landmark is in the old walled city at Rang Mahal Chowk, and even that is a grave of Malik Ayaz, the slave of the invader Mahmud of Ghazni, who helped first raze it to the ground in 1022AD, only to eventually, when made its Governor, to try to rebuild parts of it. Even that structure has a recently-built concrete room over the grave.

The attack on Lahore led its ruler Nardjanpal to flee to Ajmer. In 1045 in the reign of Modud he made an attempt to recover his lost city, but failed. It was to spell the end of Hindu rule. So after the carnage of Mahmud in 1022, Lahore lost all its old structures.

Here it might interest the reader to know that earlier the Ghakkars of the Salt Range had sided with the Afghans to force the ruler of Lahore to cede territory to them. Though the Bussas of Lahore played a major role in opposing the invading Afghans in the defence of Chittore, it were the Bhati Rajputs who had joined up with Mahmud against the Lahore ruler Raja Jayapala.

So the menace was always, and still remains, within. Jayapala committed ‘Johar’ outside Mori Gate. The Afghans later murdered a lot of Bhati Rajputs once Lahore was taken and destroyed.

Once Lahore was rebuilt and its fort reinforced, in the year 1241 AD a fierce unruly force of 30,000 Mongols of the Qaraunas tribe led by Munggetu Kiyan (Khan) surrounded Lahore and pledged by the “word of the Great Khan Ogedei to eliminate Lahore from the face of the Earth”. So this fierce army set about their task, and within 21 days each and every man had been slaughtered, every woman had been raped and afterwards their throats slit “till the streets were red with blood”. Not a single human remained alive.

With the help of horses and bullocks each and every house, made of mud in those days, was flattened. The Mongols left with ‘pots and pans and goods of every description’. Lahore ceased to exist.

But then like all great cities of the world, Lahore was rebuilt. Within the next 100 years it had more houses than before and the street alignment, natural that they were, were recreated. As it was a market town, business flourished and its wealth was famous and mentioned “in the streets of Samarkand” as one account puts it. “Where there is honey, bees do come” is how the Mongol invader Timur described Lahore. In those days he was undertaking the rebuilding of Samarkand and was conquering large territory for its wealth.

The Governor of Lahore of those days, Malik Shekha Khokhar, was asked for a lot of gold and horses and slaves and beautiful women as tribute. Tired of constantly paying the Mongols, he refused. Timur was a fierce warrior of the famous Barlas tribe of Turkish origin.

On hearing of the refusal of Shekha Khokhar he sent his grandson with orders to ‘gather all their wealth, their horses, their artisans, their slaves and then flatten the city’. So Lahore again saw its buildings flattened and its wealth stolen. One saying still remains part of Lahore’s vocabulary, and that being “If Timur comes, only owls remain”.

But then when the Mongols left, Lahore began to rebuild. The rural economy and its location on the Kabul-Delhi route made sure prosperity returned. But then within 120 years of the last carnage a sub-branch of the Mongols, the Moghals, came to conquer India in the guise of Babar, those mother Qutlugh Khanum was related to Timur, descended upon Lahore.

This first of the Great Moghals did exactly to Lahore what his forefathers had done and razed it to the ground in 1519 when the Governor, Daulat Khan Lodhi, refused to pay tribute over and above what was agreed.

Babar wanted to include those portions of India under his influence that were once part of Timur’s territory, and in the process he ordered that Lahore be raised to the ground. That is exactly what his army did, pillaging and raping as was the Mongol tradition.

Later on it was Daulat Khan Lodhi who invited Babar to return to overthrow Ibrahim Lodhi, only for Lahore to be pillaged again in 1524 with Daulat Khan fleeing well in time.

In 1526 he was to meet Ibrahim at Panipat and set the foundations for the Moghal Empire. Guru Nanak was to write of his times: “This age is a knife and the rulers are butchers. If true men speak the truth, they suffer for it”.

But once again Lahore was destroyed. That was the last ravaging of Lahore that destroyed every building in the old city. From then onwards the Mughals rebuilt Lahore to a glory it had never seen before. It was Akbar and Shah Jehan who brought the city to a glory that the world would envy forever.

But then the decay was mostly inward. By the time Emperor Aurangzeb died in 1707, except for the Badshahi Mosque, other monuments had begun to decay. For the next 90 years chaos ruled the land and the city, and major monuments lost their marble and even bricks were stolen. The Sikh era (1799-1839) saw a complete neglect of historic monuments save a few in their use.

Then started a new sort of destruction, one dictated to a renewal of infrastructure. The British wanted their railway lines and this saw the end of a lot of Moghal structure to the north of the city. But then they also built the new Lahore to the south and east of the walled city. Lahore was growing at a ferocious pace.

In 1881 the population was 149,369. By 1901 it was 202,964. By the year 2013 it had crossed the ten million mark. This brings massive pressure for new infrastructure, which tends to, like it does all over the world, walk over monuments with a history.

But then we live in an age where even history makes good business sense. That is why the only hope is for a lot of archaeological digs within the old city to uncover our amazing past. In the years to come if we do not take care of the few monuments that remain, the Timur-like juggernaut of business expansion will hurt us economically much much more than what good the new concrete plazas will generate. It is a choice we all have to make today.



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