Harking back: Of lost walls and threat to our tile-mosaic tradition

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Oct 18, 2015

We have dwelt at length on the Walled City of Lahore and described how over time these walls started to disappear. Today it has no walls left. Yes, none at all.

Worry not for no one weeps over this historic colossal wall of 6.4 kilometres, a national heritage that just cannot be replaced in some original form. But then since British days this process of demolition had started. Initially after the 1857 War of Independence major portions of the wall on all four sides were felled in the name of preventing a ‘future siege’ just as that managed in Delhi. Then came the chaos and arson of 1947 that damaged the southern and portions of the eastern side. But a more lethal mix was to follow. The newly-arrived traders managed the final destruction.

Some damage, initially, was at the hands of brick-stealers wanting materials to rebuild damaged houses. The remaining, in a virtually invisible process, simply disappeared to make way for traders wanting to move goods and materials to their warehouses, the illegality of which no government has the power to challenge. In 2009, with the creation of the Nava Bazaar gate between Shahalami and Lohari, the 14th gateway to the Walled City was created. The walls of the old city had disappeared.

But let us continue our research on the walls of Lahore by concentrating on the remaining walls of the Lahore Fort. We should be seriously, very seriously, worried about them. The outer walls of the Lahore Fort have changed over the centuries unlike those of any fort in the world. In times of old the fort was flattened three times, only for the mud walls to be rebuilt. Then came Akbar the Great who rebuilt the entire fort in burnt bricks and lime after he occupied it in 1575. It was a formidable task by any reckoning. After the Moghals it went into neglect and come the Sikhs in 1799 they added their own special bits. They also built a moat around it and added to the fortifications.

But then after the events of 1857, the British rulers had this amazing fixation about sieges and they knocked down the southern wall of this magnificent fort. In place of the wall that they destroyed, a sliding wall was put in place. It does not take much effort to imagine why they built a sloped wall, the one that still stands.

But all said it is a beautiful fort by any stretch of imagination, and unlike forts in other parts of the subcontinent, including the Red Fort in Delhi, this is irregular in shape and plan, incremental in its creation, with every ruler adding to its beauty and shape. Among its many features our interest in this piece is in the outer wall, which was completed during the reign of Shah Jehan in an exacting exercise between 1624 and 1631 AD. The ramparts were built essentially in brick, in corporate squares or rectangular compartments, some ornamented with blind arcades. The inner surfaces are decorated with tile-mosaic scenes that portray, with amazing beauty and in exceptional freshness, life at the Moghal court.

For this very reason it is counted among the most beautiful forts of the world, a World Heritage site as classified by Unesco. Sadly, as we mentioned in an earlier column, the condition of the fort is such today that it has been put on a ‘watch list’ of endangered sites. The fault is entirely ours, and by ours one means everyone. There seems no final ‘ownership’ of the place. This needs a serious national debate, so that a planned rejuvenation is possible. Should it be the federal, or the provincial, or some local government, or should it be a specialised organisation with financial independence? For the time being, because of past criminal mistakes by everyone, it belongs to the newly-established Lahore Walled City Authority, with the Punjab and Federal bureaucrats constantly baying for some slice of the action. The sooner this issue is settled, the better.

Let us return to the tile-mosaics on the north-western and western walls of Lahore Fort, a labour of love undertaken by Moghal Emperor Shah Jehan. It continued till the middle of the reign of emperor Jahangir. There is little mention of any substance of this exquisite creation in past literature. The only substantial research on them is by J.P. Vogel, a superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India’s northern region in 1920.

The tile-mosaic of the fort is a collection of 116 panels of exquisite beauty. Probably the only comparable such creation is on the walls of the mosque of Wazir Khan inside Delhi Gate. The well-known horticulturalist of Lahore, Mrs Nosheen Sarfaraz, recently wrote a piece in this very newspaper analysing the floral origin of the tile-mosaics of the mosque. This piece opened up a lot of space for future research. But it pointed to the artistic origins of the fort’s tile-mosaics.

Dr Vogel needs to be quoted for us to fully understand the significance of Lahore Fort’s tile-mosaics. He writes: “This kind of wall decoration is unequalled in the entire world for its variety of design and magnificence of colour”. Here it would not be out of place to mention that the rare tile-mosaics on the Buddhist pagoda of Kanishka in Peshawar district from the pre-Islamic period have a somewhat similar quality.

As this region was then under rulers of Lahore, then where lies the origin of this beautiful tile-mosaic craft. Vogel ascribes it to Persian origins. More recent research is beginning to find Harappan roots. This calls for research. But then during the Moghal era the Tuscany and Chinese styles, and subjects, add to the magic of this unique creation. How this came about needs more research.

We know that Lahore was responsible for similar creations of a tomb in Agra called ‘Chini wali masjid’, as also a mosque in Thanesar of Ambala district. We also know that Lahori tiles were taken for the mausoleum of Abbas the Great in Qum in Iran. So this ancient craft, probably of Persian origin but which flourished in Lahore, has been lost.

But the tragedy is that not enough effort is being made to save these amazing tile-mosaics of the Lahore Fort from slow degradation. Portions of this set of panels was damaged, not destroyed, during the bombardment of this wall during the Sikh-era fight during the Sher Singh succession battle. A scheme to conserve them was floated a few years ago, but that effort has petered out. As the fort walls decay, so does this amazing 116-piece tile-mosaic collection, in my mind the true wonder of our ancient city. The collective ignorance of our heritage continues to evade our rulers.


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