The finest gateway

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn July 08, 2006

THE largest of the 13 walled city gateways of Lahore is the Delhi Gate. In status during the Mughal, Sikh and British eras, it was the most important gateway, designed to convey royal entourages on their way to the Lahore Fort. It remains, even today, the finest structure among the gateways.

One hears about a plan to revive the walled city which, given the all-pervading influence of the merchant community in search for cheap warehousing, seems an impossibility. That is why if there is to be a museum dedicated to the history of Lahore, it has to be housed not on the “elite-approachable” The Mall, but in structures like the Delhi Gate. This piece is about this gateway and what it has to offer if it was decided that the first of the many of Lahore’s museums could be housed here.

The gateway was originally built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar when he used Lahore as his capital (1584-98). It was also during his reign (1556-1605) that the area east of the line between the Shahalami and Masti gates were added to the pre-Mughal Lahore city as was the entire city enclosed in a baked-brick wall with 13 gates. As this gateway faced Delhi, it was the most important and magnificent. On entering the gateway, one headed straight to chowk Rang Mahal and then on to the ‘nakhas mandi’ - horse market - in an open field now known as Ali Park, the enclosed park on the south western edge of the Lahore Fort walls.

In those days a royal entourage would enter the gate, would turn north from the Purani Kotwali and could enter the fort through its eastern gate. This gate is no longer operating owing to its custodians’ lack of interest in making it historically functional. Over the ages some of the finest havelis were built in these areas, and during the days of Shah Jehan the famous and exquisite mosque of Wazir Khan (1635) was built inside this gateway incorporating the tomb of Syed Muhammad Ishaq, who lived in Lahore in the earlier Tughlaq days. Just next to the gateway is an equally exquisite hammam - a bathing complex - built for the Mughal elite. Today this lies in utter disrepair.

Just outside the gateway, a number of beautiful buildings were built (1631-1635) by Dara Shikoh, a son of Shah Jehan’s and a disciple of Hazrat Mian Mir’s. After Dara’s murder by his brother Aurangzeb, the area outside Delhi Gate was named Chowk Dara Shikoh. In the British era a contractor by the name of Sultan knocked down these building and built his own Sultan Serai. During the reign of Kabuli Mal (1763-67) the rising Sikhs attacked this gate and forced the ruler to hand over the butchers of Mohallah Kasaban — an incident in which a few of them lost their noses. Maharaja Ranjit Singh rebuilt the walls and added a moat. After his death Sher Singh entered the city to overthrow Rani Chand Kaur (1840-41) and they set the Delhi Gate area on fire.

When the Lahore Railway Station was built in 1860s, this area flourished once again. The gateway was used as a ‘kotwali’ and today it is used by the CIA staff of the police. It is still in reasonable condition and a brief description of the structure is needed, so that people can think about the issue of building specialist museums of Lahore.

The gate portal has a central entrance - the ‘deorrhi’ - with three sections. The two sections at the front are rectangular and roofed, the second has pointed vaults.The mid-section of the passage widens to form an oblong space. The sides are flanked by rooms, three on each side. The front portal has two-layered arches, in simple Mughal-era style. Timber beams contain the hinges of the main door, which is simple in structure.This massive wooden door is from the Akbar era and needs to be preserved.

If one studies the ground floor plan, the structure is simple. Three rooms on each side of the ‘deorrhi’. The remaining structure is mud-filled embankments, massive to say the least. Even the highest flood would not be able to knock this structure down. The first floor plan is more complex. Over the six rooms on the ground floor are another six rooms. Also to the east are one huge room and a terrace. The western side has a huge hall, a verandah and a room that has served as a lock-up. Over the centuries some important persons have been locked up here. To the back are another three rooms and a huge terrace.

The sheer clutter of shops and its constant misuse has converted this magnificent structure into a dilapidated quarter, one that needs immediate attention. If an action plan is put in place — one that will not cost much — this unique, historical structure can be preserved for the future. If this gateway, the hammam and the mosque of Wazir Khan are all included in one grand scheme, with strict cleanliness on the main street ensured, this could be old Lahore’s finest tourist attraction.

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