Structures that bind

In BOLLYWOOD, HISTORY on December 28, 2012 at 9:23 pm

ims 1171

For hundreds of years, Lahore’s very own pomegranate blossom, Anarkali, has been the subject of speculation and intrigue:

“No incident in the history of Mughal India enjoys as much popularity as the royal    romance of Prince Salim (later Jahangir) and Anarkali. It is believed that the original name of Anarkali was Nadira or Sharfunnisa and that she received the name or the title of Anarkali (literally meaning pomegranate bud) for her beauty. Anarkali was a dancer at the court of Emperor Akbar (consult the MUGHAL FAMILY TREE). The emperor’s eldest son and heir apparent, Salim, fell in love with her. Akbar did not approve of the relation as the dancer was of lowly birth and hence considered not fit to be the queen of the would-be emperor of Hindustan. But the lovers did not pay heed to the emperor’s disapproval. Anarkali was sentenced to death—she was bricked alive in a wall. This basic story-line is often told with minor variations. However, one may be surprised to note that the name of Anarkali is not mentioned in the historical details of the period of Akbar or in the memoirs of Jahangir.”
—Subhash Parihar, online source

It is thought that Anarkali debuted at the court of Akbar sometime between 1542–1605. As noted above, there are varying accounts of her life, possibly all fictional (as history sometimes tends to be). In the stories passed down, Anarkali is said to have been a slave girl, a concubine, a lover of Akbar and possibly of Salim. She is said to have been of Persian or Russian descent. In one version, she escapes death in the palace; in other versions she is entombed in a fort or buried alive within four walls.

In the various accounts of her life, what’s interesting to me is the mention of Anarkali’s entombment, her being buried alive. The proprietor of the Lahore Heritage Club, Tahir Yazdani, described the process of immurement as such: a woman would be placed in a room that had a ceiling and three constructed walls. The fourth wall would be built once the woman was placed inside the partially constructed room. As the last wall would go up, the woman would slowly suffocate to death for lack of oxygen.

Mr. Yazdani remarked that until the workers constructed the final wall, the process would have been “quite comfortable.” I think he made that remark in a comparative sense. In all the ways that violent acts can be carried out against women’s bodies, this method bypassed touching the body to cause harm. Apparently, the standing burial was not only given to Anarkali, but also to other women of the period. Whether fictional or real, Anarkali was a woman without a home and without a family. No one was awaiting her return: she could be done away with such that her body was entirely removed from the sight/site of the powerful.

It seems horrific that remains of bodies may be lingering in buildings I have walked around and about. Along with constructions of (and/or additions to) buildings, one could also do away with the unwanted. Could a woman have been made to vanish in the time it took to put up a brick wall?

However uncertain the facts of her life and apparently brutal death, it is clear that Anarkali has had a lasting impact. Two Lahori bazaars are named after her, including the Old Anarkali bazaar, more than two-hundred-years old (see for more). Anarkali’s story, with its requisite elements of love, loss and power, was also made into the historical drama, Mughal-e-Azam which successfully captured the collective Indian imagination of the 1960s.

I have yet to read what Gulbadan Begum (daughter of the emperor Babar, and sister to successor of the throne, Humayun) says of empire in texts thought to be penned by her, and in entries from Rumer Godden’s book Gulbadan: Portrait of a Rose Princess at the Mughal Court. There has certainly been scholarship on the dancing girls of the period but perhaps Begum sheds more light on the business of being a woman in the Mughal Empire.


The photo below is not of Anarkali’s final resting place. It is of a separate site near the Badshahi Mosque. Once boastful in marble relief, the structure now stands with all of its orifices shut. The imposition upon the structure below is not unlike impositions carried upon the bodies of Mughal era women.

all its vacant mouths stuffed with brick


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