Archive for the ‘ARCHITECTURE’ Category

The monument as carnival

In ARCHITECTURE, FESTIVALS on August 12, 2013 at 9:17 pm


This man (with the awesome mustache, and lunch in one hand) will weigh you for a small fee. He wants to weigh you before you get on with the business of tourism.

What’s the point of weighing someone here? I ask, to which he replies, “you weigh yourself today, and the next time you visit, you weigh yourself again and you’ll know how much weight you’ve lost or put on.” It’s almost as if he’s enticing visitors to come and see him, instead of seeing the buildings (visitors, who don’t have a scale at home that is). For tourists coming from remote parts of the country some of the weighing business could be fun I imagine. In communities where the method of knowledge dispersal is often hearsay, a fact such as the number of kilograms one is made up of could be a novel curiosity.


Hoping to entice young customers, a vendor sits with fluffy cotton candy right at the entrance to the Lahore Fort.


Even after the disastrous events of April, 1912, the “Titanic” continues to be a popular choice of name for waterborne objects such as the one pictured above. The toy boats are readily available for sale at the entrance to the monuments, and delight many.


Piecing, seizing a monumental sleep

In ARCHITECTURE, SLEEP, TOURISM on December 20, 2012 at 9:41 pm

In June 2012, I was going through photographs of my trip to Hiran Minar (Deer Tower/Palace of the Antelope) in Sheikhupura, when I noticed an unexpected detail: a man sleeping in the upper chamber of one of the structures. I couldn’t remember if I had seen him when I had been there. Nevertheless, my camera had allowed me to zoom in, and I could now look at the sleeping man’s figure for as long as desired. Or until I found some answers as to why he was sleeping at a site others come to see with their eyes wide open.
Take me, for example. In order to get to the Minar I had hired a car and a driver. The day trip from Lahore took eight hours with stops and cost seven thousand rupees, all for a chance to marvel at an architectural beauty, a monument erected in memory of a pet antelope of the royals.
On subsequent trips to monuments in Lahore’s inner city, I looked around to see if anyone was sleeping. I looked in the upper story balconies, up at the roofs of graffitied buildings, and in gardens under the shade of a Neem (Mahogany family) or Kikkar (type of Acacia). I saw men sleeping in all five of the monuments I write about on this blog.
K., a guide at the Lahore fort who has been in the profession for over twenty years, said, “Why not, they [the visitors] come from everywhere. Let them sleep.” It wasn’t odd to him that people came and slept in the spaces, as opposed to taking his tour or listening to his stories. It wasn’t odd to him that they didn’t want to look carefully.
Some of the reasons why men sleep in the buildings are simple: it is very hot in Punjab in the summer. The buildings of the Mughal period are constructed so they allow for cool and nicely ventilated spaces in which one can rest or recline. Most of the sleepers are locals who use the buildings’ grounds as rest stop on their way to and from work. As locals, many cherish the openness of the structures, something lacking in the inner city’s residential houses (which Kipling describes as rather dreadful in one of his stories). My friend A., who grew up in the inner city, says that these spaces are where people come to be with themselves: “These may be the only moments they have away from their families, away from food cooking and ironing boards, their mother’s nagging, or their sister’s peeking into their secret notebooks.”
Aside from the reasons listed above, what is important to me is that by sleeping in the buildings the men begin to own the buildings. What could be better than owning one’s heritage by becoming part of it?
In the Western notion of viewership, “spectacle” is very much the point of visiting a monument and experiencing spectacle requires keeping one’s eyes open. By sleeping, these men refuse to partake in spectacle in a way that others do while posing for photographs.
I was in Italy in the mid 90s, while I don’t remember how people interacted with  monuments there I do remember ordered queues to get into museums and areas that  sometimes were cordoned off. For example, at the time, entry into the tower of Pisa was denied as the tower was unable to withstand the weight of climbing bodies. In contrast, sleeping in or on a monument is a way of being one with our surroundings. We are most free and able to be ourselves in spaces where we can stretch out and relax. Peoples’ interaction with the monuments in Lahore is not only an acceptance of the monuments in their lives, but also practical relief for the sleep weary.
Should one preserve or make precious? Partake and enjoy? Stretch out in the structures?

Attempting a monumental sleep
If I was going to write about “monumental” sleep, I had to experience it (at least as a nap).
However, not having seen women sleeping in public, I did not want to lie down at any of the major monuments, which are always busy. I chose a minor monument to carry out my experiment: Dai Anga’s mosque on GT road (Dai Anga was wet nurse to Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan).
Known as Gulabi Chowki to locals, Dai Anga’s mosque is tiled in fine cuts of orange and green on the outside. In broad daylight, I jumped over the wall to get into the building. It seems the city does not want to maintain the monument so they have left it as is, only installing a padlock at the entrance. Indoors, it was grey and the stone floor, lovely and cool. Besides A. and me there was a group of twelve-year olds smoking on the rooftop. The interior was calm and perfect for sleeping, but within a few minutes we found used syringes in the garden. I didn’t lie down after that.
For me, the discovery of the syringes took the experiencing of monuments to a whole other place. What is the city’s responsibility to preserve monuments? What was my responsibility in jumping over the wall? Or my responsibility to the children hanging around the building?
I’m leaving you with rules on how to interact with a monument (from the Badshahi Mosque, translation forthcoming):

Where all times are one

In ARCHITECTURE, CHILDHOOD, HISTORY on December 17, 2012 at 9:37 pm


D. was coming towards us with a skip in his step and a shiny packet of potato chips in his hands. As soon as he was done with the chips he clapped his hands, brushed the crumbs aside, and ignored us, heading for a clandestine opening near the backdoor of the Shalimar Gardens.

That’s D. in the photo above, his head inches away from the wide metal bars of a door intended to deter the public from entering the gardens. D. looks quite comfortable in the photo. But in reality, the attempt to pass from one space to another required effort and a certain contortion of the body—something he has mastered over the many times he has squeezed into the monument through its backdoors.

D. didn’t stop for me but I stopped him to converse. He told me that the gardens were beautiful and that one can do “anything” in the gardens. By “anything” I’m sure he meant the “anythings” that kids do: play, run and laugh. The gardens for him are a source of freedom, and their existence points towards a hopefulness, an expanse symbolising a large reach.

I was pleased that he appreciates the gardens and makes use of a space that is almost in his backyard. Of course, he was going through the back entrance and not the front one because:

a) it was more fun than simply walking into the building

b) he saves 20 rupees each day by going through the back

c) the back entrance is closer to his house, and

d) it’s just a thing he does after lunch, most days

I, too, was aching to follow in D.’s footsteps, wanting to twist alongside tiny bricks from long ago, wishing to contort my body to get to the other side. But my companion was concerned I would get stuck partway, half of me in the present and half of me in the past. I had come to engage with rust, metal and sandstone, so the uncertain seesawing would have been fitting. But out of fear of embarrassment—or perhaps bodily harm—I was held back, even though other grown men and women have likely done something similar before.

Punjab’s own revered Sufi poet Shah Hussain had once remarked on such a passage. He is said to have preferred going the way of the mohri (موري मोरी morī [for mohrī = muhrī = Prk. मुहडिआ=S. मुख+र+इका], s.f. A subterranean passage for water, a pipe, a conduit; a drain, gutter, sewer, a sink;—a passage, canal (of the body, &c.); an orifice, opening) rather than entering Lahore through proper city gates.

D. made me to think of the crevice as a portal through which one may embark upon a journey, traveling from 1641 A.D. to the present day, amassing everything that has grown around and at the back of the Shalimar Gardens. There, you’ll find a whole colony of people, squatters, small homes and, most interestingly, a collection of pool tables where men pass their time in the evenings.

This is how D. becomes a hero for some of my recollections, and an entry point into the times of the Mughals seen through the eyes of a boy. He will take us to and through the past, joining the picnics at Shalimar to the changing courses of the river Ravi, to the tunnels that Wescoat and others write about, and finally, emerge on the other side, at the end of empire, coming up through the Samadhi of Ranjit Singh in 1848.

Their small economies

In ARCHITECTURE, LABOUR, TOURISM on December 4, 2012 at 9:04 pm

ims 1226ims 1228

I’ve got several poems about the people who work in the shadows of weighty buildings. These men, the sellers of souvenirs and toys, work outside the gates to the Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort. Before tourists can get to the monuments and touch the buildings’ brick and marble surfaces, they must walk past the vendors. Should they choose to, they may haggle and chat, ask for directions, and use the vendors as informal sources of information regarding the buildings’ hours of operation etc. For many tourists, an encounter with these men and their goods for sale happens before their encounter with history, and in 2012, I was no exception.

The vendors of toys and souvenirs have a location but no fixed space for display, no fixed time at which they put their wares out, no fixed time of departure and, as a result, no fixed income for the day or the month. Their livelihood depends upon the good will, need, or excitement of tourists each day.

I spoke with many of the vendors in detail. After answering my questions and referring me to items for sale, one of them rightly asked: “If you are writing about buildings, what is the point of looking at miniature helicopters fashioned out of packing material or tiny silver boats named the titanic?”

If the writing is about monuments why was I wasting my time at the peripheries?

The souvenirs I saw are not souvenirs one buys when visiting the British museum or a Roman ruin. There are no replicas of monuments, no postcards to purchase and mail “home.” Here the objects for sale are mainly decorative or made for play, produced in home industries, usually created from recycled or leftover materials coming out of factories. For example, one vendor makes beautifully detailed and coloured slippers out of the scraps of material used in large-scale shoe production, each slipper the size of my pinkie finger. What the buildings and the slippers have in common is that both may be found in Lahore. The monuments constructed in Lahore of the past, and the slippers assembled and sold in Lahore of the present.

I see the men (vendors) as part of the living history of the monument. They are a part of their own time and, as actors in time they are also constantly in flow with a separate time, which occurs on the other side of the gates. In this way, the periphery is part of the centre.

A monument is defined as something “erected in memory of a person, event, etc., as a building, pillar, or statue.”

A  souvenir: from “noun use of ( se ) souvenir to remember < Latin subvenīre to come to mind, equivalent to sub- sub- + venīre to come.”

When the buildings come to mind so do the men, so do their small economies.


Genesis: a herstoriography/excavation

In ARCHITECTURE, CHILDHOOD, HISTORY, Photo on December 4, 2012 at 6:03 pm

The first tour guide was my mother.

Literally she was my first tour guide to the city’s monuments and more.

mom and d

The way I remember it my mother was always driving us to places. In the afternoon she picked us (my sister and I) up from school. Having expended all our energy at school, in the late afternoon we changed colours, drooping away in the backseat of the car as my mother made trips to multiple tailors around the city. If I was lucky we stopped at my favourite book store where I salivated over pencil boxes and Crayola crayons. My sister having been content with amassing cuttings of fabric at the tailors’ workstation would happily play in her tower of katrans by the carload.

In my child’s head it seemed my father was often at work and my mother ever-ready with the keys to her car. As a result my mother would assume the role of designated host and tour guide for anyone visiting us. And people, they did come. People came to visit from other cities and towns, mainly from Karachi and Okara. When my mother’s relatives came from Karachi they demanded to be shown what Lahore was famous for. What Lahore was famous for firstly was a long list of rich, oily, meaty delicious street food. What Lahore was famous for secondly were its monuments. In the manner of seeing and not consuming my mother would escort our guests to one of the monuments of note in the inner city. These could have been any one of: Shahi Qila, Badshahi Mosque, Shalimar Gardens, Wazir Khan Mosque, the twelve gates of the old city, Minar-e-Pakistan etc. Not all of the buildings mentioned on the list are from the Mughal era (buildings which can be seen in present day Lahore are from at least three different periods in the city’s history: Mughal, British, Post-Independence).

The visitors, “they” wanted to be shown the sights so they could report back on them, so that they could see what the talk had been about, so they could say they too had seen the monuments of Lahore.

On one of these outings I remember someone in our party was wearing an ajrak. This must be the time when ajrak was in fashion. On that day I can only remember the print of the ajrak, my mother and my sister with any clarity. The others are all ghosts, relatives who could be interchanged with a similar set of relatives. I remember someone posing for photos. My mother may have been the poser or the photographer. That was in the late 80s or early 90s. Even today this is what visitors to the monuments do: they photograph themselves at the foreground of colossal and precise architectures.

When I stood at the steps of the Badshahi mosque earlier this year I thought well, I’ve been here before. I felt a fuzzy déjà vu, but also nostalgia. The nostalgia came to me in layers. At first my memory of the building was in association of it with my family, but as I stood there it also became an acknowledgement of the material and spiritual history of the building itself, and later of each of the other buildings that I was engaged with.

The buildings were constructed for a purpose. Some were palaces to retreat into, some were fortresses which saw plunder and war, some were places of holiness and some created for aesthetic pleasure derived out of the organization of nature into formal gardens which paid homage to the Mughals’ Perso-Turkic roots. Seeing the buildings in 2012 I appreciated them not only as buildings, or as massive feats of architecture and construction but I believe they are as alive as the people around them. They’ve been living here the whole time we’ve (reader, you and I) been around and then some.

The memories I spoke of at the beginning of this post point to quite a glorious childhood where my mother took me on long drives and to old sites, to parks and to faraway corners of the city. This time around I’m going into all of those spaces, not to see how the buildings got there but to try to get at, and/or to guess at their secret spaces.

Did you linger and stay? Get at, or guess at their secret spaces? View not just for pleasure but to see the things you missed the first time around?