Archive for the ‘HISTORY’ Category

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


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.

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?