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Notes on the Geography of Pakistan: Lahore Fort

Lahore, the capital of the Pakistani Punjab, is a city of seven million today, up (if that is the word) from 250,000 a century ago.  We begin with the old core, especially the fort and royal mosque.

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We're standing atop the wall of the Lahore Fort and looking into the Old City, which, quite obviously, is not old, at least in the sense of old buildings. What's old is the street network, the mixing of land uses, and the general congestion.

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We've gone down into those streets in the last picture to look back at the fort and, in the distance, its public entrance, the Alamgiri Gate. You probably can't see it, but the fort's wall is of brick, which is unusual, because the forts at Delhi and Agra are stone. Why the difference? People who like practical reasons will say there was no stone available at a reasonable distance here. Others, of a cultural turn (isn't that the approved jargon these days?), will say that Lahore was always culturally closer to Persia than India and looked there for its models.

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The Alamgiri Gate was built by Akbar in the 1560s, and hundreds of visitors--the great majority Pakistani--pass through it each day even now to look at its monumental ruin. Alone you won't be. During the British period, this gate was permanently closed; entrance was through a gate near the Elephant Path, shown in the next picture.

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Earlier still, royalty used to enter the fort this way, up the wide-tread but shallow-riser steps of the Elephant Path, or Hathi Paer.

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In the distance on the left you can see one of the minarets of the Badshahi or King's Mosque. You can even discern the top of the Alamgiri Gate, wedged in some treetops. In any case, we've come all the way across the fort, not far from the point where the first picture was taken looking into the city streets. We're looking back across the fort, in other words. Half of it is open ground, divided into the quadripartite char bagh form so beloved of the Mughals. On the right is the British-reconstructed Hall of Public Audience, or diwan-i-am, comparable to the diwan-i-am in the Red Fort at Delhi. This fort's buildings, in any case, are concentrated behind and to the left of the hall.

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We've gone into the Hall of Public Audience now and are daring to take the seat of the emperors.

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Here's that perch, more properly the balcony-cum-throne called the jharoka,, where the Mughal emperors appeared daily, at least until the time of Aurangzeb.

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This daily appearance was derived from the Hindu practice of going to a temple to see (and be seen by) a god. Aurangzeb discontinued the practice as sacriligious.

The foundation brackets are of red sandstone and the superstructure is of marble. It's handy to remember that anything here of sandstone was probably built by Jehangir; anything of marble, by his son, Shah Jahan. There's nothing left from the earlier emperors, except for Akbar's wall. Aurangzeb concentrated his building activity on the mosque just outside the fort.

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We're stepped behind the Hall of Public Audience and into Jahangir's Quadrangle. Straight ahead is the Bari Khawabgah, originally Jahangir's sleeping quarters, positioned at the north edge of the fort and with a view over the Ravi River, 50 feet below. The British adapted the building for military purposes. Now it's an art gallery.

The pool has a central mahtabi, or marble platform. Below this level, underground apartments provided a refuge in hot weather.

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The sides of the quadrangle are rimmed with dalans or porticos. We'll take a closer look at that building at the far end.

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You can tell from the sandstone that this was built by Jehangir, who was a connoisseur despite his many brutalities in the name of statecraft.

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Foot of the column; masons say that this stone is easier to work than wood.

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The technical term for such post-and-beam construction, here elaborately bracketed, is trabeated.

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Various animals are carved into the brackets, here with elephants and peacocks.

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We've moved into the courtyard to the west. In the distance, Shah Jahan's marble (of course) Hall of Private Audience, or Diwan-e-Khas, from 1645. It may look a little barren, so you have to mentally reconstitute the garden.

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The same hall, with pierced marble screens or jalis overlooking the fort's north wall and the Ravi River.

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An adjoining courtyard, the Ath Dara. This is post-Mughal and built as a court of justice by Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh empire. The alternating marble and sandstone up top is diagnostically Sikh.

A sketch from the 1840s by Charles S. Hardinge shows several dozen Sikh soldiers literally lounging around while waiting for their pay. (See F.S. Aijazuddin, Lahore: Illustrated Views of the 19th Century, 1991, p. 79.)

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We've gone into the next courtyard and its Shish Mahal or "Mirror Palace," built as a harem for Shah Jahan about 1631.

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You'll have to use a lot of imagination to envision the place without scaffolding and, ideally, with lots of reflected candle light.

In 1808, a British officer met here with Ranjit Singh and left this account: "I waited upon the Rajah Runjit Singh, who received me very politely, in a grand, lofty, spacious saloon of the palace, all marble, and inlaid with red and other coloured stones, pretty much resembling that at Agra. It is about 100 feet in length, and is called the Aeena Muhul (or Hall of Mirrors), from the decoration of its roof by small square-shaped pieces of glass, at which the raja informed me the Sikhs used to amuse themselves by firing with their matchlocks, and would soon have destroyed it totally, had he not put a stop to their amusement, by making it his chief place of abode. In front of this saloon there was a fountain playing, and in the centre of it, is his hot weather sleeping room, tattied in...." (Quoted in F.S. Aijazuddin, Lahore Recollected: an Album, 2003, p.55.)

Not long after, the palace fell into serious disrepair. A report from 1905-6 states that "the preservation of the ornamental roof of the Shish Muhal, which is threatened with destruction on account of the rotting of the old massive beams, has unfortunately been found impracticable. The breaking up of the ceiling continues, and all it is possible to do is to prop up the beams from below. To entirely restore the roof, even if workmen could be found to do such work now, would be too costly." (Aijazuddin, p. 56.)

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In the same courtyard, and overlooking the fort's west wall, is the Naulakha, a building with the very distinctive bangala roof, derived, as its name suggests, from Bengal.

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We'll shortly see the Naulakha from down below, where Lahoris could see Shah Jahan.

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This is the view from the Naulakha; it shows the Badshahi or King's Mosque in the distance. The obscured yellow and white building is Ranjit Singh's tomb. The arched gate in the left foreground is a British addition, as is the arcaded guardroom to the right, from 1863.

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The detailing in the Naulakha is extraordinary, with semi-precious inlays.

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The capitals, for example, have agate, jade, and lapis.

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An exterior panel.

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This is the comparatively austere pearl mosque, or Moti Masjid, from 1645. Plans of the fort show almost all its buildings as a set of nested or contiguous rectangles, but this mosque is the exception, oriented to face Mecca and in line not with the rest of the fort but with the Badshahi Mosque. The British used it as a government treasury.

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We're on the way out now. In fact, we've just passed through the Elephant Gate (the only gate used during the British period) and turned around to notice that the fort's wall on this side is not barren brick. You can just make out a Persian inscription over the lower arch. It modestly reads: "The king of Jamshed's dignity, Solomon's grandeur, Kewan's palace, whose glorious banners rise higher than even the heaven and the sun, the second lord of constellation, Shah Jahan, to whom in justice and generosity Nowsherwan is no equal, nor Afredon a parallel, ordered a regal tower to be erected, which in height is beyond all measurement and conception, like unto the highest heaven. In beauty, loftiness, excellence and free circulation of the air, such a tower never has been and never will be seen under the sky. The faithful disciple, the slave Abdul Karim Yakdi, after the completion of the building, found the following era [?] of its foundation: 'like the splendor of this king possessing an army as great as that of Jamshed, may this fortunate and lofty tower remain safe from destruction for ever!' --1041 A.H." Despite the fine language, the tower no longer exists and was probably gone before the arrival of the British.

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The decoration was begun by Jahangir, though Shah Jahan saw it finished.

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We've walked along the wall a short way and can see, up top, the swooping roof of the Naulakha.

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If we continue around the corner, we can see that pictures line the fort's north wall, too.

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Here we've walked up that north wall and come out beyond a second wall. The various courtyards we've seen are all up there on the left.

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From those courtyards, it's possible to look out and see the north wall's paintings.

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Presumably they were once blazingly colorful.

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Now, the ornament is vestigial.

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Still, it's spectacular--and puzzling. What are those angels doing? Good question: the local answer is that they're fairies, thank you.

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The images "prove that the precepts of Islam, which forbid the making and painting of the figures of living creatures, were not too rigidly enforced" by Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Aurangzeb would not have approved, but Thomas Roe visited Lahore in 1615 and wrote that "there was a great influx of Europeans and considerable encouragement to their religion." Thomas Coryat wrote the same year of Jahangir: "He speaketh very reverentially of our Saviour, calling him the Great Prophet Jesus." (Syad Muhammad Latif, Lahore: Its History, Architectural Remains and Antiquities, 1892, p. 120-1.)

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Here's the ensemble.

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One intact panel.

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The accompanying narrative?

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Notice what looks like a picture of a pigeon roost?

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It's not a picture, and it's still occupied.


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