Monday, February 18, 2008

Exploring Lahore

Recipe for a perfect Sunday

· Picnic basket full of delicacies
· Kids and rest of family in car
· Drive off to some place for a few carefree hours under the sun

My preference is usually some historic site while kids prefer wide open spaces where they can play. Thanks to the Mughals who made sprawling lawns an essential part of their architecture, finding “some place” that satisfies all parties is usually not a problem.
A couple of weeks ago the site of excursion was the Jahangir’s Tomb, the fourth king of the Mughal dynasty which ruled sub continent for over three hundred years.
The tomb was nothing more, nothing less than what I had expected. There have been some attempts to restore its crumbling facade but true to Pakistani standards all superficial and inadequate. Still it was better than most historic sites I had seen so far.
The only truly magnificent things over there were the trees in the surrounding gardens. Huge and towering they looked almost as old as the tomb itself. (Some of them were so wide at the base that it took a while going around them.)
Right next to Jahangir’ tomb is the tomb of Asif Khan, his brother in law. Although I don’t think Asif Khan earned this place of honor by being the brother of Jahangir’s favorite wife. It was probably because he was father of the next queen, the legendary Mumtaz Mahal, who’s last resting place is none other than the magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra.
Asif Khan put his own life at risk attempting to put his son in law, Shah Jahan on the throne. It is ironic therefore that he is made to lie next to the very king he sided against in the battle for the throne.
Speaking of Asif Khan’s burial chamber, what once must have been a simple yet respectable looking grave of an influential minister is now in a deplorable condition.

“It looks as if someone has smeared cow dung on top of it”.
This was my son’s first reaction to it. A harsh remark but nonetheless one that described the tomb’s outlook perfectly.
Ok! so may be Asif Khan managed to get himself buried in prime location , right next to a powerful emperor, but he was no emperor himself and that fact is evident by just looking at his tomb. Even the relevant authorities seem to have neglected him. From the looks of it, his tomb has not been a subject of even those shallow attempts of restoration that the tombs of his brother in law and sister on either side of him have undergone in the past.
Ironically the worst of the lot is Nur Jehan‘s mausoleum.
The queen, who during her life was famous for her aesthetic sense and refined taste is made to lie in isolation in depressing surroundings.
What once must have been one large enclosure is now divided into two parts with a busy road and railway track in between, putting Jahangir and Asif Kahn’s tomb on one side and the Empress Nur Jehan (Jahangir’s consort) on the other. Hence the inseparable in life got separated after death because of commutation problems of a growing city.
The atmosphere of peace and serenity, that still surrounds the tombs of Jahangir and Asif Khan, is sorely missing around Nur Jehan’s grave. Due to the absence of an encircling boundary wall the tomb is exposed to the noise and sight of bustling traffic on three sides (not to mention a speeding locomotive that passes by it every few minutes or so) and a jungle of wires and poles (probably a power station) on the remianing side, it does not look like anyone’s last resting place at all, let alone a woman’s who was once the most powerful lady in the subcontinent.
The part kids liked best was when we descending into the tomb of the dead queen.

(Sigh …. What do you do when one of you child takes exactly after you. It is like all your annoying habits thrown right back at you. My ten year old daughter’s zest for discovery has her climbing atop every minaret and peeping behind every corner. Normally I would not be irritated but doing all this while dragging an energetic five year old along whose chief interest in life so far is being naughty, is not something I look forward to.)

The underground passage that once must have been well lighted and well ventilated is in pitch darkness now. The candles lighted by the guard only succeeded in making it eerie instead of any brighter. A couple of small air ventilators that diagonally traveled upwards till reaching ground level were the only visibly unblocked ones remaining now.
I had heard that Nur Jehan’s coffin used to hang from the ceiling. This fact was confirmed by the guard at her tomb. According to him, this was her punishment for opposing Shah Jehan’s ascesion to the throne.
As Nur Jehan lived a comfortable, though reclusive life during the reign of Shah Jehan, it seems improbable that he would contrive to torture her so after death.
The kids were disappointed. A trip to the dark underground burial chamber was obviously not fascinating enough with out the queen hanging in mid air.
Apparently at some point in history someone took pity on her, took her sarcophagus down and buried her underneath the very spot she used to hover above.
Now that she was no longer there, the notion of her ever having dangled from the ceiling at all seemed ridiculously unacceptable.
The mausoleum on the top shows two symbolic graves, one of the empress Nur Jehan and the other of her daughter Ladli Begum but the rectangular markings on ground ( in the actual burial chamber) show the outline of only one grave, that of Nur Jehan , where is, Ladli Begum buried then?
This was the query put to me by my ever inquisitive children.
Hmmm, good question.
“When Nur Jehan’s coffin hung from the ceiling, was Ladli Begum made to hang with her as well ?”
“Or were they put in the same coffin and hung together ?”
Wow, hold your horses you lot. I haven’t figured out the answer to the first question yet”, I said
A valid point nonetheless.
If the daughter is indeed buried alongside her mother, there is no visible evidence of it under the ground. It seems that Ladli Begum was not considered important enough for anyone to even mark a rectangular outline around her decayed earthly shell.
Nur Jehan’s mausoleum was the last place we visited that day. The sun had gone down by the time we got back home. It turned out to be quite and eventful day. Interesting and enjoyable. But it was not wandering around old mausoleums, descending into underground crypts or even that energetic game of football in princely gardens that made it either interesting or enjoyable.
It was the fact that we spent it all together
That is what I think really made our Sunday perfect.