Lahore Fort, the grandest of all the Mughal citadels ever built in Pakistan, isn’t just about another incredibly opulent fortification that was raised up to symbolise the erstwhile empire’s grandeur and wealth. Rather, the significance that Lahore Fort boasts of today is mostly about the architectural designs and patterns of structures followed in building it up.
Unlike the other super extravagant forts commissioned by the Mughals, back in Shahjahanabad (the Red Fort) and Agra (the Agra Fort), the fort complex at Lahore isn’t made up of red sandstone. It is primarily built up of burnt bricks with lime mortar, as has been observed by Muhammad Kamran, in his research paper ‘Masonry Walls Analysis from Shish Mahal Lahore-Pakistan’ for the Engineering Design Bureau, uploaded in digitalised version to Research-Gate.
In the opinions of the Directorate General of Archaeology, Pakistan, the “early history of the fort is shrouded in mystery and nothing definite is known about it…”
However, it is widely believed that the various structures present in the fort were commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar (way back in the 16th century) though Mughal historian and author Dede Fairchild Ruggles, in his book, “Islamic Gardens and Landscapes” states that most of this fort complex was rebuilt in the seventeenth century, which is, if we note the timeline of the Mughal succession of Kings, during the hegemonies of Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb.
In “International Council of Monuments and Sites”, UNESCO notes that the fort is also regarded one of a kind because of the amalgamation of the various Hindu and Islamic motifs used to build its basic foundations, probably by Akbar himself.
Besides monumental structures that include the Shahi Hammam, the Badshahi Mosque, the iconic Alamgiri Gate, Diwan-i-Aam and Diwan-i-Khas, two typically unique structures make Lahore Fort a worthwhile visit.
The Naulakha Pavilion (called Naulakha [English for nine lacs] because of the gargantuan amount of nine lac Mughal rupaiyaas spent on building it to completion), located to the west of the Sheesh Mahal, in the northern Shah Burj Quadrangle section of the fort, was commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, at a time when architecture of the empire was at its zenith. The pavilion, built to serve as the imperial personal chamber of the emperor, was originally constructed with features that correspond to the Bengali, the European and the Mughal style of Architecture.
A unique Bengali style of architecture, something that is mostly observed in the terracotta temples of Bishnupur, caught the emperor’s attention. Specifically, it was the sloping roof above the main premises of the Jor Bangla temple and the Raas Mancha that incited an interest in Shah Jahan to create a marvel with a sloping roof. Built in the seventeenth century, this partially completed structure was then inlaid with innumerable precious and semi precious stones (brought from far and wide) that were symbolic of the pavilion being used as an imperial Mughal residence. Further, as Asher states, a baldachin in the European standards, (baldaquin or in Italian: baldacchino) was placed above the seat of the Emperor, denoting the height of the cross cultural interactions between the Mughals and the early Europeans.
Shah Jahan was an emperor recognised for his taste of massive architectural glory and grandeur, and it is this desire of his that resulted in the construction of the many Mughal forts and palaces seen and hauled praises at, today.
However, this taste of his did not evolve all out of nowhere. Shah Jahan’s father, the fourth Mughal Emperor Jahangir had a taste of his own. He is widely known to have promulgated the use of pietra dura in place of an all calligraphy Mughal mausoleum.
Amongst the very little but significant contributions of this emperor to the field of art and culture is the one-of-a-kind Picture Wall at the Lahore Fort.
Considered to be the greatest and the most magnificent mural of its kind in the world, the Picture Wall, commissioned by Jahangir in 1624 and completed by his son, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632, extends over 1,450 feet (440 m) by 50 feet (15 m) with almost 116 paintings that detail various tales and narratives associated with the Mughal Empire. Precisely, it is a wall in faraway Lahore that depicts scenes of the history of the then Hindustan and still smells Indian.
A congregation of 116 isolated panels, the wall built in the nearly extinct Kashi Kari style of mosaic art (Tribune calls it a form of decorative art that involves ceramic assortment on tiles, faience and fabric), depicts everything, ranging from “elephant fights, angels, and polo games that do not form a cohesive narrative” to “azdahas or winged dragons from ancient Persian mythology, cup-bearing angel figures herons, cranes and other flying birds.”
Nevertheless, the wall doesn’t falter to highlight the life and customs followed by the court sovereign, his nobles and his courtesans. One panel that highlights four men at a game of chaughan (now referred to as polo) is considered a masterpiece in itself. There are also panels, as aforementioned, that depict elephant fights and taming wild beasts, which were usually part of the hugely popular recreations for the daredevil Mughal royals. In ‘Civilisations: The Triumph of Art’, a show for the BBC, historian Simon Schama quotes, “There are angels from Europe. Chinese dragons even make an appearance. There are royal hunts and epic battles. History, mythology, birds and beasts – the whole world as Jahangir understood it is on display.”
With time however, Mughal grandeur faded away into uncertainty and what was once theirs, now became a property of the Afghan Durranis. After changing hands for a couple of times since the Durrani claim, the fort was identified as the official residence of the Sikh King Ranjit Singh. With his death and Maharani Jindan being taken away by the British with interior conflicts crumbling the Khalsa Empire, the fort fell into the hands of the English East India company Sahibs in 1849.
Centuries of neglect towards the marvellous Wall of Pictures rendered it dilapidated, its paintings in an almost faded out state, until the present day Agha Khan Trust for Culture, through a detailed investigation, revealed a bewitching wall mural that once was!
Author is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London
PUBLISHED: The Sunday Guardian, 13th December, 2020