||There were three of us, my friend, another friend, and myself; sipping our smouldering coffees, cosily seated in a neat café in Lahore (us, not the coffees). It was just then that a friend came up with the instant proposal of paying a visit to the Mughal relics the next day – since we had too much time and no real work. The other friend thought it was the hot coffee that had gotten to his head, and only addicts or archaeologists went to such places these days.
‘Pakistani archaeologists rather go abroad,’ corrected the first friend, ‘and must not there be tourists, too?’
‘It’s not the Pakistan of yore that there’d be tourists!’
Minutes passed, evaporating along with the steam of vapours arising from the coffee-cups, and when all three cups had been rendered empty, it was decided: we were going to the Mughal structures the next day. Leisure and coffee do that to you. And maybe, Lahore. Or an interest in history, but who am I kidding?
And so we went. It’s just that we found ourselves wishing all along we hadn’t. It wasn’t our indolence, if you are to charge us of that. It was just the saddening condition of the relics. It was like being caught in a moat, if you may, for access to many structures was a lost cause.
And the saga started…
We first went to the Lahore Fort – my friend, another friend and myself. Just outside the main entrance, a guard tried to fool us into buying an album of the Fort’s buildings. And just as a friend was about to take it, experience got the better of me, and I apprehended none of the pictures would match with reality.
It is a most peculiar thing, you know. Every single time I’ve been to the Fort it seems it has shrunk, and so adroit are the people in charge, that you can’t guess how they condense it. Entrance into the Fort was a dilemma too. I didn’t have change, and neither had the ticket wallah.
And have I mentioned he was pretty much a jerk too?
Anyhow, forgotten valuables in old pockets came to the rescue.
The next shocker came when we saw the renovation works in some parts – and I let out a sigh. For you see, when I’d come here many years ago, the Sheesh Mahal was being renovated. And the next time I came, it was closed for public. Then I came once recently, and the Deewan-e-Aam was being renovated. This time it was closed too.
A dynasty of Closure…
But I won’t plunge you into chagrin with murky accounts, we had extensive joy while relishing every moment of our visit to the underground shrine (closed), Lahore Fort Museum (closed), Armoury Gallery (closed), Sikh Gallery (closed), a temple like building (closed), the corridors on the sides (closed), the insides of the Shah-Burj (closed), the Sheesh Mahal (closed), the Deewan-e-Aam (closed) and the upper stories (closed).
And the joys were not to end – some of the buildings had been converted into offices. I said I wanted to go to the director’s office to tell on the ticket-wallah, it ought to be his job to keep change, not to shoo people away. But as the order of things would have it, his office was also closed.
They call them naughty…
Then we came to a compound. A board told us it contained the female bath and the king’s bedroom. We spotted the bath, but the bedroom was not to be.
‘Female bath and the King’s bedroom in one place!’ started a friend, ‘no wonder the Mughals were naughty!’
‘Either that or those who’ve put up the board are!’
We passed a well as we walked. And a friend cheerfully suggested that we look for Anarkali within, since the Supreme Ishq song showed the unfortunate courtesan being cursed to the same. He said Anarkali, though I knew all he cared about was Iman Ali. We couldn’t find her, and thought about leaving in this state of despair.
But I must tell you…
Don’t take me wrong, you mustn’t. I’m getting old, and aging comes with pessimism. In months I’ll be cranky and dreadful for the children. So while my mind is sharp, I must tell you that if you have a thing for untidy gardens, unclean bathrooms, unhygienic canteens or paling marble to take photos with, look no further than the fort. For you see, this, in essence, is what the Mughal heritage is about. And the Punjab government agrees.
The grand supplication…
We then proceeded, swaggering across the Hazuri Bagh into the Badshahi Mosque. History tells us of it being the largest mosque in the world when erected, but let me remind you not to trust historians. Just as we were handling over our shoes at the gate, a friend thought about brushing up his history skills.
‘This mosque was built by the pious Aurangzeb, who abolished drinking in the courts and sewed prayer beads to earn a living!’
The other friend jumped in, ‘Except that he got his brothers killed for throne and father arrested!’
Leaving the issue of Aurangzeb’s piety aside, we fell into a greater pit when we heard two men commenting that the mosque was ill-directed, and didn’t point towards Mecca. I’d have paid heed, I swear, if only I hadn’t been so busy counting the crows atop the minarets.
After we were done admiring the grandeur, and praying (except one friend who complained he had back-ache), we saw some scripts of the Quran, followed by the Prophet’s (PBUH) possessions. Both were beautiful, but came with a problem. The people there were actually bullying the visitors to give in donations. So offensive was this persuasion that my heart came to my mouth and jumped forwards, onto the floor. I definitely would have paid on my own volition – but after all these decades of my life I cannot stand someone pretending to be on higher moral ground directing me on my religion.
As I was walking out, exasperated, I chirped to the guard, ‘I’m not a Muslim!’
My friend pushed me out, ferocious that I might be tried for blasphemy for this. But I remained largely pre-occupied with repositioning my heart within my chest, careful it didn’t miss a beat.
While we were getting back into our foot-wear, the shoe-keeper brazenly hinted that he be given money, despite there being directions to the contrary.
‘The way people here ask for money’, said a friend, ‘you’d believe you are not in a mosque but in that street behind!’
It was an adult-rated joke. And despite being more than an adult, I got it after two days.
We then went to…
Shalimar Gardens. It was well-known in my days for many of the songs on PTV were shot here. Given that history and I have always had a complicated relationship, I was at a loss to say anything about the gardens’ history. We took aid from a board, but memory is weak to me now as to what it said. But I told my friends there were seven gardens originally, but that after the Sikh rule, only three remained. Hearing of Sikhs, a friend emphatically expressed his wish of visiting the Golden Temple. We duly ignored him.
Water – and other fantasies…
We took some time out to marvel at the exuberant use of water in the garden. Just the infrastructure really, because water in its elemental form was rare to be seen – and the fountains, most definitely, didn’t work.
While strolling in the gardens, we came across several boards proudly claiming that this was a world heritage site and renovation projects were often carried out by UNESCO. We had seen such boards in the Fort as well and were compelled to conclude that UNESCO did in Pakistan as the Pakistanis did. We also spotted many couples in the garden, that a friend couldn’t help smirk that this was where a certain Karachi anchorperson should have come to.
There were mobile numbers on the walls, too, of those desperate for true love. A friend noted some down, promising he’d text them things that don’t go well with family humour.
The other friend stopped by the marble jaali while moving out, and dramatically wondered how’d have Mughal princesses felt looking at the water flickering like pure diamonds. I told him that a public park was not the best place for a man to let his feminine side take over.
We found a guard, and asked him why the foundations didn’t work.
‘In the times of Mughals, they didn’t have electricity, still these fountains worked. Now that we have electricity, they don’t!’
‘We don’t have electricity either!’, was our unanimous reply.
Reaching Shahdara was no mean task…
After being turned down by fifteen rickshaws (no one apparently fancied Jahangir much) one agreed to take us. And it had started to rain, too, to give you the details.
Jahangir’s tomb is beautiful – they say it was the grandest Mughal structure after the Taj. While in the compound, a friend noticed there was rain in his head. I noticed rain drops on my camera, and the realisation wasn’t comforting.
As we went to the grave, a guard came up and started complaining on how the government doesn’t care a tad about these sites. A friend asked the reason. The other friend chimed in, ‘because in all probability, a dead Mughal isn’t likely to come out of his grave to cast a vote…!’
And I knew…
The expressions of the guard suggested the joke hadn’t gone well, so I changed the subject.
‘Why can’t we go to the minarets? Have they gone weak?’
‘No. They are strong as steel. It’s just that the people may commit suicide if they’re opened!’
And that’s when I got it, clear like a crystal. The reason why so many Americans commit suicide. Should they do away with the sky-scrapers ?
Too much for sore eyes…
After attending the grave, we were to go to the opposite side of the compound to see Asif Khan’s tomb, but the guard warned us there was more charas and weed to be seen there than archaeology, so we skipped. While bidding farewell, a friend commented that the numerous rooms along the boundary walls, called ‘Akbari Sarai’ were converted as storage rooms for Railways during the time of the British – apparently to incite some expletives for the British.
‘At least they wouldn’t have stunk then!’, the attack bounced back.
While going towards the main road, the decrepit tomb of Noor Jahan came into view. But since her last resting place was already been pounded upon by the players of cricket there, we thought not to add to her agony.
We needed coffee, anyway.
Back to Coffee…
The second-last sip.
‘Why doesn’t the archaeology department or the ministry of culture or whoever’s concerned do something for the improvement of these sites?’
‘After seeing all you have, do you think anyone’s even concerned?’
The question answered itself.