A few days ago I visited the mausoleum of Nur Jahan, the Empress of India, believed to be the real power behind the Mughal throne in the 17th century.
While the rest of the Mughal queens and princess hid in the shadows of the harem, she accompanied her husband, Emperor Jahangir, to the court and partook in discussions pertaining to the running of the state.
She is the only Mughal lady to have coinage struck in her name and was also in charge of the Emperor’s seal, which meant that all legal documents passed through her hands before they were ratified. It is believed that she yielded immense control over her husband and hence was the real power behind the throne – the most powerful person in Mughal India till the time of the Emperor’s death.
Her fortunes changed in 1627 when Jahangir died and a war of succession broke out between his sons. Using her vantage position of being in Lahore, the Mughal capital at the time of the Emperor’s death, she prompted her son-in-law, Prince Shahrayar, to seize power as he also took control of the royal treasury, doling out bribes to nobles for supporting him.
In the meantime, Prince Khurram, the future Emperor Shah Jahan, was in the Deccan. However, his father-in-law Asif Khan, the older brother of Nur Jahan, was closer to the centre of power, and using his position as the Governor of Lahore was able to secure the crown for his son-in-law.
While history recalls the battle between the Mughal brothers, it was the Persian siblings Nur Jahan and Asif Khan shaping the course of history behind the scenes.
Without Asif Khan, Shah Jahan would have never been able to secure the Mughal throne for himself. Khan’s rise in the Mughal court during the tenure of Emperor Jahangir was prompted by his sister. It was after Jahangir married Nur Jahan that the emperor appointed Khan the Governor of Lahore. And after Jahangir’s death, Nur Jahan’s fate depended on her brother.
Grand mausoleums fall to ruin
The mausoleums of Nur Jahan, Asif Khan and Jahangir were part of one big garden before the British decided to separate the tombs of the former emperor and empress by laying a railway track in the middle, and converting this vast Mughal garden into a thriving town called Shahdara, or the gateway of the Kings.
Rising from the middle of this settlement behind the mausoleum of Nur Jahan, I could notice the oval dome of Asif Khan’s mausoleum. Somewhere behind that were the minarets of the mausoleum of Jahangir, invisible to the naked eye.
For years, members of civil society in Lahore have lamented the condition of the mausoleum of Nur Jahan. As the archaeology department focused on Jahangir’s tomb, it ignored the other two in the vicinity, where local boys inscribed their names and numbers on the walls. Over the years the buildings fell into disrepair, as drug addicts found a permanent refuge in these abandoned spaces.
However one Sunday morning, when I visited the mausoleum, it was clear that the government had finally decided to also renovate this particular tomb that it had ignored for decades.
A few government officials sat under the shade of trees, while several laborers worked on the intricate stone designs of this tomb. However, unlike the tomb of Jahangir, this has still not become a tourist attraction, where the government charges an entry fee. It was an open thoroughfare where anyone could walk in and see the Empress and her daughter, Ladli Begum, in their final resting place.
It is this particular aspect of the mausoleum that I found the most difficult to reconcile with. Here are two Mughal women, who at the prime of their power, were protected by hundreds of guards. No ordinary person could even dream about entering their harem, and yet today their graves are unattended, welcoming, if even reluctantly, anyone who wants to pay them a visit.
For years, the local populace that would have once quivered at hearing the name of the Empress used her mausoleum as their personal space, leaving their marks all over the place.
Whose historical heritage?
To the cultural elite of Pakistan, this, of course, is yet another example of the disregard that ordinary Pakistanis exhibit towards their cultural and historical tradition. But the question is how are the palaces and mausoleums of queens and kings representative of the cultural and historical tradition of ordinary Pakistanis?
At the zenith of their power, the Mughal nobility exerted its influence, just unlike any other absolute kingdom, in complete disregard of the local populace.
Lahore was once known as the city of gardens, due to several gardens constructed here by the Mughals. However for generations these gardens were off-limits for the local people. These were only for the local elite. Why then today is the local populace expected to embrace the remnants of the authorities that had them chained for generations, as their cultural and historical heritage?
Unfortunately this elitist outlook on cultural heritage has become blatantly clear once again in the recent Chauburji case in Lahore.
Hijacking a human issue
Located on the Multan road, the Chauburji serves as a roundabout connecting several important routes in the city. This was once the gateway to another splendid Mughal garden believed wrongly to have been established by the Mughal princess Zeb-un-Nissa, the daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb.
The Punjab government has now decided to pass a metro line from close to this historical monument threatening its feeble structure. Members of civil society in Lahore have protested vehemently against this plan and urged the government to change the course of the track, but the government is reluctant to do so.
The entire debate about the metro train in Lahore now revolves around this historical structure. That has silenced the voices of hundreds of ordinary traders and citizens whose shops and houses have been demolished by the government to make way for the metro track. The government assured them of compensation but there has been delay in payments, while others have complained that the compensation is not enough.
But the media and civil society members in Pakistan have maintained a deafening silence about this aspect of the metro-train. The debate is mainly about Chauburji.
This reminds me of an incident from my university days when I was taking a course on Islamic spirituality. I approached my professor after class and asked him if archaeology was un-Islamic, given that Prophet Muhammad demolished pre-Islamic deities once he took over Mecca and Kaaba. My professor avoided answering the question but instead replied that archaeology becomes controversial when governments and other organisations spend more money on the protection of historical monuments than human life.
Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities