On the morning of January 5, 2011, as the body of slain Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was placed in the grounds of the palatial Governor’s House in the heart of Lahore, there was much confusion over who would offer his funeral prayers.
Earlier, the federal government led by the Pakistan People’s Party, with whom Taseer was associated, had requested the Badshahi Mosque's khateeb – one who delivers the sermon during Friday and Eid prayers – to lead the prayer.
At the last minute however, the khateeb, who happens to be a government employee, refused. Another khateeb from the mosque within the Governor’s House was eventually brought in.
Even though he didn’t say as much, the khateeb of the Badshahi Mosque was likely responding to the calls of the leading ulema (scholars of Islam), to boycott the funeral procession terming Taseer a blasphemer and his Namaz-e-janaza, or funeral prayers, un-Islamic.
In this way, the Badshahi Mosque, through its khateeb, decided to side with Mumtaz Qadri, Taseer’s killer and the face of a new kind of religious extremism in the country. Qadri, Taseer's body guard, had assassinated the governor for opposing the country’s blasphemy law. History was repeating itself. For, centuries ago, it was this very mosque that had become a symbol of rising intolerance and religious fanaticism across the peninsula of undivided India.
Laying the ground
Facing the Lahore Fort, the mosque, with its tall minarets and bulbous dome, is a major tourist attraction. The adjacent food street with rooftop restaurants overlooking the courtyard of the mosque is a must-visit. Unaware of its historical context, many visitors consider it a symbol of Lahore and its Mughal past.
However, the mosque is also linked to the gruesome and blood history of the subcontinent.
Towards the end of his stint as the Lahore governor from 1646 to 1657, Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and the crown prince, summoned red bricks from Jaipur.
He sought to build a pathway from the Lahore Fort, the bastion of the Mughal empire, which would lead halfway across the city to the shrine of the Sufi saint Mian Mir who had died in 1635. Mian Mir had a special place in the prince’s heart because Dara Shikoh’s spiritual master, Mullah Shah, was a disciple of the saint.
Like the Sufi saint, the prince also represented a syncretistic Islam, diabolically opposed to the literal and puritanical form of the religion that was to be espoused by his younger brother Aurangzeb – who would eventually defeat him to the throne and go on to become Emperor of India.
In his lifetime, Dara Shikoh translated about 50 Upanishads – sacred Hindu texts – from Sanskrit to Persian, making them accessible to Muslim scholars. In his famous work, Majma-ul-Bahrain, he talks about the similarities between Sufi and Vedantic philosophies. He is also believed to be a close friend of seventh guru of Sikhism, Guru Har Rai, who had promised him military assistance against brother Aurangzeb in the impending war of succession.
Mian Mir, on the other hand, was a close friend of Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh guru, and came to his rescue when he was being persecuted by Mughal authorities. Under Dara Shikoh, one can argue that the Mughal throne was heading towards embracing not only religious tolerance but also religious pluralism, which had been shunned by both Shahjahan and before that, Jahangir, at various points for political expediency.
Now protected by a fortress-like wall the shrine of Mian Mir is a modest structure, standing in a spacious courtyard, brimming with pilgrims through the day. The wall seems to be a recent addition, given the security threats that Sufi shrines face from the onslaught of militant Islamism. Facing the wall of the shrine on a vacant plot is the mausoleum of Nadira Begum, the consort of Dara Shikoh. The alignment of the two mausoleums is such that the grave of the princess begins from where that of Mian Mir ends – symbolic of her head being at his feet.
Another Lahore icon associated with Dara Shikoh is the Naulakha bazaar, which falls between the Railway station and the historic Walled City or Old City of Lahore. Now a congested locality dominated by ironsmiths and wholesale traders, this was once a spacious garden – one of the many built in the Mughal era that gave Lahore its epithet, “city of gardens”.
Dara Shikoh is believed to have constructed a pavilion at the centre of this garden at the cost of Rs 9 lakh – thereby giving the locality its name.
The pathway that never was
As Lahore governor, Dara Shikoh once again brought funds into the city and embellished it even though the Mughal capital had shifted from Lahore to Shahjahanabad in Delhi during his father’s rule.
Lahore, at this point, stood the risk of becoming a Mughal outpost, but it was due to the efforts of Dara Shikoh that it remained in the political imagination. It is this love and loyalty of their prince that the people of Lahore repaid after his assassination.
Before Dara Shikoh could complete his pathway from Lahore to the shrine of Mian Mir, he was captured and killed by Aurangzeb’s men.
Aurangzeb ordered that a mosque be constructed out of the pile of red stones that Dara Shikoh had summoned for the task. The act itself symbolises the political and religious realignment of the city – whereas a Sufi shrine symbolised syncretism, the mosque was symbolic of religious orthodoxy.
This is how the iconic Badshahi mosque of Lahore came into existence. This was a portent of what was to come under the rule of the new emperor, who did not have much patience for the diverse religious traditions of India.
However according to folklore in the oral tradition, many Lahoris refused to offer their prayers here, calling it a bloody mosque constructed on the body of their prince, Dara Shikoh.
These stories have now been forgotten and Badshahi mosque has been wholeheartedly embraced by the people of Lahore. However, in 2011, the mosque was at the forefront of another controversy regarding the murder of another governor of Lahore, who, like his Mughal predecessor, was one of the few remaining progressive politicians in the country.
Just like Dara Shikoh’s death at the hands of Aurangzeb was a watershed event in the history of Mughal India, representing the death of a syncretistic Mughal culture, the death of Taseer too represents the end of secular progressive politics.
With the way people came out in support of Mumtaz Qadri it became clear that the country had undergone a paradigm shift, in which the myth of the silent tolerant majority had been busted. Much has changed between the deaths of these governors. But the role of Badshahi Mosque remains the same.
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
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