A blue board pointed towards a small trail heading into the jungle. In front of me was a majestic lake, the lifeline of Kallar Kahar. This small town lies on the banks of the river Jhelum, within the embrace of the salt range. It has been a tourist destination for a long time but its popularity has increased immensely since the construction of the Motor Way. The entire region is a treasure trove for archaeologists and students of ancient history. Not far from here is the ancient Shiva temple of Katas Raj. A little further east is the fort of Nandana. North of Katas Raj, located on top of a mound, is the complex of Tilla Jogian, a vast area with a pool at the centre and several smadhs around it. Since time immemorial, this has been the most important religious pilgrimage for Jogis in Punjab, abandoned at the time of Partition.

I walked on the small trail, following the board, climbing the gentle slope of the mountain. Then, almost abruptly, the trail ended and the Takht-e-Babri was in front of us. A small black monument made of rocks, it was an unimpressive structure – a staircase culminating in a small platform. A board next to it read that Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, had constructed a garden here that he called Bagh-i-Safa, and in the middle of the garden this throne was constructed. Standing on it, Babur addressed his forces, the board mentioned. The garden had been taken over by the jungle.

Perhaps my disappointment at looking at the monument came from my heightened expectations. Babur, in his wonderful autobiography, wrote about the Takht-e-Babri. It was the first Mughal construction in India. Having grown up in Lahore, I had always been just a few kilometers away from splendid Mughal architecture.

Architectural masterpieces

As children, we had returned to the iconic Badshahi Masjid several times for our school trips. Standing on the edge of the walled city, overlooking the Lahore Fort, the smadh of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the Minar-e-Pakistan, the mosque, summoned by Emperor Aurangzeb and constructed on the model of the Jama Masjid in Delhi, has become a symbol of the city. Its marble dome and its sandstone tiles shine in the night as it is lit up for tourists visiting Food Street, which runs parallel to it. The sombre and graceful exterior of the mosque is in sharp contrast with the elaborate geometrical patterns on the inside, where flowers and other floral patterns sculpted on the wall hang precariously. The mosque gracefully embraces both designs – the external sobriety and the mesmerising patterns on the inside.

The Badshahi Masjid in Lahore was made in the likeness of Delhi's Jama Masjid. (Credit: Kamran Aslam/Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under CC BY 4.0)

About a kilometer from here, deep inside the Delhi Darwaza of the walled city of Lahore, is the Wazir Khan Mosque, one of the most beautiful specimens of Mughal architecture in all of South Asia. Constructed during the reign of Emperor Shahjahan and summoned by his governor of Punjab, Wazir Khan, this mosque has a spectacular splatter of colour all over it. It is overwhelming, assaulting the aesthetic sensibilities of an unwary tourist. All of these colours, blue, red, yellow and green, stand distinctly, retaining their individual identity, yet they also blend together, giving the mosque its own distinct flavour. At the entrance of the mosque, on the roof, are honey-combed structures called muqarnas. Distinct to Islamic architecture, these structures are a product of complex mathematical formulas, highlighting how scientific progress goes hand in hand with artistic development.

Perhaps not as famous as the Badshahi Masjid, the mosque has recently come on the radar of tourists searching for cultural Lahore deep within its intertwining streets. It is impossible not to fall in love with this monument.

The Wazir Khan Mosque, built during Shahjahan's time, is a riot of colours. (Credit: Shahbaz Aslam6669 / Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Right at the entrance of Delhi Darwaza is the newly revamped Shahi Hammam, another monument constructed by Wazir Khan. Fairies and djinns dance on the walls of this royal bath as they play heavenly instruments. Floral and geometrical patterns merge into each other in a beautiful union of mathematics and art. The frescoes on the domes spiral, hypnotising the onlooker. The thick walls of the structure with smartly designed windows make the hammam breezy even on a hot summer day.

The Shahi Hammam is a union of mathematics and art. (Credit: Ibnazhar / Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Humble beginnings

Unconsciously, I had expected the Takht-e-Babri to be a grand structure at par with these magnificent buildings I had grown up visiting and falling in love with. This was the throne of Babur, the first Mughal king, the founder of the Mughal Empire. There would not have been a Badshahi Mosque or a Shahi Hammam if there was no Babur. The structure should have reflected the symbolic significance of the empire. It was to be the foundational stone of one of the world’s richest empires.

But it was nothing like what I had expected it to be. The first Mughal structure in India was just a small platform with a grand name. It was the construction of a king on the run, in search of an empire, not an emperor whose family had been at the pinnacle of power for generations, controlling the destiny of millions, with unlimited wealth. The monument was an embarrassment to the splendid tradition of Mughal architectural that was to follow.

Yet, perhaps more than any of the structures mentioned above, it has the greatest symbolic value. It represented the arrival of the Mughals in India. It was a stamp of their authority. It was to be the throne of Babur, the pauper prince who laid the foundation of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.