When the levee breaks…

Saad Sarfraz Sheikh describes how the floods in Pakistan are an ‘insult to injury’, owing to its existing barrage of problems…

Adrift and nobody to help but themselves... Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

Adrift and nobody to help but themselves... Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

Beads of sweat drip down Irfanullah’s face as he clutches the weak branches of a date tree. It seems to be a safe place to settle into until Mother Nature’s rampage runs its course…

Barely an hour ago, the local mosque had warned them of the surging water, forcing Irfanullah to send his children to a distant village. He had later returned to his flooded house, which was already giving up to the might of the water. The walls were the first to go, as every brick disappeared into the rising water.

Stuffing whatever he had into his crimson salwar kameez, he climbed the tallest tree to save his life. He spent the entire night there, rattled, kicking off desperate snakes, only able to escape when people on a rubber raft spotted him the next morning.

Unlike victims in the neighbouring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who were caught unaware, Irfanullah was atleast ‘ warned’ in advance about the floods in his village of Daira Din Pannah, one of the hardest-hit flood areas in Punjab.


In South Punjab, displaced villagers litter and foment the horizon. They sit with whatever they have, under rain or sunshine, aligning their charpoys and covering them with clothes to use as shelter. Their expectant eyes trace the smoky trail of relief trucks, as they fade away, only to be absorbed by the mirage of disaster mismanagement.

There have been reports of those affected forcibly climbing trucks in their hope to grab mere morsels. Relief teams are forced to push them off the edge of the truck, as the majority among them are ‘ professionals’, people posing as victims of the flood. They are mostly labourers, joining the flood victims for food and other relief, depriving them of their deserving share.

Farooq, a labourer, defends himself by saying that if he can get all the basic necessities for his family by lining up, then there is absolutely no need to toil under the ruthless sun all day. Convenient indeed!

Pakistan’s 63rd anniversary was a true tribute to Partition, as its imagery was everywhere. Families were seen fleeing for safer areas with their livestock, carrying whatever they had. Naked children ran after their mothers, who followed their husbands shepherding their surviving livestock. Their loss of loved ones, homes, possessions, farms, livestock, livelihoods, and businesses has made them lose their remaining faith in the government as they were left on their own.

“We haven’t seen, or heard from, or been helped by the government,” says Khadim Hussain, a 27-year-old truck driver, while pointing to a large body of water. He says his house and all his possessions rest somewhere under the water. “We don’t expect any official help,” he adds.

A million cows and buffaloes drowned, unable to escape as their owners had forgotten to free them while fleeing. The military was seen justifying the defence budget by using its machinery while rescuing, but the government was nowhere in sight.

Visitors are disheartened not to see a single government relief truck or activity in the affected areas, and wonder where the government is at such a critical time. “We have nothing, nothing,” says Irfanullah. “And no one to help us.”

What about aid from Islamabad? “The government can’t help anyone,” he says coldly. “The government itself is a disaster.”

Facebook statuses of many Pakistanis proclaim, “Don’t donate to any Government funds! Go for NGOs!” Now there’s reluctance as even people in Pakistan are not giving generously to this flood fund because they’re not too sure the money will be spent honestly.

Filling a vacuum

The lack of a strong government response to a national disaster has allowed banned Islamist groups to fill in the vacuum, who are seen flaunting their flags at different camps. This could resonate with desperate people living on the edge and draw them closer to the militants.

A militant-plagued Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is now a psychological and emotional testing ground for both the local militants and American forces, each trying to carve out niches in the hearts and minds of people. While the Americans are seen as only trying to improve their image, the militants are sharpening potential recruits for future militant attacks.

The international media has also questioned the ‘credibility’ of the unpopular Pakistani government, and, adding insult to injury, it is now singing tales of eternal state collapse and “final nail in the coffin” stories. Such reportage has affected the flow of aid badly, as instead of genuinely making the world feel sorry, the media is extracting hate and disgust.

This month the world finally woke up to the devastation and Indian aid worth $5 million was accepted by Pakistan. But this still needs to be stepped up. India is strategically the only country that can really help Pakistan, as it is in its interest to have a stable Pakistan that is free from terrorism, allowing good relations and a platform to resolve long standing issues.

Pakistanis can make use of low-priced and quality Indian commodities, eliminating the need to import low grade Chinese and costly European products.

It may seem like a distant dream, but if 80 per cent of the trucks in Pakistan run on smuggled Indian tyres, then a peaceful Indo-Pak synergy will be beneficial for both. Fuel starved Pakistanis wouldn’t mind Indian Oil!

This disaster can either strengthen or severely weaken Pakistan’s fragile civilian government, also making Pakistanis even more sceptical or hostile, as 20 million survival stories resurface. No one can predict anything, as the only thing obvious is that nothing good will happen to Pakistan and the war against terrorism — unless global aid comes to salvage the sunken state of Pakistan.

Saad Sarfraz Sheikh is a journalist based in Lahore. He can be reached at: saadsarfrazsheikh@gmail.com

Published in The Hindu, October 2, 2010



Anarchy prevails…

The country’s largest oil refinery, PARCO (100,000 barrels per day), situated in Mehmood Kot, Muzaffargarh District, is surrounded by water and has been shutdown. Earlier efforts to divert floodwater from approaching it were hampered by surrounding landlord tribes of influential Khars and Khosas, who wanted to “protect” their farms.

Families have been evacuated and a select team of PARCO’s employees remain stranded there, surviving on scarce food reserves.

The refinery, which generates 65% of the national oil output, approximately 14,000 tonnes of fuel products daily, will remain shut until the waters recede. PARCO’s daily production consists of petrol (3 million litres), diesel (3,200 tonnes), LPG (450 tonnes), jet aviation fuel (1.75 million litres) and kerosene (12 million litres).

PARCO’s most important product is furnace oil (3,500 tonnes daily), which is used by all thermal power plants to generate 400mw of electricity daily. None of the other oil refineries (Attock and Karachi) with their limited production capabilities can cope with the existing demand. Nor can local ports handle such heavy imports. Furnace oil and diesel are deficit products and are already imported through Karachi to meet the demand.

There is an extreme shortage of vehicles and public transporters have increased the fares, which is bound to complicate relief work as all public transport and trains run on diesel.

Other power plants in the vicinity, Kot Addu Power Station (KAPCO) and the Lal Pir Thermal Power Plant have also closed down due to the raging floods. Twelve turbines of KAPCO (1600mw) and two turbines of Lalpir (730mw) are inactive, plunging the country further into an energy crisis. Kot Addu and its adjoining areas have been without power for the last four days.

A major energy crisis is unavoidable, as Pakistan will once again suffer cuts in electricity, fuel supplies and would require sound management by the government. The UN has confirmed that billions of dollars are needed to deal with the aftermath of the floods, where rehabilitation and redevelopment of infrastructure will take centre-stage. Pakistan was supposed to come out of the country’s worst energy crisis by the end of this year. However, the recent floods are likely to plunge the country once again into short term spells of load shedding, and a soaring import bill due to costly furnace oil and diesel in the months to come. It is time that urgent measures are taken by the policy makers to assess the likely demand and cost of furnace oil and the country is saved from perennial darkness.

Saad Sarfraz Sheikh reporting from Mehmood Kot

Published in The Friday Times, August 13-19, 2010 | Vol. XXII, No. 26

Cacophonous carnage

Lahore was shaken and shattered on July 1, 2010, when the shrine of the patron saint of the subcontinent, Ali Hajveri Data Ganj Baksh, was attacked by two suicide bombers on Thursday. The resulting impact was clearly visible on the faces of all residents of ‘Data ki nagri’, Data’s city. It was a familiar site after the blasts outside the shrine’s complex, as endless decks and streams of frantic ambulances crowded the roads and lined along the pavement, awaiting orders.

Inside the shrine, shoes and clothes lay scattered on the floor. Complete pandemonium ensued, as the entire place smelt like a meat shop with body parts scattered on the ground, there was a murky layer of blood plastered on the marble floor, ugliness that would take weeks to clean, and many generations to forget.

Emergency officials scampered around the complex, screaming for more ambulances, as civil defence officials scavenged the remnants of the victims.

Officials rummaged and sifted through the rubble and filled cans full of ball bearings.

The Police also recovered remains of the suicide bombers.

Rescue 1122 and civil defence workers reached within 20 minutes of the blast. One could hear them calling out to each other, “Look, I found a watch, let’s send it to the morgue, it could help in identification purposes…”

Lahore’s violent and explosive past has trained them well. Barely a month ago, they were rescuing people from an attack on two Ahmaddiya worshipping places.

Thursday is the busiest night of the week as around 40-50,000 people frequent the shrine.

This Thursday it was no different, as the usual number of people settled themselves at the complex, unaware of the impending doom. They later drowned in a massive blood bath as a string of suicide attacks struck different parts of the complex.

CCTV footage clearly showed how the suicide bombers had penetrated the security gates. It showed bombers in their final moments before they blew themselves up. In the footage, a security guard at the shrine was seen chasing one of the bombers shortly before a huge blast, which sent crowds of panicked devotees fleeing in all directions. Salim Raza, a guard posted at an entry gate with a scanner, detected a suspicious man clad in a green turban, white robes and a shawl, carrying a bag. He ran after the suspected bomber who seconds later detonated his explosives, engulfing the site in a huge cloud of white smoke.

Entering through the same security gates later made one realise how two men wrecked the future of at least two hundred families, who had lost their brethren in the attacks. Doctors said they were expecting the death toll to rise, as the city’s main hospitals declared a state of emergency. Relatives poured into morgues and emergency wards to identify the survivors and victims.

Angry protesters waited in the darkness, building a mob around the complex, igniting whatever they could get their hands on. The Police were unable to control them, and resorted to firing to disperse the violent crowds, who had just damaged media vans and thrashed their employees for “lying to the masses” The firing caused further panic and confusion, as people ran in all directions.

Initial reports suggested the use of crackers/low intensity bombs, but as survivors ran for their lives leaving behind victims, it was clear that it was indeed a high grade bomb.

Data Darbar was the last place one could think of being attacked, but considering the fact that these terrorists wanted to cause maximum damage, using a carefully orchestrated attack strategy, it comes as no surprise.

Eye-witness at the shrine recalled the explosion as an intense one, and said that a majority of the victims were busy praying inside the complex.

A resident of Lahore said that they now had nowhere to go, as mosques and shrines were not safe anymore.

The lunger, which was stopped for the first time in history, was located in the basement, where volunteers were seen cooking large cauldrons of rice and vegetables in the past.

The Data Darbar administration stopped the distribution of free food among devotees, a tradition that has been a distinctive feature of the shrine for hundreds of years. “Free food was available 24 hours of the day for everyone, it had never been stopped under any circumstances,” said Jawad, a resident of Bhatti Gate area, a regular visitor. In addition to the devotees, free food was also a source of living for hundreds of labourers.”

Data Darbar Administrator Rao Fazalur Rahman, however, justified his decision to shut down the provision of free food. “The people associated with the preparation of lunger are in a state of shock,” he said, adding that lunger would be started as soon as the situation normalised.

The media carefully reported a lower death toll although from the blast site, it was evident that hundreds must have lost their lives.

The attack shut up those who still questioned whether these attackers were ‘Muslims’ or not, adding stead to the fact that all spheres of Muslim schools respected the Patron Saint of Lahore.

The Taliban were quick to deny and involvement and ‘condemned’ the attack, and ‘innocently’ announced that they never attacked ‘public places’…

It remains a mystery as to who did it, as no outfit has claimed responsibility till date.

The 3 day strike was widely followed, and traders estimated a business loss of Rs3 billion as all major markets and commercial shopping centres were shut. The loss of Rs3 billion did not include taxes and duties paid to the government.

“This is yet another blow for the city of Lahore. These bombings are further proof that there is only so much you can do to protect yourself. If someone is determined to blow themselves up, they will do it.” an official said.

Master of both Worlds…

Baba Bulleh Shah's Shrine...

Baba Bulleh Shah's Shrine...

 Amid the smell of incense and rose petals, Muhammad Amin wipes the dust off his face and refills empty oil lamps that are flickering to their death. A custodian at the shrine of Sufi Saint Hazrat Baba Bulleh Shah, Amin curses visitors who steal kerosene from the oil lamps. In the same light of the oil lamps, an expectant Mukhtara Begum sits in eerie chilly silence. With her only child, a frail daughter, clasped tightly in her lap, she prays for a son. It’s clearly written all over her face. She believes the Saint listens to all. In the distance, another devotee interrupts their silence and utters a kafi from Bulleh Shah’s poetry. With a broken harmonium, he is here along with thousands of devotees at the 252nd Urs of Baba Bulleh Shah.

Bulleh Shah witnesses the activity from under a large green dome, in a shrine built along a mosque and a graveyard. A million wishes are made in the three day Urs, which is a mystical journey into a timeless world, reminiscent of a medieval fair. Devotees from distant lands spend nights at the shrine, eat free food, beat drums and sing poems.



Men and women dressed in saffron robes and cheap jewellery are a visual retreat. I met two fakirs who had travelled from different shrines and claimed to be devotees of Bulleh Shah. Baba Lal Pari Jhooley Lal, an old fakir, defined a dervaish as “someone who owned nothing, not even himself, but in reality, he owned everything, and nothing and no one in this world owned him”.  He said that since the inception of Islam, hardliners had always complicated religion, whereas Sufi saints had simplified the link between God and man. Their teachings still continued to break all barriers, and preached not only oneness of God, but also oneness of mankind. It’s true that Sufi saints not only unite people of different sects and religions, but also eliminate gender discrimination.

...men and women performing ablution (wuzuu) together...

...men and women performing ablution (wuzuu) together...

I saw for the first time in my life, women performing ablution along with men in the same line. But since women are not allowed to enter the grave chamber of the tomb, they swarm and surround the tomb’s square.

Many spurious ‘saints’ had erected little ‘healing’ corners where they were fooling people and accepting rewards in the form of food, money and other gifts. One of them would hold illiterate men and women in his arms, and slap them really hard on their necks and backs to ‘heal’ them. The shrine authorities took notice and got rid of them by dragging them out of the shrine.



Baba Bulleh Shah’s 250 years old shrine is simple yet beautiful. Elaborate tile work with aqua colours and a highly detailed roof are the highlights of the shrine. Different verses from his poetry are calligraphed around the tomb. Ignorant people tend to litter blindly and none bother to dispose their garbage properly. Due to security concerns, all roads leading to the tomb are blocked during the Urs. A typical smell of, rose flowers and human sweat amalgamate, giving an ancient aroma. People swarm to get their hands on free food at the shrine like flies, fighting for every strand of rice and piece of bread. It illustrates a sordid state of affairs. People from all over the country come to give their respect to the saint.

 The irony is that Bulleh Shah, now revered by people of all religions and culture, never got the recognition or respect he deserved during his lifetime. It’s not surprising, simply tragic, that when Bulleh Shah passed away, his dead body lay on the road in front of the house for almost a week (other accounts say 10 days). He had been refused by the mullahs to be buried after his death in the community graveyard because of his unorthodox views. Hence he was thrown on the garbage outside the boundary of Kasur. After the occurrence of such an ignorant and inhuman treatment, his friend from a distant place arrived and buried him.

 Bulleh Shah’s real name was Abdullah Shah and is commonly believed to have lived from 1680 to 1758. It is said that from among the ancestors of Bulleh Shah, Syed Jallalluddin Bokhari came to Multan from Bokhara three hundred years earlier. Here he got initiated from Hazarat Bahauddin Zakriya of Multan, and settled down. Thus Bulleh Shah’s family, being Syed, was related to Prophet Mohammed on one hand and on the other hand with Sufi thought and mystic traditions for centuries.

Bulleh Shah’s father, Shah Mohammed Dervish, was well-versed Arabic, Persian and Islamic scholar. The tomb of Bulleh Shah’s father still exists in Pandoke Bhatian. Every year an Urs is performed at the tomb and Bulleh Shah’s kafis are sung there. In this way a tribute is paid to both father and son, and it has assumed the form of a tradition to perpetuate their memory.

There is a strong historical evidence to show that Bulleh Shah too was an eminent scholar of Arabic and Persian. From his compositions we can find many references to Islamic thought and mystic literature.

Scholars and dervishes title Bulleh Shah as, ‘The Sheikh of Both the Worlds’. He is regarded as the greatest Punjabi mystic poet and his work is considered to be “the pinnacle of Sufi literature.”

3986179589_f048595ccfAfter attaining mystical realisation, his learning acquired a new significance. But he had to pass through difficult tests before he could attain inner knowledge. Only contact with his Murshid or Master Inayat Shah, a well-known Qadiri Sufi of his time, could make this attainment possible. Inayat belonged to the Arain caste and earned his living through agriculture or gardening. Bulleh Shah’s coincidental meeting with Inayat Shah melted his heart and he knew he had found his master.

Bulleh Shah held onto Inayat Shah’s cloak tightly for the rest of his life. A majority of Bulleh Shah’s poetry is a tribute to his Master. His life had become moments of madness and strange ecstasy. In the presence of his Master and with the practice of the path he had just been offered, Bulleh Shah’s spiritual condition and realisation metamorphosed into strong belief.

For a distinguished scholar and descendant of Prophet Mohammed, to accept an ordinary vegetable grower as his Master was a very extraordinary event in the social conditions of Bulleh Shah’s times. Bullah had to suffer the taunts and ridicule not only of men of his religion, clan and caste, but also of all members of his family.

He eventually did succumb once to family pressure. In those days, ‘Syeds’ were the elite Muslim ‘Brahmans’ of the Indian Subcontinent. This discrimination went upto the extent that a non-Syed could never be invited to a Syed’s wedding. Bulleh Shah became the worst victim of this caste discrimination, when on his sister’s wedding; his family pressurized him and convinced him not to invite Inayat Shah, because he wasn’t a Syed. Bulleh Shah’s fate wasn’t with him, as Inayat Shah felt disrespected when he learnt that his disciple hadn’t invited him. The Saint replied, “How dare Bullah behave like this?” And then added, “What have we to get from this useless man? We shall change the direction of the flow of water.” These words brought calamity to Bulleh’s life. His visions vanished, leaving him silent and lost.

Inayat Shah disappeared for a long time, devouring Bulleh’s sanity and peace of mind. Suddenly, a well versed grown up man transformed into a restless wanderer, eyes that wouldn’t shut even while sleeping at night. Day and night, he searched for Inayat Shah, but he couldn’t find him. It is during these days that Bulleh Shah wrote poetry extensively.

As the period of separation became longer, Bulleh’s condition became worse. On one hand there was the pain of separation, on the other, the ridicule of people. Bulleh was full of repentance over his blunder. He was keenly desirous to be forgiven by his Master.

Gone with the wind...

Gone with the wind...

It is said that Bulleh disguised himself as a woman, and with a drummer and a harmonium player went to the tomb of a holy man. Shah Inayat was also one of the attendees. While all other dancers and singers got tired and sat down, Bulleh, in ecstasy, continued to dance. His voice was extremely doleful and heart-rending. Bulleh sang many kafis on the occasion and at last, Inayat Shah’s heart melted. With a voice full of compassion he said, “Are you Bullah?” Bullah ran and fell at his Master’s feet.

Inayat Shah realized that the fire of repentance and separation had cleansed Bulleh and turned him into pure gold; he forgave him and embraced him.

The reason why Inayat Shah put Bulleh Shah to such a hard test was to enable him to receive invaluable wealth of the Word of God. With this spiritual treasure he was not only to become rich himself, but also to make other seekers the recipients of this wealth.

Bulleh Shah faced immense opposition from his family, when he re-inducted himself under the teachings of his spiritual guide.

In response to his family’s concerns, Bullah explained fearlessly that the guidance of a Master was indispensable for spiritual realisation, and the caste of the Master did not matter in this pursuit. Even if he belonged to the lowest caste, his help would still remain crucial. Thus, he proclaimed at the top of his voice that pride in being a Syed would land one in hell, and the one who held the skirt of a Master like Inayat Shah would enjoy the pleasures of heaven.

Bulleh Shah’s ‘disloyalty’ to his family and ‘failure’ to respect the caste barriers made him a social outcast, where everyone distanced himself. It is said that as a result of disgust from people’s attitude, Bulleh Shah purchased a few donkeys so that people should ridicule him. They started calling him “The man with donkeys.”



One day Bulleh, wrapped in ecstasy, danced to bewitching music. News reached Bulleh Shah’s father, an orthodox Muslim, and he was told all that had happened. His son had also started to dance with eunuchs. Greatly distressed and enraged, the saint’s father, with a rosary in one hand and a staff in the other, raced to the place where his son was dancing. “Ah! It is you, father” said Bulleh Shah as he heard his name called. He looked at his father intently and began to sing:

“People have only chaplets but my father has a rosary.

The whole of his life he has toiled hard,

But has not been able to uproot a single hair.

Sorrel is thus hulled in the mortar .

Sorrel is thus hulled, my friend !”

 Bulleh Shah, filled with spiritual ardour, gazed at his father, whose inner eye opened and had a divine vision. With a serene and radiant smile on his face, .he joined his son in the ecstatic dancing and singing.

Filled upto the brim with the love of God, Bulleh became the epitome of compassion and forgiveness. He saw God’s manifestation in every being, and distinctions of caste and religion, friend and foe, ceased to have any meaning for him.

His life illustrated how needless and futile sectarian, caste, social, cultural and religious barriers were. In his life, he liberated himself from the bondage of caste, religion and country.

Bulleh Shah emphasises that like the Lord, the soul had no caste or faith. All these distinctions are born out of time and space, but the soul is unborn and timeless. It has neither a start, nor a conclusion, nor is it restricted by the limitations of caste and religion.

Bulleh Shah’s life and work is complete with delicate secrets of the path. They strengthen true lovers and motivate them to withstand the severest hardships for reaching spiritual goals. Bulleh Shah’s immortal work shall continue to enlighten true seekers of divine insight.

On Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/saadsarfraz/sets/72157622527557376/

Faded Glory: The tomb of Nadira Begum…

The tomb of Nadira Begum...

The tomb of Nadira Begum...

 Finding Nadira Begum’s Tomb isn’t hard since its right next to Sufi Saint Hazrat Mian Mir’s shrine.

 Nadira Saleem Banu was the wife of Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh, the ill-fated heir to Shah Jahan’s throne and the crown prince of his Indian empire.

She died in 1659, several months before Dara Shikoh execution, and was survived by two daughters. No sons survived thanks to Aurangzeb Alamgir, who got rid of all male threats.

Stories of Nadira Banu’s beauty and intelligence were famous throughout the empire. She was the daughter of Shah Jahan’s half-brother, Prince Perwez, and therefore Dara Shikoh’s cousin.

Her would-be husband Dara Shikoh was eager to marry her and had a good relationship with her throughout his turbulent life. He never remarried, in spite of the common Mughal practice of persistent polygamy and overflowing harems. Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal, Dara’s mother, arranged the marriage when both Dara and Nadira were teenagers.

Dara Shikoh’s sister Jahanara Begum got along with Nadira quite well, as reflected by her involvement and interest in Nadira’s wedding and her closeness to him.

With the death of Mumtaz Mahal, arrangements for the wedding died as Shah Jahan and his India plunged into mourning. After much coaxing by many, especially Jahanara, Shah Jahan resumed life and let her oversee the remaining aspects of the wedding. Jahanara had always visibly supported Dara over Aurengzeb and never hesitated in demonstrating that. Jahanara’s love for Dara strengthened her relationship with Nadira and after her death she left her fortune to one of Nadira’s daughters. Aurengzeb once openly asked Jahanara if she would support him in his bid for the crown but she refused. Despite this event and her undying loyalty to Dara, she was made the head of the harem in Aurengzeb’s court.

Aurangzeb, driven by his ambition and fanatical views, seized the throne and eventually defeated his moderate and secular brother Dara Shikoh, who was said to be tolerant, wise and admired. Two major wars were waged between them, Dara lost both. In 1659 he lost another war with fate while escaping to Dadhar (Balochistan) en route to Iran, when his wife Nadira Begam died of exhaustion and dysentery. Sunk in despair, Darà Shikoh dispatched his remaining soldiers to escort his beloved wife’s dead body to Lahore. In accordance with her wish to be buried in Hindustan, he instructed that she should be laid to rest near the shrine of his spiritual guide Hazrat Mian Mir. Dara was later arrested near the Bolan Pass by the forces of Aurangzeb Alamgir, he was taken to Delhi and executed.

It is interesting to note that moderates and extremists have always clashed in history. While Aurangzeb despised arts and had no love for mankind, his brother Dara was said to be a fine painter and poet.

Many of his works were collected and gifted to Nadira Begum in 1641. It was her affection for him that she cherished them until her death. Titled the ‘Dara Shikoh Album’, it was a collection of paintings and calligraphy assembled from the 1630s until his death.

After her death the album was taken into the royal library and the inscriptions connecting it with Dara Shikoh were deliberately erased; however not everything was vandalised and many calligraphy, scripts and paintings still bear his mark. Some of the surviving works were recently on display at a British museum.

Columnist Khalid Ahmed writes, “The tomb of Nadira Begum, the wife of Dara Shikoh is still popular with visitors as is the shrine of Mian Mir, the Muslim saint who laid the foundation of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Mian Mir is immortalised by Dara’s book on him. Another Nadira Begum was the courtesan Anarkali, whom Akbar presumably killed for seducing his son.”

Unlike other Mughal tombs which have normally been constructed in the midst of gardens, Nadira Begum’s tomb is built amidst a water tank without a dome, which bears the flat parapet on all its four sides. In fact, these distinguished architectural features have made it look rather like a pavilion than a tomb. The tomb stands on a raised platform in the centre of a water tank, which was large enough to accomadate a lake. Encroachments have eaten away most of the tomb’s area during the course of history. During the British period, the tank was dismantled by a local contractor Mian Muhammad Sultan and its bricks were recycled in building the Lahore Cantonment. According to historians, the corners of the tank were marked with pavilions, while the lofty gateways provided access to the tomb from the north and south through a masonry bridge. The gateways no longer exist but most of the causeways can still be seen. The culverted bridge still stands on thirty arches. The 14′ wide central chamber is surrounded by an ambulatory in the form of vestibules. It greatly resembles the tank and baradari at Hiran Minar in Sheikhupura. A plinth ten-feet high from the surface of the tank, comprises the foundations of the tomb. Square on plan, the tomb on each side measures 44′ feet. It used to be a two storeyed structure and now has a height of 32′-6″from the grave platform. The height of the first storey is 13′ flanked by square headed apertures. The pavilion is constructed of burnt bricks and contains deep cusped arched openings. The central openings are arched, while those on the sides are flat. There are four arched openings on the ground floor in the interior around the grave and above them arches, exactly of the same type, are built in the upper storey. All these arched openings in both the storeys are cusped in design. Each of the openings in the lower storey is three feet four inches wide and six feet six inches high and that in the upper storey is three feet three inches wide and six feet high. An interesting feature of the openings is that all the eight corners of lower and upper storeys were executed skilfully by forming a small pavilion in each of the corners. All the four facades of the pavilion are decorated with blind cusped arches and panels. They contain projection over which rises the high parapet wall. The stairs for reaching the upper-storey and roof arc located at the south-east and north-east corners. The whole structure of the pavilion was lime plastered. As seen from the main elements forming the design of the pavilion, its structure was not a complex one. Its proportions also are as simple as its shape. The grave, which lies in the centre of the pavilion, is 6′ -10″ long, 2′-10″ wide and 1′-8″ high. There were small arched holes on the northern end of the grave on a raised portion for lighting up the area with oil lamps.

On the northern face of the grave Quranic verses are laid in marble slab in the pielra-dura technique in Naslaliq character, while on the southern end, Nadira Begum’s name and her date of demise is inscribed in the marble slab in the same design.

The façade at the top retains parapet. On the parapet wall, just on the roof level are four small arched openings, two each in the north and the south, which, if seen from outside appear that. Below the parapet, in the façade is a balcony in red sandstone. The roof built in vaulting is flat at the top except for a fascinating hexagonal platform of two feet height that is located in its centre. The roof and the platform are covered with thick lime plaster and lack any ornamentation. The tank around the pavilion, which was enclosed by a high wall, has been filled with earth and traces of its four walls are still visible. It was a very spacious tank square in shape, with each side being 580 feet long. There were fine gateways to the north and south. When there was water in the tank, the tomb seemed to be floating in water, its reflections creating the illusion of movement. Though isolated in this manner, its connection with the rest of the world is maintained by means of a causeway access in the east-west direction. The causeway bears 32 pointed arched openings and in addition to that there is one more opening in the centre of the causeway which was intentionally closed. That closed opening forms a beautiful square platform in the centre of the causeway, its each side being eleven feet and nine inches long. The causeway, which is in a deteriorating condition, is five feet and nine inches wide. The tank has now been developed in pretty lawns, bearing pathways. Numerous evergreen trees have also been planted in it and flowerbeds have also been prepared for seasonal flowers. This new arrangement has converted the area of the spacious tank into a beautiful park, an attractive spot for the inhabitants of the locality. But it has also made it into a sports ground where the causeways seem ideal for a cricket pitch!

In the interior of both the storeys, the ceilings and faces of the walls are decorated with the traditional Mughal architectural feature of Ghalib Kari, panels of various geometrical shapes, which bear traces of red, green and black colours. The use of Ghalib Kari ormuqarnas (stalactite squiches) for roofs and vaults are also employed internally. Though now faded, the traces are still beautiful. The colour scheme appears to be carried over the whole of its interior surface except for the trench of the upper storey which was brilliantly embellished with glazed tiles of multi-colours, traces of which are still evident. Although no tile-work is extant on the external façade, but traces of glazed tiles arc still evident in first floor interiors. Most of the tiles removed from the tomb are preserved now in the Lahore Museum.

In its early days, the tomb was an inspired achievement, the variety and distribution of its tonal value, the simplicity and scale of each clement and finally the carefully adjusted mass of the total conception showed the calibre of the Mughal architects at their best.

But today the tomb retains a simple and blank facade, shorn of all ornamentation. It is said to have been robbed of its costly marble and semi-precious stones during the Sikh period. It is very sad to note that like other Mughal monuments of Lahore, the beautiful tomb pavilion of Nadira Begum and its attached structures could not escape the vandalism of the Sikhs. During Ranjit Singh’s rule, the choicest material from the structure was removed, leaving it in a dilapidated condition. The tomb is also a victim of contemporary vandalism, as gaudy graffiti is visible on the structure with the ugly plague of wall chalking.

Since independence, its proper conservation has been ignored. The tomb was declared as a protected monument in 1956 and since then its responsibility for conservation lies with the Department of Archaeology and Museum.

In 1956, a comprehensive scheme was framed by the department for its repair and restoration. It seems nothing has happened since 1956.

Nadira Begum remains a silent spectator, watching cricket and soccer balls often being hit into her tomb.

She lies there in silent royalty, listening to the ghosts of the past talk about the faded glory of the Mughal Empire, which was at that time the richest empire in the world.

: View my Flickr Set on Nadira Begum’s Tomb at : http://www.flickr.com/photos/saadsarfraz/sets/72157622278655989/
An animated slideshow at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/saadsarfraz/sets/72157622278655989/show/

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The Lahore Railway Station…

3rd September : Me and my friend Fiaz Tariq head off to the Lahore Railway Station on a cloudy day with chances of possible rain.
Here is a photographic journey and textual description.