Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Lahore - off the beaten track

It’s a common lament but modern Lahoris are largely indifferent to their glorious history. For most affluent residents of the city a culinary visit to Cooco’s or Andaaz with their majestic rooftop views of the 17th century Badshahi Mosque suffice as a representative cultural experience, before they beat a hasty retreat to the attractions of the Y Block market. But beyond the well-known spectacular treasures of Lahore’s heritage (Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque, Shalamar Gardens, Lahore Museum, Masjid Wazir Khan etc.), all of which are well worth discovering and rediscovering, there are hundreds of amazing places, in and outside the walled city, that tell “tales without end” of Lahore’s fascinating past. Here is a smattering of some of my favorite, less frequently visited, historic sites.
Entrance to the shrine of Syed Hussain Zanjani
Legend has it that the patron saint of Lahore, Data Ganj Bakhsh (d. 1072), arrived in Lahore the day another revered saint, Syed Hussain Zanjani, died. The shrine of Syed Hussain Zanjani is located in the Chah Miran area, and once found with some difficulty, is an oasis of tranquility and spiritual quiet in an area otherwise bustling with commercial activity. There is a spot that marks the place where the famous saint Khawaja Mueenuddin Chishti of Ajmer (Rajasthan) prayed at the shrine when he visited Lahore.
Not far from Syed Hussain Zanjani’s tomb, is one of the most wonderful shrines in the city: the 16th century Mazar of the child saint Ghoray Shah. As you enter the gateway, you see the stall selling toy clay horses that devotees buy as an offering for the saint. The child saint Syed Burhanuddin Ghoray Shah, who loved horses, was believed to have miraculous powers. People who brought him gifts of a toy horse had all their wishes fulfilled. It is said that Ghoray Shah was heart-broken after being scolded by his pious father for granting favors in exchange for toys and died at age five. Four hundred years later, devotees are still bringing toy horses for the saint to seek his favor and to have him intercede on their behalf. The enclosure is peaceful and cool with the shade of old trees. Toy clay horses can be seen placed near the saint’s grave on a raised platform as well as along the graveyard fence.
Ghoray Shah Shrine - Toy horses can be seen on the platform in the background
The history of darbaars, mazaars and dargaahs of Lahore can fill volumes. Leaving out Mian Mir (in whose adjacent graveyard I fortuitously found the gravesite of poet Faiz’s beloved older brother Tufail with an inscription of Faiz’s famous verses “Mujh ko shikwa hai meray bhai keh tum jaate hue”) or Madho Lal Hussain seems egregiously wrong but we must move on.

Poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz's brother's tombstone inside Mian Mir's shrine
The walled city had many grand havelis for the intellectual and ruling elites of the city and despite the loss of many historic structures due to official neglect, fortunately, some major havelis are still extant. Despite not being in great condition, Mubarak Haveli in Kucha Chabaksawaran inside Mochi Gate is well worth a visit. It is owned by the Qizilbash family now, having been granted to them for their services to the British. Its fascinating history includes being the temporary residence of the Afghan king Shah Shuja Durrani when he was in exile in Lahore in 1813 / 1814. It is in this haveli that he surrendered the Kohinoor diamond to Maharaja Ranjit Singh in exchange for his freedom. Kohinoor, later taken by the British now forms part of the British Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.
Exterior of Mubarak Haveli
Just down the street from the Mubarak haveli in Mochi Darwaza is another Qizilbash property called Nisar Haveli, famous for being the starting point of Lahore’s Muharram procession. The procession starts there and after winding its way through the walled city eventually ends on the evening of 10th Muharram at Karbala Gamay Shah next to the Central Model School not far from the Government College. Beyond its religious and cultural significance, Karbala Gamay Shah is also interesting as the burial place of the great Urdu writer and scholar Muhammad Hussain Azad (who died in Lahore in 1910). Azad’s book Aab-e-Hayat (published in 1880) on Urdu poets and poetry is considered one of the pioneering works of its genre. The site in the back courtyard is marked by a brick structure with a white dome.
Nisar Haveli Courtyard
Tomb of Urdu writer Muhammad Hussain Azad in Karbala Gamay Shah
Unfortunately, I have not yet had the opportunity to see, reputedly, the two best maintained grand havelis in the city; Haveli Baroodkhana (owned by the Mian family) and ‘Mubarak Begum’ haveli (owned by the Syed family).
Interior of Begum Shahi Mosque
Anyone who has not visited Masjid Wazir Khan inside Delhi Gate must first visit that gem of Lahore’s architecture. But inside the walled city another lesser known mosque should attract many more visitors. Entering androon shehr from Masti Gate, you will find the oldest extant Mughal mosque in Lahore, the Maryam Zamani or Begum Shahi Mosque, built in 1614. This beautiful mosque close to the Akbari Gateway entrance of the Lahore Fort was built by Emperor Jahangir’s mother who was known as Maryam-uz-zamani (Mary of her age). This wife of Emperor Akbar and mother of Jahangir, born Rajkumari Hira Kunwari, was a Rajput princess and the daughter of Raja Bihari Mal of Amber (now Jaipur). Its prayer hall is beautifully decorated and the central dome remarkable for the richness of its muqarnas and painted frescos.
Sikh Monuments:

Gurdwara Janam Asthan Guru Ram Das Ji
Lahore has a rich array of well-known Sikh era buildings like havelis (e.g. Mai Jindan haveli, Haveli Naunehal Singh, now Victoria Girls School), Samadhis (e.g. Maharaja Ranjit Singh) and Gurdwaras (e.g. Dera Sahib in the same compound as Ranjit Singh samadhi) but a lesser known Gurdwara inside the walled city bears mention. In Kotwali Wala Bazaar near Chuna Mandi Chowk in Kashmiri Gate is the “Gurdwara Janam Asthan of Guru Ram Das Jee”. Guru Ram Das was the fourth of the Ten Gurus of Sikhism and was born in Chuna Mandi in 1534. He founded the original township which became the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. The Gurdwara is in good condition and is actively used by the Sikh community. Sikh volunteers keep the structure well-maintained.
With every visit to the historic Lahore, I find, that more and more historical buildings are suffering from neglect or worse, being destroyed. Just last month on a visit to the beautiful Dai Anga Mosque (built in 1649), I was heartbroken to see that the original interior of the mosque had been scraped and ripped out and was being replaced by white bathroom tiles on cement, completely destroying the historic structure. The sign in the mosque’s courtyard calling it a “protected monument” seemed like a cruel joke. To effectively protect a city or nation’s history, culture and heritage its people and governments have to know, care for and value their treasures.
For those interested in exploring the great city of Lahore, I highly recommend getting Yasmeen Lari’s “Lahore Travel Guide”. It is meticulously researched and is a treasure trove of Lahore’s history and heritage. The hand-drawn maps of the walled city are painstakingly done. As a native of Lahore who was unaware of many corners of my own city’s history for too long, I must thank Ms. Lari for this outstanding labour of love.

This post was originally published in the March 28th, 2014 issue of The Friday Times.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

The exploding Middle East & the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

In case you haven't noticed, the Middle East and its periphery are burning! In Iraq, Sunni ISIS militants have taken over large expanses of the country and are perpetrating horrific violence on non-Muslim minorities as well as other Muslim sects. In Syria, the nominal Shia/secular regime of Bashar-al-Assad, with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, has bombed and destroyed large parts of the country, mercilessly killing civilians in its fight against vicious Saudi-backed Sunni militants. Libya is more or less in a state of anarchy. Egyptian military, with full Saudi and Western support, has brutally killed civilians and extinguished all opposition. A fragile peace prevails in Lebanon but the entire Middle East is on tenterhooks as the reactionary Wahhabi regime of al-Saud fights a fratricidal war with Shia Iran with the primary purpose of hanging on to perpetual power.

The byzantine complexities of middle eastern power politics, the intractable historic nature of many conflicts and the difficulty of assigning simple "good" and "bad" labels make resignation and withdrawal an increasingly common reaction of those not directly caught up in the wars. " A pox on all their houses". Most people can, at best, muster periodic expressions of outrage at the loss of innocent human lives, condemn perpetrators of violence or bemoan the ill-considered Western interventions that have released the genie of instability in fragile and unformed post-colonial nation states.

And then in the midst of all this is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; an issue so divisive that even the simplest expression of your views is likely to be seen as propaganda for one side or the other. My social media feeds have been inundated by "evidence" of the treachery of the other side.

I have not waded into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on social media or elsewhere. Beyond unequivocal condemnation of loss of innocent lives and expressing the wish for a peaceful long-term solution, I have not written much. The issue is too complex for sound bites and generates considerably more heat than light. A large part of the problem is that there is a set narrative on both sides and every inevitable conflagration every few years brings out the supporters on both sides with exactly the same set of talking points. What is needed is an empathetic understanding of the historical perspective of both sides and a rational approach and commitment to solving the problem. Palestinians and Arabs have a history of missed opportunities but Israel as the dominant and occupying power, with unquestioning US support, has the greater onus of breaking the logjam. It is also clearly in Israel's own long term interest to find a way out of occupation and give Palestinians a just peace and their own homeland. On the current path of perpetual occupation and settlement expansion, Israel will eventually either lose any pretense of being a democracy or the demand for a one state solution incorporating the West Bank and Gaza will pick up steam, much to the detriment of Israel and its supporters.

Here are a few recent interviews and articles that I have found most helpful in getting a diverse perspective, even when I disagree with some of the viewpoints. They provide a wide diversity of educated opinion from very pro-Israeli to pro-Palestinian and have aided my understanding of facts and the search for solutions to this intractable conflict.

1) Interview of Yuval Diskin - Former Head of Israeli Security / Shin Bet (Der Spiegel)

3) Collective Punishment in Gaza - Rashid Khalidi (The New Yorker)

The Liberal Zionists - Jonathan Freedland (New York Review of Books)

Return to Blogging

It was well over a year ago that I last wrote on this blog. At that time, I was finding myself writing less frequently and the list of blog ideas and inspirational links in my notes was getting ever longer. To share things more often I shifted to posting more things on Fawad's Posts Facebook page.

I think its time to do some longer form writing again and bring a little discipline back into my life. Wish me luck!