The long lost heritage of Lahore
I got to know about Shahi Hamam just two years ago during a photo walk inside Delhi Gate, and I am sure most of us are still unaware of this unique piece of Lahore’s heritage.
Pass through Delhi Gate, with its historic arches and turn left, a narrow gate leads you to the back entrance of the spectacular Shahi Hamam. Entering the hall, one is astounded by the galore of the ages old building, still intact. The colours of painted fresco welcomes you to the royalty of the Mughal era, which is eye catching for a photographer and anybody. The engraved plaque states, “Shahi Hamam was originally built around 1634 AD by Hakim Ilmuddin Ansari, the Governor of Lahore during the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58 AD). It was designed as a public bath for the travellers as well as the inhabitants of the city. Hakim Ilmuddin Ansari, who was granted the title of Wazir Khan, was also responsible for the construction of the famous mosque The Wazir Khan Mosque inside the Walled City which now bears his name. Shahi Hamam is the only monumental public bath from the Mughal era which still survives in the entire South Asian subcontinent. In 1955, Shahi Hamam was recognised as a cultural asset and declared a protected monument by the Department of Archaeology.
Hamams were introduced in the sub-continent by the Mughals. The Shahi Hamam is one of the rare examples of this building type which is still prevalent today
The light rays pouring out of the small windows in the ceiling light up the place giving it a dramatic and a startling look. A single storey building covering an area of over 1000 square meters is the Shahi Hamam which consisted of hot, warm and cool plunges, sweat rooms and related facilities. The Shahi Hamam is a collection of 21 inter-connected rooms offering all the facilities or hot and cold bath. This is no doubt a facility which we know today as spa or steam bath. That was the brain and skill of the Mughal Emperors and builders.
Hamams were introduced in the sub-continent by the Mughals. The Shahi Hamam is one of the rare examples of this building type which is still prevalent today. The building is a magnificent example of the Shahjahani architecture, a mixture of Persian and Turkish design. According to some historical accounts, the Hamam was used extensively by the public during Mughal times and was reserved for the exclusive use of women on a specific day of the week. Although remains found in the Lahore Fort, the Shalimar Gardens, Wah Gardens and some of the larger Havelis in the walled city indicate that smaller, private baths may have been popular during the Mughal and Sikh eras.
In my recent trip to the Shahi Hamam, I was stunned at the rapid changes. The last time I visited the place, it was encroached upon by several shops, which were nowhere to be seen now. The Hamam was covered with a green sheet and scaffolding as if some construction was going on. Entering the Hamam, I saw the interior being excavated and conserved by the Walled City of Lahore Authority and Aga Khan Trust for Culture with the funding of Royal Norwegian Embassy. Strands and wooden poles marked the excavated area, to protect people from falling over. The old marble floor was hollowed out and small pillar like structures were exposed in the entire Hamam. This was a mind-blowing site, and one could never imagine the marks underneath the marble flooring. This was the undiscovered heating system of the old times, the small pillars and entrances into a main pool. The local labour at work told me that this unique system was discovered for the first time in Pakistan. They said that the wood logs were used to heat the water and convert it to steam which then passed through the pillars or channels and heated up the entire place. The heating system was destroyed during the Sikh rule. And during the British era, the building was converted into a living quarter. This eventually ruined the Hamam. In later periods after partition the Hamam served as a dispensary and girls school.
The old marble floor was hollowed out and small pillar like structures were exposed in the entire Hamam
I met a young friendly guy, the in-charge of conservation project, who told me that the primary objectives for conservation were to re-establish the conserved monument as witness to a tradition of the bath house as a space of social interaction of the times before the decline of Mughal rule in the sub-continent. I was happy to know that upon conserving and presenting the original bath structures, pools and cisterns, the various rooms and spaces of the bath houses will be either part of a display, or be integrated into the re-use function, galleries and congregational areas for holding talks, mushairas or traditional story telling activities. Support activities and spaces like public toilets and related visitors’ facilities, souvenir shops and a kitchen to serve an outdoor restaurant will also be developed in the open area adjacent to the Hamam on its eastern and southern sides. I was told that the project would be completed by the mid of this year. The monument will be like a jewel in crown of Lahore and, after complete excavation, restoration and conservation it can be the most visited tourist attraction.