Let me take you to a monument which was until very recently breathing its last. Only a few months ago, the very existence of this monument was being hotly debated, and there was a very serious discussion about whether it should even be allowed to survive anymore.
Many of us had worried that we might be losing this age old gem called the ‘Chauburji Gateway’ to the massive construction of the Orange Line Metro Train going right over it. And with the aging and neglect that had already damaged to it to no end, these fears became even more poignant.
Before I begin with the present conditions of the Chauburji Gateway, let me take you through its history, and the importance of this symbol of Lahore which is much needed for the younger generation who were curious over the debate for saving this piece of heritage.
The Chauburji Gateway is perhaps the strongest merger of Mughal architecture with ancient Muslim style of building. You must be thinking that the name is strange and unusual. Well, Chauburji means Charminar (four minarets), and it was named so because this gateway had four minarets. Situated on the Multan Road, it is a 17th-century structure which was built to provide a gateway to the Garden of Zeb-un-Nisa, who was the daughter of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir. An inscription on the eastern archway tells that the garden was built in AH 1056 which is 1646 AD. The monument is owned and maintained by Department of Archaeology, Government of the Punjab.
Another interesting this is that the scrappy inscription on its eastern archway records that the garden was built by a lady, mentioned metaphorically as “Sahib-e-Zebinda, Begum-e-Dauran”(one endowed with elegance, the lady of the age) and was bestowed upon one Mian Bai. According to Archaeology Department the reference is most probably to Jahan Ara Begum, the eldest daughter of Emperor Shahjahn, who was entitled as ‘Begum Sahib’ and for all official purposes, was the ‘lady of the age’ after the death of her mother in 1631. A garden of Jahan Ara Begum was at Lahore is also confirmed by two letters of Emperor Aurangzeb addressed to her. The local tradition connects Zebinda with Zebu Nisa Begum, the accomplished daughter of Aurangzeb and Mian Bai as her maid-servant. This tradition however in incorrect, since Zebun Nisa, born in 1639, was still a child of eight when the garden was founded. Mian Bai is not known to history, but that she was a maid-servant is not supported by the fragmentary inscription on the south-west corner of the gateway, which records that the garden was constructed by Mian Bai, the pride of women (Fakhrun Nisa). From the word “Fakhrun Nisa” it seems that she was a lady of status. So till now the mystery stays unresolved but it doesn’t matter to me because most of the heritage sites have this issue and in my opinion despite all such ambiguities, the heritage sites should be protected and conserved.
Historic references say that Lahore was a city of gardens during the Mughal rule and many of them vanished as the Mughal Empire fell here in Lahore. Historians write and believe that this Chauburji garden extended from Nawankot in the south to the main city of Lahore to the north but now no traces of such a widespread garden can be seen. Same is said to be happened with the Shalimar garden and it is said by historians that some parts of it were demolished.
So let me brief you a little about the beauty and extraordinary features of this monument. Its exceptional characteristics include the minarets which expand from the top, not present anywhere in the sub-continent, and that’s a claim by the architects and historians. Several studies have been conducted over this monument to read its awesome and unique features. It is also believed that there were cupolas upon the minarets which collapsed with the passage of time and were not rebuilt. You will also see the red brickwork in this monument which is typical of the Muslim buildings of the sub-continent and can be seen in almost all the Mughal era buildings. Now, coming to the doorway of this monument, which is the best part for me and I am in love with its look and feel. The doorways and windows running through the interior corridors are examples of the living style that characterized the Mughal buildings. It is embellished with the features of fresco, calligraphy and if you look closely, the entrance of the gateway resembles the grand Wazir Khan Mosque. With the passage of time, lack of maintenance, neglect and weathering the monument lost most of the inscriptions on it but on the upper-most part of the structure we can still see Ayat-ul-Kursi (Quranic verses). Other inscriptions on the monument include two couplets written in Persian above the arch. During an earthquake in 1843, the north-western minaret collapsed and cracks emerged in the central arch. The restoration was carried out by the Department of Archaeology in the late 1960’s.
Previously, Chauburji was so neglected that it became a hub of addicts and beggars who housed there after sunset and the place was no more a family recreational garden. The monument due to passage of time, neglect and other atmospheric changes suffered a lot and lost its various parts. The existing structure was in dire need of preservation in its original form by introducing different degrees of interventions. The disintegrated terraced flooring of the main passage and side rooms also needed restoration. The Kankar lime, glaze plaster (pucca qalai ), mosaic tile work (Kashi Kari) also were dilapidated and needed attention.
This monument became lucky enough to get the attention of the concerned authority and Archaeology Department Punjab started its conservation this year and it will be completed by July 2018. Would you believe that for the first time in the history a comprehensive conservation is being carried out at this monument whereas earlier only minor repair works were done! The work is in progress and soon you will be amazed to see a restored piece. Gladly the fine brick masonry, kankar lime plaster, brick tile cornice, brick tile dassa including floral design, ghalib kari work in geometrical design and tile mosaic work (kashi kari) as per original design and colors are being restored and this will surely improve in tourism of Lahore I think. I got to know that artisans from all over Pakistan have been engaged in this conservation work and the tiles and enamel preparation took almost six months.
I think that the monument should be converted into a small museum and gallery where the depictions of the past Mughal glory and original designs of Chauburji should be placed for the public to have an experience into the past. If proper measures are not taken by the Archaeology Department, even after conserving the monument, it will again change into an addict’s hub and all their efforts will go down the drain. I am happy that a positive change is coming up in restoring the dead pieces of history for the generations ahead.