What no invader could do...

Parvez Mahmood writes about his horror at the state of the famed Mariyam uz Zamani Mosque in Lahore

What no invader could do...
I believe vandalism operates on a similar basis to acts of terrorism. In the case of historical buildings and heritage artifacts, no other principle need apply.

In our country, damage occurring to our centuries-old heritage due to gross dereliction of duty by concerned officials is more than any one person could cause by the intentional act of inscribing their name on a pillar or pulling out one odd brick or a tile from a wall. The former act of omission is a more damaging crime than the latter of commission. Negligent officials in this case must be taken to task or else we stand to lose these precious structures. Does it matter whether damage occurs because of an explosive device or due to neglect and apathy? The resultant loss to our architectural wonders in both cases is of equal magnitude and equally irreversible.

Recently, I was in Lahore and went round the inner city. I was pained to see the state of Maryiam uz Zamani Mosque in Masti Gate. It is in a pathetic state of neglect. I took the pictures posted here to support what I am going to say.

The run-down passage leading to the barely visible entrance of the Mosque
The run-down passage leading to the barely visible entrance of the Mosque

I saw a man climbing over the metal fence surrounding the Fort and squatting against the wall to answer the call of nature

The mosque was built in the memory of one of the most powerful princesses of the entire Mughal era, the legendary Maharani Jodha Bai, the beloved wife of Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar the Great, the greatest of the Mughals and one of the most majestic rulers in world history.

I wonder if the officials of the concerned provincial departments ever realise what kind of historic pearl has been entrusted to their negligent care. I only wish that I could pull the famous ‘chain of justice’ installed by Emperor Jehangir, the original builder of the Mosque, to call his attention to the sorry state of the beautiful structure that he built to commemorate the memory of his mother. I wonder if Jahangir would have readily ordered his Chief of Head Choppers to roll a few heads.

Flourishing societies, on a social ascent, preserve their heritage. Decaying societies, on a descent, squander theirs. The former understand that the treasures handed down by the ancestors are a trust with the current generation and have to be passed down to the next for posterity. The latter, on the other hand, are not appreciative of the acts of genius performed by their forefathers and show a complete apathy to their legacy.

In the words of Iqbal,

Waayena-kaami, mataa-e-kaarvaan jaata raha

Kaarvaan key dil se, ehsaas-e-zyaan jaata raha

(What disappointment! (Not only that) The caravan’s assets are lost,

The feeling of loss itself has faded from caravan’s heart)

The Mosque is known by many names. It is called Maryam uz Zamani, after the Muslim name given to Rani Jodha Bai after her conversion to Islam at the time of her marriage. It is also called ‘Begum Shahi’, probably a people’s name, to emphasise its linkage to a royal princess. During the Sikh rule, and thereafter, it was known as ‘Barood Khanay Wali Masjid, to signify its use at the time for storing munitions.

The state of the stairs leading to the roof
The state of the stairs leading to the roof

The Mosque was used for ordnance-making during the Sikh rule and our normally biased thinking may suggest that the Khalsa soldiers must have caused much damage to its structure. But to the credit of the managers of the ordnance manufacturing unit, they did take care of their ‘factory’. The water pool in the centre of its courtyard, the marble minbar, the major and minor mihrabs, the art work on the walls and the gumbads are all in good shape. Even the small-bricked floor of the prayer hall shows few signs of being mishandled, though ordnance is heavy and employs metal casings. More tellingly, the beautiful calligraphic Quranic verses around the ‘mihrab’ were not erased by the Sikhs. The current sad state of the Mosque, in short, is of our own doing - through sheer neglect and apathy.

I have seen the Mosque during its better days. In 1959, I was admitted to class two in Municipal Committees Primary School, a “ta’at” school located at the junction of Masti Gate Bazaar and Circular Road. The school, now a high school for girls with a better building, is located opposite to the Lahore Fort, across the Fort Road. We were living in the Pani Wala Talab area. I used to walk the short distance to and from school. Some of my classmates used to live along the route and I would have company, especially on the way back. I could choose to go either round the Talab enclosure, take the Fort road, past Barood Khana Bazaar, walk along with the Fort on my left and the Begum Shahi Mosque on the right, turn right in to Chuna Mandi Bazaar and then turn left towards the Masti Gate to reach the school gate on my left. Or I could exit our gali (lane) and turn right in front of the Talab, intercept Masti Gate Bazaar, go past the Sikh era havelis behind the shops on my right and a little further, Begum Shahi Mosque behind the shops on my left, to reach school.

Tubelight frames have been drilled into the mosque walls

The Mosque was in a much better shape then and the area was much less commercialised. Moti Bazaar and Choona Mandi were inhabited but there was far less congestion and overcrowding than what I saw recently. Importantly, the scrap shops on the Fort Road, dealing in used tyre-rims, were non-existent. Some of these shops lie adjacent to the rear wall of the Mosque.

Even as school children, most of us were aware that it was a Mughal-era structure with royal linkages. The realisation seems to have been lost on those entrusted with the upkeep of the Mosque and the people living around it.

On this trip, coming from Gumti Bazaar, round Pani Wala Talab, I wound my way through the brisk business of the shoe-sole market around the Barood Khana Bazaar junction with the Fort Road. Crossing the Ali Park on the left, there is a line of used tire rim shops on the right, going all the way up to the Circular Road. These shops are an overflow from the bus and truck stands of Badami Bagh on the northern side of the Circular Road, opposite Masti and Sheranwala Gates. The shops are also a strange anomaly and, perhaps, a reflection on our present day society. In the midst of, Mughal and Sikh era, grand, tasteful and royal structures, many of them fit to become part of world heritage, we have created a filthy, repulsive and squalid eye sore. I thought that its sight is more obscene than anything that the nearby Tibbi Gali has to offer. From the Fort road, I looked towards right side over the shops, trying to locate the blackish Gumbads. I found them concealed behind high stacks of rusting tire rims amidst unimaginable filth. Fresh from a long trip to Australia, where they take pains to keep the heritage buildings no more than a hundred years old in their original state, I remained motionless for a long time, with a heavy heart, utterly embarrassed by our neglect. Then, to my horror, I saw a man coming from one of the shops, crossing the road, climbing over the metal fence surrounding the Fort and squatting against the Fort wall to answer the call of nature (small one, I suppose). I cannot imagine beholding a more sorrowful sight. A little earlier I had seen goats grazing in the southern lawns of the Shahi Mosque and had thought that I had witnessed the worst of sacrileges.



Hairaan Hoon, Dil Ko Ro’woon Ya Peetoon Jigar Ko Main;

(Ghalib: I am perplexed, should I mourn the loss of my heart or the mutilation of my liver)

I walked up to the Akbari Gate, which is in good shape, and took two right turns to stand in the Moti Bazaar in front of the Mosque gate. With shops covering the entire front of the structure, kiosks established on the short passage from the Bazaar to the main gate, motorcycles parked next to the Gate, semi-dressed persons sitting on a hand driven trolley and torn papers strewn everywhere, the Mosque wears the look of complete indifference.

The arched gate itself is of solid wood, with a smaller door in the center to allow people in and out when the number of praying people is small. Inside, there is a raised, covered, marbled pool with stairs around it to allow people to sit on its side and perform ablution. This type of arrangement is found in all Mughal era mosques such as Shahi Mosque Lahore, Sunehri Masjid Lahore, Jamia Masjid Delhi, Shah Jahan Mosque Thatta and many more. I saw the pool empty with only stagnant rain water and speckles of omnipresent littering in it. Around the edges of the pool, a crudely laid out pipe network with faucets has been erected for ablution. It would have been wiser and more useful if the pool had been left alone and a large washroom built outside the mosque instead of mutilating its beauty. Someone from the Mosque management has drilled large metal hooks into the ceiling of the pool roof - either to hang fans in summer or stretch tents in winter, though I didn’t any sign of either. A rusting iron stand was placed around the pool for some purpose, adding to the dreary look.

One of the most serious instances of damage to the mosque has been caused by the need to supply electricity and electric appliances in the building. It was possible to undertake this enhancement with caution and prudence. The way it has been done beats logic and common sense. I am certain that there are plenty of electrical engineers who would have recommended a better way of laying out electric cables, installing fans and fixing lights. In the courtyard, the mosque management has simply dug up holes in the marble floor, poured concrete, inserted steel pipes and run the electric cables over the top. The tubelight frames have been drilled into the mosque walls. In the exquisitely laid out main prayer hall, hooks/nails have been drilled in the precious mosaic work and electric cables hung over the heads of the praying people. At regular intervals, high powered Compact Fluorescent Lamps (energy savers) hang from these cables. One of the worst atrocities is pushing a ceiling fan through the centre of the main gumbad arch, as if a dagger has been pierced through the heart. Even the Sikhs did not indulge in such mutilation. I fail to understand, as would my readers, what kind of Imam would order such desecration.


One can understand the colours fading away from the delicate mosaic work due to atmospheric effects over four centuries but whole portions of parts of walls being washed away can only be deliberate work. The white patches appear extensively within and around the mihrab and on the lower portions of many of the walls, including on the minor mihrabs built on either side of the main mihrab. Even if we accept these decolorised portions as the  work of the elements (or the Sikh period), placing a green-coloured disintegrating wooden cupboard in the main mihrab - with bricks holding it from toppling over - can find no justification.

The worst was yet to come. I looked for stairs to climb on top of the building. I found the stairs on the right side of the main entrance. As I looked at them, I thought for a while that the stair-top has collapsed and the debris has piled on the staircase. Grudgingly, I took the first two steps and looked up left, where the stair case turned. The state of all the stairs right up to the top was the same. I cannot even describe in words what I witnessed. Loose debris has piled for such a long time that it has become hardened. I could clearly see narrow bricks that must be the original construction. This accumulation of muck has been taking place for a long time but no one has taken any preventive action. I couldn’t see clearly in the dark but the plastering from the stair well walls and roof may have been crumbling for the last many years. If that is the case, then there is an urgent need to undertake some sort of professional repair work.

I climbed up with my naked feet, delicately planting them on the uneven loose surface, hovering over a thick bamboo broom, and stepped on the roof to witness even worse cultural carnage.

The easiest of way ruining a good structure is to let weeds and shrubs grow on its roof or the walls. The plant roots are very determined, sturdy and piercing beings that can penetrate the hardest of concretes. Unfortunately the roof of the mosque is replete with grass and weeds. A peepal tree has taken firm roots in a niche in the base of the gumbads and is sprouting healthy branches and leaves. Before long it will spread its roots all over the roof. Even now, it is in such a state of growth that it cannot be removed without damaging the already decaying roof. Evidently, the roof had not been cleaned in a long time. There were old pieces of clothing rotting within the muck spread all over.

The Mosque has one large gumbad with two smaller gumbads on either side. All five have become black and gave me a feeling of looking at the Babari mosque gumbads before their destruction in India!

I didn’t go to the stairs on the left side but I have read somewhere that they are in a better shape. However, the plaque fixed and plastered on the wall above the pillar on the left side of the entrance to the prayer hall is shameful. I must state for its perpetrators that, “You didn’t build this mosque for your narrow version of our great religion. You occupied it and are using it for your own purposes, just as the Sikhs before you occupied it and used it for their purposes. You have no right to reserve its exclusive use for one section of people. Please remove the plaque.”

Sadly, mosques that I see in DHA, Cantonment and Bahria Town are maintained in a far better manner. Some of the mosques built in Islamabad from public contributions make one proud. If the government cannot look after this four centuries old marvel, it should be handed over to one of above mentioned organizations perhaps…

I keep wondering: if this entire complex from Jahangir’s tomb to his mosque had been located in the Western world, how well they would have showcased it for tourists, with gardens and gift shops. Millions would have been visiting it from all over the world, bringing with them tourism revenue. We are, however, an unfortunate nation and we Lahoris are a hapless lot. We used to celebrate Basant with such passion that the whole world made documentaries and wrote about it. Lahore would swell with tourists during that season. Businesses prospered and the inner city dwellers made money renting out their roofs to multinational companies for the event. It was the Carnival and the Mardi Gras of Lahore. We killed it. We have several historical wonders to feel proud of, yet we display total disregard for them.

I can only hope that we somehow learn to treasure the blessings that have been bestowed on us by history.

Parvez Mahmood lives in Islamabad

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com