Subterranean grandeur

Tania Qureshi takes us into the forgotten, underground world of the basements under Huzoori Bagh

Subterranean grandeur
Most people are familiar with Huzoori Bagh, bounded by the majestic Badshahi Mosque and grandiose Lahore Fort. Have you ever heard, though, of the basements of Huzoori Bagh pavilion or bara dari? I, for one, had not until my recent visit to Huzoori Bagh with a friend. It was then that I discovered a whole world underground.

It proved most interesting to walk down the pitch-dark stairs and I could hardly make out my way using a cellular phone torch. Mildly scary as it was, my curiosity led me steadily on. As I stepped into the first level of the huge basement, I was awestruck by the architecture - the curves slightly apparent through the sunrays seeping in through the small holes of the ventilation gaps above. The majesty of it all was well intact but tarnished by neglect - like many other historical and architectural marvels of Lahore. The pillars seemed strong, the ceiling was carved reflecting Sikh era architecture and the railing running around was delicately done. It was rather difficult for me to photograph the place in darkness so I requested the management to arrange for a lamp and kindly enough, they did it. While taking photographs I could see the entire place covered with a thick layer of dust as it had never been cleaned. The dust particles danced around in the sunrays which entered this underground vault. The place was locked since ages and there is still no public access to it. Yes, you can visit the place if you know someone in the management.


I trekked down to the second basement which was much darker - the sunrays could hardly make their way there. It was a hollow with carvings on the walls and pillars on which the upper basement was resting.

Let’s come to the story of this grandeur in shambles. The garden originally served as the serai (palace or place of rest) of Aurangzeb Alamgir, the Mughal Emperor. A forecourt was built leading to the Badshahi Mosque from where the Mughal ruler would enter the grand mosque. Once it was a place where the Mughal emperor briefed his troops and interacted with them.

Later a pavilion was built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to celebrate the acquisition of the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond from Shah Shujah of Afghanistan. The Serai Alamgiri formerly stood there. A royal garden was then planned around the pavilion and built under the supervision of Faqir Azizuddin in the traditional Mughal style. After its completion it is said that Ranjit Singh, at the suggestion of Jamadar Khushhal Singh, ordered that marble vandalised from various mausoleums of Lahore be used to construct a bara dari (pavilion) here. This task of building bara dari was given to Khalifa Nooruddin. Elegant carved marble pillars supported the bara dari’s delicate cusped arches. The central area, where Ranjit Singh held court, had a mirrored ceiling. It was used by Maharaja Ranjit Singh for his private meetings, watching dances by female courtesans and some historians claim that he was fond of watching lion-fights there too. In July 1932, the upper storey collapsed due to a powerful storm and was never rebuilt. The uppermost storey was constructed by using the marble from the Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s tomb which is located in Shahdara.
If opened for tourism, these heritage sites could sustain their own upkeep

After Partition this place was used for several activities. People of the Walled City of Lahore would gather there to recite and narrate old tales and stories - a practice known as Qissa Khawani. The epics of Heer Ranjha were shared along with the tales of Sassi Pannu and Sufi poetry. In those days the area was open to the common public but the basements were closed. The Roshnai Gates built at two ends - one by the British and the other by Mughals - both were opened for the community and it was a spot for socialising. The mausoleum of Dr. Muhammad Iqbal is also located in the vicinity.

Until some decades ago, I remember that the main entrance to the Lahore Fort was the Alamgiri Gate which is now locked for the public. I can recall that my father would drive the car right up to the Alamgiri Gate during my childhood wherever we visited the fort, but it seems like a dream to me now. Due to security concerns and many other unknown reasons, the public is barred from entering that part of the Fort and Huzoori Bagh. People can only walk on the track leading to Badshahi Mosque.

The basements of Huzoori Bagh, in a state of neglect
The basements of Huzoori Bagh, in a state of neglect

If you ever happen to pass through this place at night it will be a fairly spooky experience. There is no illumination in the garden or on the pavilion of Huzoori Bagh. This is how we are treating our heritage, and that is astonishing and distressing at the same time. If the government approves of illuminating the place, it can be a good source of tourism-related earnings. This way, the garden and the abandoned pavilion might sustain their own preservation and upkeep.

In my opinion the gates to the Huzoori Bagh should be opened along with the basements of the pavilion. It can be conceived as a nice spot for photography or selfies, as we have in Agra near the Taj Mahal. Let us hope that the construction of the greater Iqbal Park also gives a new life to this dead pavilion and abandoned garden at night and during the day as well. But this can happen only if the Roshnai Gate is opened and access to the basements and pavilions is given to the public. With the new Food Street near the Fort, the possibilities for tourism are endless.

I fail to understand why we keep our heritage under lock, key and ruin.

Tania Qureshi may be reached at