In the suburb of Shahdara (The Way of the Shahs), some 16 km from Lahore, stand the tombs of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, and his Empress, Nur Jahan.
Of all the Mughal Emperors (and Empresses), they loved Lahore the most; and it was during their reign that Lahore reached its zenith as a Mughal capital and a centre for culture and the arts. Jahangir willed that he be laid to rest forever here, in his beloved city. After she died, Nur Jahan joined her beloved.
Jahangir’s tomb is in the tradition of the great Mausoleums of the Mughal Emperors. Of the tombs of the six Great Mughals, Babur’s tomb is in Kabul, Humayoun in Delhi, and Akbar and Shah Jahan’s in Agra. Aurangzeb is buried in Khuldabad, India, but he had ordered that his tomb be unmarked – the present-day marble structure was built in the British Era by Lord Curzon.
Completed in 1637, the tomb was either designed and commissioned by the Emperor Shah Jahan (Jahangir’s son), or the Empress Nur Jahan (his mother and Jahangir’s wife). It is in the Mughal style with Persian elements, and is strikingly simple and elegant, as compared to the other Royal Mausoleums in India, which tend towards a kind of self-conscious monumentalism.
The interior of the tomb is exquisitely decorated with Mughal frescoes and pietra dura, and in the white marble cenotaph (also decorated with pietra dura), one sees echoes of what is to come later with the Taj Mahal. Unfortunately, it was plundered and damaged during the Sikh period, with precious materials and artefacts taken and used in the construction of the Golden Temple at Amritsar. It has been painstakingly restored today, however, and gleams with a kind of stately though self-effacing beauty.
The tomb is surrounded by a Char Bagh, or a Persian Paradise Garden. These gardens once extended to and encompassed the tombs of Nur Jahan and Asif Khan (Nur Jahan’s brother, Jahangir’s brother-in-law). But today, the Empress’ tomb is cut off from the other two by a road.
Asif Khan’s Tomb
Right beside Jahangir’s tomb stands the Tomb of Asif Khan, which has not weathered time well. The tomb was heavily damaged during the Sikh Period, plundered successively by the Sikh rulers and stripped of its precious materials such as white marble. Much of this precious material was then used to decorate the Golden Temple at Amritsar.
Nur Jahan’s Tomb
A short walk away lies Nur Jahan’s tomb, which has, similarly, not weathered the years well.The surfaces of the tomb had also, like the others, been stripped of white marble and other precious materials used in the Golden Temple in Amritsar. In fact, it is said that almost half of the precious material used in the Golden Temple came from Nur Jahan’s tomb.
The tomb was in the midst of an extensive restoration when I visited. The interior of the tomb, once covered with beautiful frescoes, had faded. But the exterior had been restored so it glowed beneath the afternoon sun.
It has to be noted that Nur Jahan was perhaps the most powerful Mughal Empress in history. She ruled beside her husband as a de facto advisor, taking a keen interest in affairs of state and actually influencing key decisions in the Empire. She commissioned the creation of her own tomb in her lifetime, as well as her father’s tomb – the exquisite, white marble, Itmad ud-daulah Tomb in Agra, known as the “Little Taj Mahal”.
All in all, she was an accomplished and exceptional woman in an empire and history that was overwhelmingly patriarchal.
To the northeast of Lahore, lies another important historic site and destination – the Shalimar Gardens. Recognised as the finest example of a Mughal-style pleasure garden, the Gardens were created by the Emperor Shah Jahan, and were completed in 1642.
Inspired by an earlier Shalimar Gardens, built by his father Jahangir in Kashmir, Shah Jahan commissioned work on his own Gardens, determined that they literally be “Paradise on Earth”. The gardens are (naturally) designed in the Persian Char Bagh or “Paradise Garden” style, and are the largest and most elaborate of these in the Mughal Empire.
While the gardens were private and for the exclusive use of the Emperor, his harem and his guests, the lower part of the gardens were open to the public. Like the Mughal tombs, the gardens were also plundered during the Sikh Empire, with marble and other materials used in the Golden Temple.
[It must be clarified, however, that the attacks on the Royal Tombs and the Shalimar Gardens were retaliation for Jahangir’s strict and often violent persecution of the Sikhs during his reign.]
Today, the Gardens continue to be a huge public attraction, with all manner of local families enjoying themselves in its relatively still tranquil and pleasant surroundings. The Shalimar Gardens were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
Like the rest of Lahore, there were relatively little foreign tourists – in fact, none at all at the tombs and Gardens. And so one really gets an authentic sense of local life. The Lahoris themselves, are immensely friendly and welcoming, and greeted me with a mixture of smiles and curious stares, with many a group approaching me for a friendly “we-fie” on their mobile phones.
Essential Reference: LAHORE – History and Architecture of Mughal Monuments, by Anjum Rehmani. Pakistan: Oxford University Press, 2016.