A Reflection on the talk “Lahore Revisited – The city & its 19th century guidebook” by Dr. Nadhra N. Khan
My interest in Sikh art and architectural ornament is as old as my doctoral pursuits. I have had several opportunities to present my work at both academic and non-academic forums but never in this decade long journey has my research been received as enthusiastically as it was by the Bay Area audience on August 28, 2015. With the generous funding by the Fulbright Outreach Lecture Funding program, the event was held at the India Community Center in Milpitas, organized by the Sikh Foundation International and the SACHI (Society for Art and Cultural Heritage of India) and supported by the Mills College.
The focus of my talk titled “Lahore Revisited: The City and Its Nineteenth-Century Guide-Book” was to highlight the beauty and splendor of nineteenth-century Sikh architectural ornament and to draw attention to derogatory British historiography shortly after annexation of Punjab. The text has remained in continuous circulation in official and public circles for more than a century resulting in a deep-rooted impact on subsequent scholarship on this important indigenous school of art and architecture in the subcontinent.
In order to introduce the nineteenth century Sikh architecture in Lahore and to underscore their ornamental features comparable in aesthetic quality and exquisite rendition to most Mughal buildings, I discussed the following four buildings:
1. The Ath Dara (a rectangle pavilion with eight archways in an inverted L-shape) in the Lahore Fort built and used by Ranjit Singh as his court or kacheri. This is the same pavilion that the Hungarian artist August Scheofft who visited Lahore and Amritsar as Dr. Martin Honigberger’s guest in 1841 chose to paint in his famous work The Court of Lahore (16 x 10 ft.). It is interesting to note that the angle of Scheofft’s pavilion along with its arched openings do not match the actual Ath Dara and also that its representation at the Panorama in Ranjit Singh Museum, Amritsar, is after this painting and not the original.
2. The Hazuri Bagh baradari is a white marble pavilion commissioned by the Maharaja in the center of the garden he laid out between the Lahore Fort’s Alamgiri Gate and the Badshahi Mosque. The baradari lost its top story in 1932 due to damage sustained in a rainstorm and now stands with one level above the ground and two below: a basement and a sub-basement. Decorated with delicately designed motifs in high and bas-relief, ayina-kari or mirror-mosaic and painted wooden ceiling, this structure stands as one of the most beautiful specimens of Sikh period architecture.
3. Bhae Vasti Ram’s samadhi or funerary monuments isa small square marble structure that stands almost outside the northern boundary wall of the Fort and was once surrounded by several other commemorative chhatris. This was commissioned by Ranjit Singh to honor his spiritual guide on the spot of his cremation. The extant white marble panels carry traces of exquisite carvings and inlaid floral designs comparable in their delicacy and fineness to any Mughal monument in the city. The motifs carved on the pillars, pilasters and the blind niches are rendered with great skill and show complete mastery of the craftsmen. The interior was once profusely decorated with gilded mirror mosaic and wall paintings of which very little survives but its extant sections carry a distinct stamp of contemporary design practices.
4. Ranjit Singh’s Samadhi was the last major state funded architectural project of independent Punjab before annexation by the British in 1849. Commenced by Kharak Singh after Ranjit Singh’s death on June 27, 1839, its construction and decoration continued even during the troubled times. The Samadhi is decorated with excellent examples of red sandstone and white marble carving, delicately rendered semiprecious stones inlay, mirror mosaic and woodwork. The central hall houses the marble chhatrī that once carried beautifully carved marble knobs holding ashes of the Maharaja and his four queens, seven slave girls and two pigeons who performed satī on his funeral pyre. After complaints lodged by visiting Sikh delegates from India for placing remains of mortals at a higher level than the Granth Sahib in the nearby Dera Sahib Gurdwara, these knobs were removed and are now locked in a storeroom.
There are several other structures from the Sikh period that need to be studied in order to fully understand their architectural plans and ornamental programs. The negative sentiment propagated by British historiography has resulted in their neglect and damage and it is imperative to bring them to scholarly attention to save whatever survives. I am confident that I was successful in sparking interest for both fresh inquiry and re-evaluation of traditional discourses and neglected areas of investigation.