Carved Doors of the Gateway to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Samadhi by Dr. Nadhra Shahbaz Naeem Khan

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Figure 1

Click to Enlarge – Figure 1 – Gateway, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Samadhi, Lahore 2009

Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Samadhī or the funerary memorial built for him by his successors after his death in 1839 is significant for more than one reason; it commemorates the life of the last great native ruler of the Punjab and it represents a high point in Sikh architectural decoration. Within a short period after its construction began, the Punjab was annexed by the British and the architectural style changed forever. The European design repertory introduced by the British was very different from the indigenous vocabulary of ornamental motifs that had roots in the local idiom and was a result of assimilation of different traditions over the past centuries. Well understood and shared by all without any religious boundaries.

The motifs that adorn the Samadhi are rendered in a variety of materials and techniques which includes relief work in red sandstone and white marble, polychrome inlay in white marble, frescoes, mirror-mosaic and wood carving. All are examples of excellent craftsmanship and present designs and themes that reflect the expertise and intellect of the artists and artisans working under the Sikh patronage. This paper focuses on the wooden doors of the Samadhi’s gateway and compares the motifs found here with other extant examples in contemporary buildings to trace the general trend of artisans and patrons and possible reasons behind their preferences. They also help develop an understanding of the sequence of changes if any in the designs as approximate dates of the construction of these buildings are known. Moreover, this study also highlights the continuous use of certain motifs or a combination of them and defines the individual character of Sikh period architecture distinctly different from earlier practices. Today the doors are thickly coated with glazed paint which obscures finer details but since they are dateable and are still in their original position, their study will help understand the ornamental programs of nineteenth century buildings in the Punjab. Another verification of their originality is that the decorative designs these doors carry corresponds with the general theme of the gateway. For an understanding of the development of the design repertory, similar motifs in Mughal buildings in Lahore are also studied to see if and to what extent they acted as prototypes for later Sikh period designs.


Click to Enlarge – Figure 2- 2009

The gateway to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Samadhī is a free standing structure, double-storey in height, built with the Nanak-shahi baked bricks and divided into three sections (figure 1). The central section has a red sandstone veneer whereas the flanking ones are plastered and whitewashed. The portal in the middle of the central section is stressed by a large īwan-like arch of double storey height that rises above the main entrance. The wooden doors of this entrance are the focus of our discussion. This large arch is flanked by seats and balanced by a smaller deep niche on either side. The doorway is crowned by a red sandstone plaque that features three Hindu deities; Brahma, Ganesha and Shiva, carved in relief. The orientation of the gateway is towards east in conformity with the general practice observed for Hindu temples as "it is the auspicious direction of the rising sun, whose first rays illuminate the interior of the shrine at dawn".1

The pair of door leaves is set in a red sandstone doorway and swing on stone pivots at the base and the top. Decorated with motifs in bas-relief, each leaf is divided into fourteen sections joined by faceted wooden rails held in place with metal bosses or nails (figure 2). The overlap bar on the left door is a solid mass of wood carved in a semi-cylindrical shape. The cylindrical parts have carved chevron design while the bases and tops of the intermediary squares have stylized lotus petals. Each square has a flower in the centre with small leaves on all four corners and a metal peg to hold it in place.

Figure 3

Click to Enlarge – Figure 3

The doors feature at least seven different compositions of floral and fruit motifs, some with birds. Three large panels on each leaf have compositions within an arch-like frame that culminates in a crowning flower. Two of the three large panels have similar designs while the central one is different. These large panels show a flowering plant springing out of a larger flower and multiple long leaves at the base (figure 3). The birds in the lower corners have their backs towards each other and the heads turned inside pecking at the leaves. The plant bears six stylized flowers with the largest one in the centre and a pair of bees hovering over it on each side. The composition of the central panel, different from the other two on each leaf, is divided into two sections. The lower section shows a half sunflower carved at the bottom edge with projecting leaves and a narcissus in the centre. This lower arch-frame of the panel is composed of intertwined foliage with flatter cusps. The ogee arch is crowned with a flower which is placed upside down to form the pedestal of a fruit dish. The fruit dish has two bunches of grapes on each side while there is a vase in the centre with a narrow neck, out of which a bouquet of flowers springs out. A bunch of grapes on each corner of the fruit dish is being pecked at by a bird. The central bouquet has an iris flanked by narcissus and stylized leaves (figure 4). Indeed a pattern composed of many dissimilar parts but aesthetically pleasing.


Click to Enlarge – Figure 4

The smaller rectangular panels of the doors, placed horizontally above and below the large panels are of two types. Both compositions are placed inside a horizontal arch-like cartouche, each crowned with a flower. One panel shows a pair of nightingales and three flowers and another flower at the base. The other one has a fruit dish in the center with a pomegranate in the middle with apples and bunches of grapes on both sides. The birds flanking the fruit dish are pecking at the grapes with their heads turned back (figure 5).

Narrow rectangular panels are a set of three in each door leaf and have two types of designs. All three compositions have a cartouche-like frame with smaller flowers in the spandrels, simulating a blind niche. One of these show a fruit dish similar to one of the large panels with a segmented vase in it with a bunch of flowers springing out of its narrow neck and the fruit dish holding the vase that rests on an intertwined foliated base. The second narrow panel also has a bunch of flowers springing from a pot that probably symbolizes the kalasa or the water pot of abundance associated with the Hindu deity Lakshmi or amalaka, a segmented fruit favored in worshipping another Hindu deity Shiva. The third type has a single large flower framed within the arched niche, with stylized long leaves at its base. Four small square panels are alternately placed between the narrow rectangular panels in each door leaf. These square panels have a singular rosette enclosed within an arch frame with small buds in the spandrels.

Figure 5

Click to Enlarge – Figure 5

The important elements of the design repertory used here are various types of flowers especially irises and sunflowers, fruit dishes laden with pomegranates and bunches of grapes placed on intertwined pedestals, bumble bees hovering around the flowers and pairs of nightingales flanking the central flower or fruit composition with their backs on opposite directions but heads turned towards each other. In order to draw parallels in contemporary buildings, we will first look at wood carving on doors and then trace these motifs in stone carving, inlays and frescoes.

Most of the original wooden doors in the surviving Sikh-period buildings in and around Lahore have been lost. Among the few extant ones are the doors in the northern wall as well as the small double-doors of the main sanctuary in the interior of the Gurdwara Dera Sahib, Lahore. Another comparable example is a set of door leaves at Hari Singh Nalwa’s (1791-1837) havelī at Gurjanwala. The present doors in the Mughal period Musamman Burj in the Lahore Fort used as residence by the Sikh monarchs have floral and geometric patterns but are difficult to date.

Figure 6 and 7

Click to Enlarge – Figure 6 and 7

The doors of the north entrance of Gurdwara Dera Sahib have masterfully carved small panels mostly with singular birds or floral compositions (figure 6). Although the design elements show a vocabulary similar to what is used for the doors of the neighboring Samadhī, the arrangement of motifs is different: the division of panels is smaller and as compared to just the nightingales, here the birds include peacocks, sparrows, parrots and nightingales as well as a variety of flowers and fruit.

The doors of the central room at the first floor of Hari Singh Nalwa’s havelī, currently used as a madrasa or religious school, most closely resemble the doors of the Samadhī gateway (figure 7). The fine carving shows flower bouquets in vases placed on dishes, in some panels with bunches of grapes, flanked by birds, and the compositions enclosed by stylized arches. They are also the best preserved as the wood appears to be of a very good quality and they have never been coated with paint.

Carved or inlaid with polychrome stones in marble, fruit dishes, bunches of flowers and birds are found adorning the exterior walls of three marble veneered structures erected by the Maharaja within and near the Lahore fort. One is Bhai Vasti Ram’s Samadhi almost adjacent to the northern wall of the Lahore fort, built after the demise of the pious man in 1802. The second is the Ath Dara, a platform outside the Musamman Burj where the Maharaja held his court and the third a marble baradari in the centre of the Hazuri Bagh that lies between the Alamgiri Gate of the Lahore fort and the Badshahi mosque.

Figures 8, 9, 10

Click to Enlarge – Figure 8-9 and 10

The gouged out horizontal panels on the marble veneered façade of Bhai Vasti Rām’s Samadhī show an intricately inlaid composition with birds flanking a fruit dish and oblong panels with flower compositions (figure 8). The marble dado panels of the Ath Darā and the Hazuri Bagh pavilion have pairs of birds flanking bunches of flowers with bumblebees hovering on them in the top section (figure 9, 10). Hazuri Bagh pavilion also has a horizontally placed panel carved with bunches of grapes placed in a dish holding a scent sprinkler or ʾitrdān in the centre.

Fruit dishes placed on stylized pedestals and vases holding bouquet of flowers flanked by birds are the most popular theme at the Golden Temple Amritsar; in repoussé on the copper-gilt panels, inlaid with polychrome stones into white marble or painted on the interior walls (figure 11).2 Similar designs are also repeatedly painted in the pavilions of Musamman Burj in Lahore Fort that was occupied by the Sikh rulers. One very closely resembling the Samadhī’s gateway door composition is painted in a niche in the pavilion opposite the Sheesh Mahal pavilion within the Musamman Burj (figure 12). The Sheesh Mahal itself has many panels painted with fruit dishes and birds, some masterfully executed while most of them show crude drawings and paintings. One of the appreciable ones show a fruit dish with flower vases and birds, painted in gold with black background on marble.

Figure 11

Click to Enlarge – Figure 11

Fruit dishes with bunches of flowers and birds are also painted at the Sheikhupura Fort, used by Ranjit Singh’s second wife Rani Nakain as her residence. The painted walls of the gallery at Naunehal Singh’s havelī show a variety of fruit dishes mostly with water melons and birds flanking vases or bunches of flowers, with their heads turned backwards, closely resembling the ones on the Samadhī ’s door. The dilapidated Shah Bilawal baradarī at Lahore was frequently visited by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his successors as a recreational spot. This baradarī was also the spot of Sher Singh’s murder at the hands of the Sandhanwalias in 1843 and his Samadhī now stands next to it. One section has traces of murals on its exterior walls and shows exquisitely painted birds pecking at flowers with a fruit dish in the centre of the composition.

Looking at the prototypes, fruit dishes and flower compositions appear to be a frequently used theme for decoration by the Mughals for architectural decoration of palaces, caravanserais, mosques and tombs. Birds however, were never used for mosques but do appear on other building symbolizing birds of paradise, abundant verdant lands or the rule of the emperor extending to all living creatures.

Figure 12

Click to Enlarge – Figure 12

Some excellent extant examples of fruit dishes and flower vases in Mughal period gateways in Lahore are the faience mosaic panels, a decorative technique greatly favored by Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1656). One is the Gulabi Bagh gateway, Lahore, a rose garden laid around 1655 by a Persian noble, Mirza Sultan Baig. Here vases with flowers placed on dishes with pedestals are surrounded by stylized scrolls within an arch shape (figure 13). Similar vocabulary of motifs is found on the gateway to Ali Mardan Khan’s tomb and the Chauburjī gateway where some panels also have fruit dishes with knives (figure 14).3

Figure 13

Click to Enlarge – Figure 13

Following the Islamic sanctions on depicting animate objects, birds or animals were not used to decorate Mughal period mosques but they frequently appeared in secular buildings. None of the extant gateways dateable to the Mughal period except for the western gateway of the caravanserai built by Empress Nurjahan carries images of animals and birds along with flowers and human figures. Located at the small town of Nurmahal, nearly 13 km from Nakodar, East Punjab, this gateway is built in red sandstone and exquisitely carved with a variety of animate and inanimate motifs. The top section of the gateway has horizontally placed panels with pairs of peacocks flanking a slim-necked vase with a smaller bird at their feet. The frieze that runs along the three sides of the entrance has birds and singular flowers connected to arabesque-like tendrils. Other Jahangir period structures in the Lahore fort include animal and bird shaped brackets in the Jahanagiri Mahal and frescoes on the Kala-burj ceiling. The rear wall of the jharoka-e darshan or the emperor’s seat in Diwan-e Aam, Delhi fort built by Shah Jahan has images of birds inlaid in black marble. According to Ebba Koch, imagery of birds used by Jahangir and Shah Jahan was used as a claim by each to be the Solomon of his times.4

An important point to note here is that the Volume III (dedicated to carved doors) of Jeypore Portfolio of Architectural Details by Samuel Swinton Jacob published in 1890, illustrating designs of pre-Mughal Hindu temples, Mughal and the later period buildings in Jaipur, Delhi, Fatehpur Sikri and Agra does not have a single example of a flower or fruit composition with birds and bees.

Figure 14

Click to Enlarge – Figure 14

The Great Sanchi stupa dateable between late 1 BC to early 1 AD is quite similar in its ornamental program to the gateway of Serai Nurmahal. Here pairs of peacocks flanking flower and fruit bunches are carved on the northern gateway. Their bodies overlapping, the heads are turned towards each other with bunches of flowers and mangoes in-between (figure 15). According to Margaret Prosser Allen, these peacocks are probably purely decorative but may also be a heraldic emblem of the Mauryan dynasty.5

Coming down to the Sikh rule in the Punjab in the nineteenth century, an ornamental vocabulary emerges that uses motifs in vogue for centuries in new combinations and marks unique characteristics of this period. One such example is the flowering plants placed on stylized bases very similar to the ones frequently used in Shah Jahan period faience mosaic panels but now with an addition of birds and bumblebees as well as experiments with the layouts that uses a variety of flowers in a single composition. The importance given to flowers and fruits and birds whether carved on doors and walls of a samadhī or gurudwara or painted on the walls of a havelī, appears to allude to the concept of a land of bliss and abundance. The preference for nightingales on the door panels of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Samadhi and the general selection of pigeons, parrots and peacocks in other contemporary buildings reinforces the concept of their affinity with verdant lands in poetry and prose and a visual reality for the artists living in the agriculturally rich lands of the Punjab.

It is interesting to note that the interior wall paintings of the Samadhi feature another bird very different in nature to the ones used on the door panels. This is the falcon – a bird used for hunting by royalty and shown here perched on the gloved hands of the sixth and the tenth Sikh gurus, widely used as a symbolic attribute of both Guru Hargobind and Guru Gobind Singh showing their militant character. Its absence on the gateway door panels shows that the patron and the craftsmen selected the birds with a clear understanding of their symbolic value. The depiction of flowering plants, fruit dishes, paradisiacal birds and bumblebees on these door panels fully visible when closed, appear to state that the last resting place of Maharaja Ranjit Singh is an enclosure of abundance and eternal bliss.

1 R. Champakalakshmi and Usha Kris, The Hindu Temple (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2001), 15.

2 Golden Temple examples are difficult to date due to constant restoration but there is a strong possibility that the present designs are .

3 Ali Mardan Khan was responsible for laying out Lahore’s famous Shalimar Garden under Shah Jahan’s patronage and Chauburji is the gateway to a garden laid out by Aurangzeb’s daughter Zeb-un Nisa.

4 The Biblical Solomon and the Quranic Suleiman; a prophet and king known for his wisdom and control over all living things. For details see Ebba Koch, Shah Jahan and Orpheus (Austria: Adeva, 1988).

5 Margaret Prosser Allen, Ornament in Indian Architecture (Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1991), 20.

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