Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Rediscovering a great builder

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The octagonal building with the bulbous dome should still have been visible from the Grand Trunk Road near the Shalimar Gardens because according to Kanhayalal, the author of Tarikh-e-Lahore (written 1884) it was the highest mausoleum in Lahore. But now the surrounding concrete monstrosities of modern urban architecture have all but swamped it.
Standing on a high plinth its arched alcoves afford entrance to a spacious octagonal chamber with two sarcophagi. Below the plinth, in the subterranean burial chamber whose entrances are now blocked by debris, are two graves that mark the mortal remains of a man called Ali Mardan Khan and his mother. Originally the building had a facing of marble and mosaic tiles which were stripped when the Sikhs used the building as a gunpowder magazine under command of General Gulab Singh Bhowandia. To the north is a beautiful gateway, still resplendent with colourful mosaics; barred and disused it is now the abode of innumerable bats. Entry to the mausoleum is through a corridor separating it from the surrounding Pakistan Railways Loco Shed at Mughalpura.

Ali Mardan served under Emperor Shah Jehan and received the title of Amir ul Umra – Lord of Lords. British historians made too much of him billing him a great engineer, the builder of canals and gardens. Local tradition makes him a Syed who arrived in Lahore from Afghanistan. He was named Mardan, relates this tradition, because en route from Afghanistan he sojourned for a while in the town of that name. Crowds of worshippers visit his shrine daily to pray for sons and wealth. On Thursdays the mausoleum is awash with seekers.

But the Shah Jehan Nama tells the tale of a man fallible as fallible can be. Before we go on to the story itself, a brief word concerning this book will not be out of order. Shah Jehan, even before he took the throne, was obsessed with his place in history, perhaps a common enough affliction among princes and kings. As king he therefore decreed that a very detailed account be maintained of everything he did from which a history was to be compiled. Begun as the Padshah Nama by Jalala Tabatabai and Amina Qazvini, the work was to see changes in authors as the years unfolded. By the time it appeared as the Shah Jehan Nama, it had gone through another two hands and had been edited by Inayat Khan, the Superintendent of the Royal Library. Carried out in the lifetime of Shah Jehan, this revision evidently had royal sanction. Consequently all the half truths and embellishments contained in the chronicle are there because the king wished them. The story of Ali Mardan is only part of the grand narrative, yet it tells a good deal about Shah Jehan as well.

It was the year 1607, the second year of Emperor Jehangir’s reign, that the armies of Shah Abbas the Great, the Safvid king of Persia, marched on the outlying Mughal province of Kandahar. A brief struggle followed and the province was lost to Persia. Twenty-two years later Shah Abbas died and was replaced on the throne by his grandson Sam Mirza styled Shah Safi. If ever there was a suspicious man, it was he. Consumed by jealousy and insecurity he set about on a methodical course of removing by murder or imprisonment all of his grandfather’s trusted courtiers. Indeed, this deranged king even executed a number of his own close male relatives in order that there be no threat to his uncertain crown.

Now, the governor of Kandahar was our Ali Mardan Khan, a Turk of the tribe of Zik who had long served Shah Abbas before passing on into the service of Shah Safi. Having kept a watchful eye on his new blood-letting king he by and by became very concerned for his own safety. Consequently early in 1638 he wrote a letter to the governor of Kabul (then in Mughal hands) telling him that if the Safvid army were to march upon Kandahar, he would speedily change sides and deliver the town into Mughal hands in exchange for military aid and protection. Having received necessary assurance from Kabul, he set about revamping the defenses of Kandahar.

There never being a dearth of double-dealers, someone from his close circle wrote to inform Shah Safi of these suspicious activities. The king demanded an explanation and ordered that misgivings be allayed by the immediate dispatch of Ali Mardan’s eldest son to court. Sons evidently being disposable commodities in those days, the man complied. But he set about on his own spree of executing all and sundry that he suspected of insincerity. He failed, however, to get to the bottom of these double-dealers and news of the purge reached the court. To cut a long story short, Shah Safi dispatched an army for Kandahar and Ali Mardan jumped into the safety of the Mughal lap in Kabul.

Shah Jehan, who had always looked upon Kandahar as part of his legacy, was not wanting in support. Three armies were dispatched to the aid of the turncoat governor and before the month was out the mosques of Kandahar were resounding to the khutba in the name of Shah Jehan. At the same time a bunch of newly minted gold coins with the ‘illustrious name’ of the emperor was on its way from the highlands to the capital at Lahore. That distant outpost in the land of the Pathans became, once again, part of the Mughal empire.

Later that same year (1638) the governor of Kandahar was summoned to Lahore where, in the fashion of oriental courts, he was given the honour of ‘doing obeisance at the foot of the royal throne.’ Among other things he was rewarded with three hundred thousand rupees that the man claimed was his travel expense from Kandahar to the capital. That grand sum, sufficient today to take one around the world in some style, was graciously granted by a deeply gratified king for the return of a province he had been part of the Mughal empire for over a hundred until wrested away by Shah Abbas.

Having wintered in Lahore where he apparently had the emperor’s ear, the devious Ali Mardan inveigled a posting as governor of Kashmir because he, so says the Shah Jehan Nama, ‘was habituated to the climate of Iran and could not endure the burning heat of Hindustan.’ There seems not have been a more indulgent king than Shah Jehan. The following March (1639) the man was seen off with more gifts among which was, of all things, a pan-dan – that little silver box containing betel leaves and all adjuncts for the preparation of pan. Summer passed away in luxury, but the Kashmirian winter was too much for him. Given to an overly whinging nature, he complained bitterly of the harsh cold in Kashmir. Over-eager to wean him, Shah Jehan conferred on him the special favour of additional charge of Lahore in winters. For the next two years Ali Mardan spent the summers in Kashmir and winters in Lahore.

In 1639 Ali Mardan represented to the emperor that there was ‘an engineer in his service who possesses eminent skill in the art of constructing canals…’ He suggested that a channel be dug from the Ravi where it breaks out of the mountains fifty kos (about one hundred and eighty kilometres) away to slake the parched country around the city of Lahore. One hundred thousand rupees, estimated to be the cost of this ambitious project, was paid out by Shah Jehan and work began. What happened next smacks distinctly of government outfits in modern Pakistan.

In February 1641 when the canal was yet unfinished Ali Mardan contrived a transfer to the governorship of Kabul. Shortly afterwards Shah Jehan inspected work on the canal and in anticipation of the water that promised to flow in it ordered the laying out of a garden that was to be one of his most enduring and beautiful gifts to Lahore – the Shalimar Gardens. Strange that as the emperor bidding Ali Mardan farewell and Godspeed on his journey to Kabul, did not deem it fit to ask the man about progress on the canal.

Work on the garden began on June 12th, 1641 – a date calculated by astrologers to be auspicious, and in a remarkable effort of engineering the garden was completed in a period of one year and four months. Meanwhile, Ali Mardan’s servants, from time to time, came up with additional demands for funds that amounted in total to another one hundred thousand rupees ‘in order that the water might be made to flow with the required volume.’ But the canal completed ‘under the directions of Ali Mardan Khan’s servants’ stubbornly remained bone dry.

The emperor was miffed and Ali Mardan’s servants were booted out. The Shah Jehan Nama records that these so-called engineers had ‘through bad judgment’ wasted fifty thousand rupees. One wonders if this amount hadn’t made its way to the coffers of Ali Mardan in Kabul. The chronicle goes on to say that ‘several learned specialists who possessed great engineering skill’ were recruited to design the canal all over again. An altogether new channel thirty-two kos (about 110 kilometres) long, was designed. It should be of great interest that only five kos (some eighteen kilometres) of the original excavation by Ali Mardan’s engineers could be utilised in this new design that eventually brought water to the garden. It is a thought if Shah Jehan, as he reposed on the marble pedestals of the delightful gardens Faiz Buksh and Farah Buksh while the fountains played to cool the air in Shalimar, felt somehow mortified by the improbity of the man he had so favoured.

Shortly after assigning new engineers to the failed canal, Shah Jehan did a very strange thing: he honoured Ali Mardan Khan with the title of Amir ul Umra. A few years later, in 1649, the emperor conferred Kashmir as a fief upon this man. From this point on Ali Mardan remained, depending upon the season, either in Lahore or in Kashmir.

Though it does not say in explicitly terms, an objective reading of the Shah Jehan Nama shows that the emperor was somehow not quite sure of Ali Mardan’s faithfulness. His readiness to acquiesce to the various requests by the man was, in all probability, an attempt to keep a dubious ally in good humour. Surely Shah Jehan must have been apprehensive of a piqued Ali Mardan Khan changing sides as he had done in the past and delivering the coveted outlying province of Kabul, and with it Kandahar, into Safvid hands and was constrained to keep the man content.

That the writers of the Shah Jehan Nama were tactfully silent about how the emperor really felt about Ali Mardan is understandable. As court historians they could only record what the emperor wished. What is amazing is why later historians, particularly the British, unnecessarily made too much of the man. Long after his death some Raj historian turned rapacious, grabbing Ali Mardan Khan into Shah Jehan’s master architect. A detailed reading would have shown this historian that Ali Mardan was eating highland apricots in Kabul while his factotums aimlessly flogged the earth outside Lahore with their spades. The crown of apotheosis was placed upon his head by modern Pakistan. Those who come to beg him to intercede on their behalf with Allah will never believe they are bending their head to the tomb of a highly dubious character.

If the emperor had meant to keep him in good humour, he did it pretty well. Toward the end of his career Ali Mardan was collecting from the treasury a stipend of three million rupees per annum. In April 1657 when he died from dysentery on his way to Kashmir his total assets were well over ten million rupees!

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 16 September 2013 at 12:55, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

You know bats and history have strange or analogy?

Kingdoms,seeing from here, seem to be puppet shows dancing on the tunes of power and the truths written under the auspices of these kings and emperors also have question mark on them...Who dares to write truth under the swordmen of the king of the hour? The constrained, engineered, sponsored, and confined truths are coming to us through the windows of historians and chroniclers.of those days.

Anyway, you gave me a good read again this mornig.

At 16 September 2013 at 23:00, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing in detail, forgotten history of the Mughals & the croonies of that period.

At 18 September 2013 at 02:33, Blogger Nathan Rabe said...

Great histroy lesson. I used to live in Lahore and only wish I could visit the grave of Ali Mardan armed with this information!Thank you.

At 18 September 2013 at 10:11, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

These days, they open the entrance every Thursday. And local morons have turned the crook into a saint!


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days