Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Ali Mardan Khan

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Hard by the railway workshops in Mughalpura Lahore, there sits a domed building. Kanhaya Lal, writing in the late 19th century, termed it the highest building in the city this side of the Badshahi Mosque. This is the tomb of Ali Mardan Khan, purportedly the great builder of Shalimar Gardens and a great canal-digger to boot.

Today, Ali Mardan’s tomb, like any other burial is a shrine where people come to pray for sons and wealth and where their prayers are answered too. The watchman posted by the Department of Archaeology quietly collects — and pockets — the donations of simpletons who believe in demigods. But Ali Mardan was neither. He was not an architect or an engineer; neither was he a man of lofty, unimpeachable character. He was a fraudster in the finest tradition of many a modern mandarin.

The story begins in 1607 until which time Kandahar was part of the Mughal Empire of India. This was the second year of Jahangir’s reign when the army of Shah Abbas, the Safvid king of Persia, annexed it to the Persian Empire. This status quo held for the next 22 years. Abbas died in 1629 and his grandson Sam Mirza became king styled as Shah Safi.

A right suspicious man, he went about exterminating most of his male relatives and many of his grandfather’s courtiers. This was a time that Ali Mardan Khan, a Turk of the tribe of Zik, was governor of Kandahar. Watching the massacre in the distant capital, he began to fear for his own life. He wrote a letter to the Mughal governor of Kabul that he was willing to change sides and hand over the city to the Mughals.

And so Kandahar, once again, became part of the Mughal Empire in 1638 during Shah Jehan’s reign. Ever beholden to the turncoat, Shah Jehan invited Ali Mardan to Lahore where he was showered with gifts. In Lahore, the man had Shah Jehan’s ear and inveigled an arrangement, whereby, he was the summer governor of Kashmir and the winter governor of Lahore.

In 1639, Ali Mardan represented to the king 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 to slake Lahore. The cost of the project as forwarded by Ali Mardan was a hundred thousand rupees.

The monies were paid out and work began. In 1641, two years into the project, Ali Mardan, inveigler that he was, got himself transferred to the governorship of Kabul. That same year, Shah Jehan inspected work on the canal and being satisfied ordered the laying out of the Shalimar Gardens. This project began on the twelfth day of June. Meanwhile, Ali Mardan’s ‘engineer’ came up with additional demands for funds and was paid another one hundred thousand rupees.

By October 1642, the garden was complete. But the promised canal, after an outlay of two hundred thousand rupees remained bone dry. Miffed, the emperor booted out the diggers and employed another team of ‘learned specialists who possessed great engineering skill’. To be fair, a length of channel had been excavated, but it went nowhere and the new team had to dig a new canal thirty-two kos (110 kilometres) to get water into it. Interestingly, only five kos (18 km) of the channel dug by Ali Mardan’s cronies was useful!

Despite all this trickery and clear lust for wealth, Ali Mardan did not lose Shah Jehan’s favour. Shortly after the debacle of the canal, Ali Mardan was bestowed the title of Amirul Umra. In 1649, Kashmir was conferred upon the crook as fief. And when this man died from dysentery in 1657, his assets as annexed by the State stood at a colossal ten million rupees of that time!

The above comes not from hearsay or the famous seena gazette of the ignorant, but from the Shah Jehan Nama, the official record of the reign. The question: why was the emperor like putty in the hands of this trickster? Aware of his treachery towards the Persian crown, Shah Jehan needed to keep the man in good humour so that he forever remained faithful and, thus, acquiesced to his every demand.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 18 September 2014 at 16:24, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

There is so much to learn. So near but I never knew.

At 20 September 2014 at 09:08, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nayyar, do visit and see how this fraudster has been turned into a pir by the illiterate chowkidars of the Department of Archaeology.

At 27 January 2015 at 16:17, Anonymous Nadeem Akram said...

You live and learn, informative


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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

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