The Lahore Fort is one of the noblest structures of its kind in the world. Rising out of the northwest corner of the walled city, it has been a symbol of its earliest days. If it could speak, it would tell such things that would leave the listener breathless. It could tell of love, romance and adventure, of dark eyed beauties and fierce-browed warriors, of queens in flowing silks and kings in shining armour, of poets, actors, slaves and concubines, of soldiers and rebels, of revolutions and court intrigues, of coronations and assassinations, of treachery and black revenge.
After the the fort was destroyed by Timur’s hordes in the fourteenth century, it remained desolate for thirty years. The looming hulk became a refuge for stray dogs and owls, a forgotten ghost, until the Mongols’ descendants — returned. They restored Lahore and her Fort to the greatest heights they had ever known, or would ever know again. Akbar rebuilt the walls; Jahangir, and especially Shahjahan, erected most of the magnificent monuments that remain in the Fort today. But each Mughal emperor left his own architectural mark, to carry his name through time. Aurangzeb, the last and most orthodox of the Great Mughals, inherited the Fort as a largely completed treasure, the fruit of his forefathers’ labours and inspirations. He could wander at his leisure through the incredible world contained within those massive walls; through the echoing, arched audience halls; across huge, intricately inlaid courtyards, the stones smooth under his feet; from the bright hot sun of a courtyard into the sudden cool shadows of a columned walkway, and out into yet another courtyard, this one green and planted with flowers and cypress trees. He could walk past clear reflecting pools, complete with small islands in the centre, each with its own graceful bridge; past towers, mosques, minarets, baths, sleeping chambers; past an enormous stone stairway, built to accommodate the royal wives’ elephants; past mirrored pleasure palaces and delicate white marble latticework windows. He could wander for hours, each architectural feat calling to mind the character of one of his ancestors.
He was an austere and orthodox man; perhaps he frowned at the legendary front wall of the Fort of Lahore. This amazing wall, nearly 500 yards long and 48 feet high (450 x 15 metres), is adorned in rich mosaics of all sorts of designs and symbols. His ancestors’ religious eclecticism manifested itself there in the brilliant tableaux: battling elephants, rearing horses, angels from ancient Persian mythology, cherubs, lions, leopards, camels, graceful flying birds, tigers hunting deer, spotted dragons, and men playing polo, hunting lions, and leading tame antelope on leashes.
Shaking his head in disapproval, the Emperor Aurangzeb might then have passed beneath the silent and massive arches of the Fort entrance along the way to his father’s throne room, the Diwan-i ‘Am. This was the Hall of Public Audience, the place where the common people could come to the Emperor to have their grievances redressed. For aristocrats and nobles, and meetings with his own advisers, there was the Diwan-i Khas, the Hall of Private Audience. Standing here, perhaps Aurangzeb recalled his grandfather, the Emperor Jahangir: a diligent man dedicated to justice and equity, he had installed over his bed a gold bell, hung with a golden chain weighing three quarters of a ton and strung with eighty small bells, to allow anyone who considered himself wronged to reach the sovereign ear.
When the Emperor convened his court there in the morning, he witnessed first an elaborate hour-long ceremony before he turned his attention to business. This was an oddly sensible ritual, combining splendid pomp with a stern dose of reality. As the Emperor was seated, a parade of elephants, horses, and men clad in brilliant armour and rich silks passed in review before the throne in what seemed like an endless train. Musicians seated on the naqar khana across from the Emperor played a vigorous military march. Then, in the midst of the splendid cavalcade, from an open tomb near the throne, the voice of a mullah would be heard over the clamour, reminding the Emperor that he too must die and turn to dust like all other mortal men.
An emperor, sobered by the mullah’s message, might wish to say a silent prayer of supplication or to meditate alone. Crossing the great courtyard, he could retire to the Moti Masjid, or Pearl Mosque. Located in a small secluded corner of the Fort, the tiny mosque was once the private house of worship for the royal harem. Its name derives both from its small size and its pearl-like polished marble. Inside, the mosque’s modest dimensions create a perfect sense of seclusion and peace.
Next door, the emperor could relax in the hot or cold hammam, or baths, reclining afterwards on a warm marble slab heated from below. Or he could step into one of many spacious courtyards such as his grandfather Jahangir’s quadrangle. Here the original foundations of Akbar are all but obliterated, but Jahangir’s carved red sandstone elephants hanging above the doors are a testimony to his and his father’s spirit of religious tolerance; they arc identical to those found in Hindu temples.
To the west of the massive quadrangle, beyond more courtyards, Aurangzeb could step through the marble gate into the Shah Burj, the King’s Courtyard — for years, the residence of the royal harem. Here sits the Naulakha Pavilion, so named for the mystical number nine and for the nine lakhs of rupees it took to build it. It is a small white marble building, with a large arched entrance and an extraordinary curved, convex roof, fashioned after Bengali bamboo huts. But its most distinguishing feature is the tiny and intricate inlay work found inside. Agate, jade, goldstone, lapis lazuli and other precious stones are all painstakingly worked into the marble in the forms of delicate flowers and geometric designs. In one of the niches, a tiny floral pattern measuring only two and a quarter by one and three quarters inches contains 102 pieces of inlaid gems. Its windows, screened with exquisite marble fretwork to allow the cool breezes in, overlook the walls of the Fort and the city streets beyond. It was here that the princesses of the harem would sit, watching the busy city, seeing all but unseen by vulgar eyes. The sound of soft laughter might have reached Aurangzeb as he passed by, or perhaps a glimpse of bright silk through the lacy marble screens. Also in this courtyard is the long columned hall known as the Shish Mahal, or Palace of Mirrors. It was originally included in the restricted quarters for the ladies of the imperial harem, and is still a magical place. Myriad tiny convex mirrors set into the stucco from floor to ceiling sparkle with sunlight, candlelight, moonlight, or even — mysteriously — on the darkest evenings. The fairy-like compartments open onto the courtyard of marble mosaic tiles, a circular pool of water includes a modest island platform, reached by a small causeway. Eleven simple arches of delicate pietra dura work offset the busy mirrored hall.
The Shish Mahal is also known as the Royal Tower, and one can climb to the top of this tower, admiring on the way up the intricate gold gilt work on the carved wooden ceilings of the hall below. The Royal Tower commands the best view of Lahore to be found. Breezes here are plentiful, and one can gaze in comfort down to the winding Ravi River below, and over the sprawling city of Lahore, the Juma Masjid, and the bulbous domes of Ranjit Singh’s samadh; over the Badshahi Mosque, the minarets of Shahdara, and even — on an exceptionally clear day — to the peaks of the Himalayas.
There is more to be seen in the Fort. There is a world within the massive red walls. Time itself is captured and frozen in these stones, entombed in the huge walls like poor doomed Anarkali, the beautiful dancer buried alive in the Fort for loving the young Prince Salim. The history of this site meanders backward to dim reaches beyond written history. Feet patted this stone, this dust; hands carved this marble, this sandstone, hands moulded and mortared this brick; fingers held and cut this jade, lapis, ivory, emerald; eyes squinted over this inlay, tile, sculpture. Eyes, fingers, hands, feet, all turned to dust unimaginable lengths of time ago, but still here, living on in the stone. The ghost of Aurengzeb stands besides us. Beyond him stand the ghosts of Shah Jahan and Jahangir, and beyond them, Akbar the Great gazes down at the city; and further on, Babur and Timur, and the ancient line of Mongol warriors. Time, history, and legend swirl around our feet like dust and rise up like the heat from the red sandstone around us.
But the breeze blows, and our gaze is drawn down to Lahore, to the bustling, noisy, sprawling city below. That seems only fitting. For centuries, the citadel has brooded over Lahore from its imperial seat in the corner of this walled city. Lahore, too, has seen endless change. It has known war, and prosperity; it has been invaded, conquered, destroyed, rebuilt, time and again. It has been bathed in rivers of blood and washed with oceans of wealth. Its stormy history has become the stuff of legends, but above all, Lahore, like the Fort that looms protectively over it, has endured. But even where the Fort stands as a monument to a way oflife that will never return, Lahore has changed and grown. In its narrow and twisted streets and alleys, the ancient city’s forms live, untouched. The houses, mansions, and mosques are the same; but the streets that once saw pet cheetahs on parade and emperors pouring gold coins from the backs of elephants now contain more and more signs of modern commerce and life.
Historic Images/Illustrations of the Fort:
Source; The Citadel – from the book ‘Lahore, the city within’ by Samina Qureshi. Images and Illustrations were added by the islamic-arts.org team and are not associated with the author of this article.