Our Heroine of the City Legend

A little down south from where The Mall leaves Lower Mall, in the backdrop of Anarkali bazar is an octagonal building with a dome. Plastered in plain white (it was when I visited back in 2008) it did not appear to be a Mughal era edifice.

Tomb of Anarkali, “Pomegranate Bud” of Akbar’s darbar within the confines of Punjab Civil Secretariat was an unexpected find. In a place cluttered with archival records there was no grave, but a marble sarcophagus tucked to a side. We, dear reader, will come back to it in a moment.

I visited the place having watched Shoaib Mansoor’s Supreme Ishq-2 eloquently sung by Shabnam Majeed. The building lost its Mughal grandeur when the British plastered and lime painted it white converting the place into a church. Here’s the beautiful melody that towards its end narrates these transitions brought upon Anarkali’s tomb overtime.

What we know of the legend comes to us from a fascinating stage playwright Imtiaz Ali Taj. Penned in 1922, titled after the heroine’s name, the play opens in 1599 Mughal Court of Akabar e Azam. It introduces those familiar and so close to the heart characters of Maharani Jodha Bai, Shahzada Saleem, Anarkali, Surayya, Dilaram and others.

The play by Imtiaz Ali Taj was adorned with Anarkali’s portrait by Abdur Raḥman Chughtai. Crafted as a miniature painting from Mughal era, in this painting, to quote Anna Suvorova, “Anarkali is not depicted as a romantic heroine but an experienced courtesan with a deceitful smile and an enticing and crafty gaze.”

Taj’s play was powerful for its plot and characters were adopted by mainstream cinema. K Asif’s magnum opus, Mughal e Azam immortalized the story. For my readers here’s Piyar Kiya to Darna Keya beautifully sung and craftily performed by Madhubala. From 5:20 onwards in the video we come across the touch of genius in cinematizing reflection of Anarkali’s love gestures towards Saleem in Shish Mahal, a key point in Taj’s play.

Equally taking the cake are these enamoring notes of Noor Jahan complementing an eloquent melody of Rasheed Attre. Anwar Kamal’s 1958 venture Anarkali was Pakistani Cinema’s adaptation of Taj’s play.

Just when we believe we have known Anarkali well, there comes a twist in the tale. Imtiaz Ali Taj tells us his play is not based on historical facts. He dramatized a legend he had heard since childhood in visualized setting of Mughal court. Where Akbar and Saleem are historical figures, our lead female is fictitious.

Whose tomb then stands in Punjab Secretariat!

The historical caveat comes to us from Syed Latif who takes keen interest in describing the sarcophagus we talked of in the beginning of this post. Carved out of single block of pure marble it’s regarded by Edward Backhouse Eastwick as “one of the finest pieces of carving in the world”.

Allah’s 99 attributes in calligraphy are beautifully carved on top and sides. And then to an onlooker’s surprise, carved onto a side, reveals itself a Persian couplet:

تا قیامت شکرگویم کردگارخویش را
آہ گرمن بازبینم روئے یارخویش را

Only if could I behold the face of my beloved once more

I would thank my God until the day of Judgement

The finely carved marble piece holds yet another surprise wihtin its folds. A name signed with quite an emotion

مجنوں سلیم اکبر

Saleem Akbar, the one enamored in love

Carved onto to the head and tail faces are a couple of dates of interest Hijra 1008 (1599 CE) and 1024 (1615 CE). These in all likelihood are the years when construction of the tomb was commenced and completed.

Putting these puzzle pieces together Latif tells us the same story based on popular legend told by Taj. Salim, our prince, falling in love with a darbar courtesan Anarkali who got walled up alive by the Akbar in 1599 CE. Saleem in her love erected the tomb in 1615 CE a time when he himself had become the king, Jehangir of the Muhgal Empire.

What Latif also tells us is that during conversion of tomb to church the British exhumed the remains from the grave and re-interred under a side tower. Our story of mythical origins now has a real tomb and a body, a couplet of love as epitaph signed by a real Prince with actual dates!

If Anarkali existed why chronicles of Akbar and Jahangir omitted her? Why a love affair, a commonplace occurrence with Mughal princes was so harshly punished? William Finch an English trader of indigo who before sailing for the ports of Portugal was in Lahore in 1611. This precisley was the time when Anarkali’s tomb must have been under construction. Finch, dear reader, tells a tale.

What Finch heard as popular legend was that Anarkali, mother of Prince Danyal was Akbar’s wife on whom Prince Saleem made advances. This invited Emperor’s wrath and the woman was walled up alive. The version of a story that comes to us from a contemporary has a shocking theme, incest, whoa!!

Finch’s version retold by few other travelers is contested on two counts. Anarkali is reported as mother of Prince Daniyal, Saleem’s half brother. She died in 1596 three years before the date inscribed on our sarcophagus. Also a love affair between a prince with a woman 15 years older seems quite extra-ordinary to believe.

Muhammad Baqir in “Lahore, Past and Present” tells us that Anarkali was the name of a pomegranate garden in the area. It was later that tomb for one of Jahangir’s wives Sahib e Jamal was built here. Abul Fazal mentions that Saleem married Sahib e Jamal in 1596 and this, dear reader, was not his first marriage.

For our prince the affection expressed in the Persian couplet for one out of 20 wives in royal harem does not fit well. Anna Suvorova goes further in saying that poetic signatures “Majnu Saleem” in addressing a wedded royal queen was inappropriate in 17th century Mughal India.

The Archives Section, occupying the central location, the original gravesite inside the tomb

We now turn our attention to Majid Sheikh, a learned source on Lahore. According to Majid Sahab, one Nadira Begum, a Turkmen girl, originally a kaneez in Akbar’s harem rose in emperor’s liking for her interest in poetry, literature and music. Her beauty got her the title of Anarkali (pomegranate in full bloom).

It was the year 1599 when emperor was away in Deccan, that Nadira Begum a.k.a Anarkali fell ill and died before Akbar’s return to Lahore. The king upon his return ordered a tomb and a befitting garden to be built on her grave and so the entire area came to be known as Anarkali.

Now for the mystery of the marble sarcophagus. Drawing on a comparison on marble blocks and carvings in the tombs of Jahangir and Asif Khan (father in law to Shah Jehan), Majid Sheikh concludes that the marble sarcophagus was installed not by Akbar or Jahangir but during the times of Shah Jahan. The explains the finesse and the similarity on the three sarcophagus installed in three different tombs within the same timeframe.

In a tomb inside Punjab Secretariat, tucked under a side tower rests in eternal sleep our heroine of the city legend Anarkali. Beloved of Akbar or Jahangir we don’t know, what we do know is that her death broke her lover leading him to compose that heart wrenching couplet:

تا قیامت شکرگویم کردگارخویش را
آہ گرمن بازبینم روئے یارخویش را

Only if could I behold the face of my beloved once more

I would thank my God until the day of Judgement

share this article

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *