Anarkali: the myth, legend and public history.

Located in the heart of the Punjab civil secretariat, Lahore, the octagonal shaped building is a legacy of Emperor Jehangir. The grandeur of the Mughal-era building and the tomb inside is a marvel. After numerous incarnations, the tomb today is home to the Punjab Archives and is more popularly known as simply Anarkali. Taking the name from the celebrated relationship between Prince Saleem (Jahangir) and Anarkali (Sharif un-Nissa aka Nadira Begum), a courtesan in the court of Emperor Akbar. There are many different accounts of this relationship and the death of Anarkali, with little history authenticity. Whether she died naturally or under more mysterious circumstances or whether Akbar ordered her to be buried alive in a wall. We may never know the truth, but the legend and the myth of the passionate affair between Saleem and Anarkali has inspired many.

Anarkali: myth, mystery and history

The Film: 60 years on, Mughal-E-Azam continues to make waves

The drama: Alain Desoulieres, Historical Fiction and Style: The Case of Anarkali, The Annual of Urdu Studies 

The many incarnations of the tomb:

‘The tomb of Anarkali is one of the most significant buildings of the Mughal period. It is an ingeniously planned octagonal building. Circular in shape and roofed by a lofty dome, the tomb once surrounded a garden, called Anarkali Garden, but during the last couple of hundred years it has been put to several uses. Under the Sikhs, the mausoleum was occupied by Kharak Singh. Later it served as the residence of General Ventura, the Italian General of Ranjit Singh’s army. Under the British, the tomb was converted into Church (a protestant Church) in 1851 right after 2 years of British Control on Lahore. Few years later, it was converted to St. James’ Church in 1857 till 1891. Since then, it has been used as Punjab Archives Museum with an amazing treasure for those interested in the history of British Punjab.’ Story of Anarkali and her Tomb at Lahore.

An extract on the Tomb Anarkali from R.E.M Wheeler, Five Thousand Years of Pakistan: An Archaeological outline. With a Preface by Fazlur Rahman. Royal Book Company, first published in 1950. Page 84.

Anarkali or “Pomegranate Blossom” was the nickname of an attractive girl who was brought up in Abkar’s harem and was suspected by the emperor of carrying on an intrigue with prince Salim, afterwards the emperor Jahangir. The story is variously told, but it would appear that the girl was barbarously executed in the year A.D. 1599. When Salim came to the throne, he strove to make some amends for the tragedy by building a large tomb over her grave. This tomb stands in the ground of the Punjab Secretariat to the south of the old city, and has passed through vicissitudes which have concealed all its original decoration. It is hexagonal on plan, with a domed octagonal tower at each corner, and is crowned by a central dome on a tall cylindrical drum. After 1851 it was used as a Christian church, and for this purpose the arched openings in the eight sides were wholly or partially walled in, a gallery (now removed) was constructed in the interior with an external staircase, and the whole structure was whitewashed internally and externally. The large monolithic marble gravestone had already been moved out of the building in the Sikh period, when the tomb was turned into a residence, amongst the occupants being General Ventura, the famous Italian officer of the Sikh Government. The stone was subsequently replaced by the British within the tomb, but in one of the side bays, not in its original central position. It has been stated that the actual grave was also moved to the present site of the gravestone, but digging in 1940 in the middle of the building revealed the former still intact five feet below the present floor, in its proper place. From accounts of the discovery, the grave would appear to be of plastered brickwork. The building is now used as the Punjab Record Office.

The gravestone bears well-cut inscriptions which include the date of the death of Anarkali with the words “In Lahore” and the date of the construction of the tomb (A.D. 1615). It also bears the ninety-nine attributes of God, and a poignant couplet,
obviously composed by Jahangir himself, which may be translated thus:

“Ah, could I behold the face of my beloved once more,
I would give thanks unto my God until the day of resurrection.”

Elsewhere on the marble are the words: ” The profoundly enamoured Salim, son of Akbar.”

It is for these inscriptions, and for the vast size of the building which reinforces their
sincerity, that the tomb is noteworthy, rather than for any special architectural quality.

Today the documents belong to the people of Punjab at the Punjab Archives are being digitised for posterity, and will hopefully allow historians to view untapped accounts and records. This is a mammoth task but at least the process itself has started. See the project website: http://dap.itu.edu.pk/

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