Far from posh Lahore is a neighbourhood, named Islampura, located just at the brink of the Walled City. Hidden behind tall walls, barbed wires, and security posts is a white octagonal building, with multiple domes and a staircase to the left. This is the tomb of Anarkali, the scandalous dancing girl of Emperor Akbar’s harem who was popularly known to be caught in a love triangle between Akbar and Salim.
The tomb, outwardly, is a sheer white building, with a large dome in the centre and eight smaller ones around it in perfect proportion. The building looks quite similar to that of the Taj Mahal, in Agra, minus the minarets in all four corners of the latter. Anarkali’s tomb from the inside has a main hall, which would have been the house for the grave, but the pictorial display by the government-run Punjab Archives has pushed the grave to a corner, lit up by the sunshine at day time through a window that opens right above it. The rest of the hall is taken up by displays, giving it the look of a museum. There are eight arched doorways, styled in Mughal architecture around the main hall and eight windows on the floor above, placed right above the doors.
The grave inside is made with marble slabs, with the 99 names of Allah engraved on it and a romantic verse in Persian, which translates as “If only could I behold my beloved one more time/ I would prostrate before the Eternal One until the last day.”
Anarkali was immortalised by Bollywood filmmaker K Asif in his period movie, Mughal-e-Azam. The beautiful Madhubala, well-executed dances, and melodious music made the young and old believe in the love story, whether or not it was true.
Apart from the reel history, historians are still having a tough time chronicling the real existence of Anarkali. While reputed historian Abdullah Chughtai claimed that the tomb was that of Sahib–e–Jamal, one of Jehangir’s wives, Noor Ahmed Chishti in his acclaimed compilation of history, Tehqiqaat-e-Chishtiya, confirms that Anarkali lies in the grave inside the tomb. Kanhaya Laal, in Taarekh-e-Lahore, confirms the same.
Tahir Kamran and Ian Talbot, in their book, Lahore in the time of the Raj, quote Indian Army Lieutenant Colonel Neuwell, who recommends a visit to the tomb of Anarkali, saying, “Lahore is one of the show places of the subcontinent.”
Pran Nevile, in his book Nautch Girls of the Raj, writes: “Anarkali was a title bestowed by Emperor Akbar on Nadira (harem name) or Sharif un Nisa (birth name) for her extraordinary beauty. One day, it is said, the Emperor saw from her reflection in a mirror that she was exchanging glances with Prince Salim. There were already some rumours circulating in the court about Salim’s infatuation with Anarkali (Salim was caught one night trespassing his father’s harem, seeking pleasure, much to the embarrassment of both prince and emperor). This infuriated the Emperor.”
In her biography, Jehangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal, Parvati Sharma blames Bollywood for the salacious love affair: “Much has been made of Salim’s torrid and entirely fictional love affair with Anarkali. The most popular and arguably the most beautiful version of this story is K Asif’s 1960 magnum opus Mughal–e–Azam. Hence, Anarkali is a dancing girl with whom Salim falls in love much to his father’s disappointment, disapproval, and eventual fury. When the young couple does not forsake one another, Anarkali sings, “What is there to fear, when one has fallen in love.”
Interestingly, Salim quietly watches her, rebelling through her song, expressing her undying love in the Emperor’s court, as he does when she is being buried alive in a brick wall, and also when she is banished from the Mughal Empire, to never return again. Anarkali’s tragedy was Bollywood’s answer to the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, but unlike Romeo, Salim was not ready to share the burden of an unfortunate end with Anarkali.
G B Malleson writes in Akbar and the Rise of the Mughal Empire that there might be an oedipal conflict between Akbar and Saleem. “The most romantic and persistent of these stories linked the beautiful and accomplished concubine of Akbar, Anarkali.”
The earliest reference to the Salim-Anarkali liaison is to be found in the journal of William Finch, an English merchant in India from 1608 to 1611. While visiting Lahore, Finch says, he saw in the suburbs of the town “…a faire (fair) monument for Daniyal’s mother, one of Akbar’s wives, with whom Shah Salim had to do (her name was pomegranate kernel); upon notice of which the King caused her to be enclosed quicke (tightly) with in a wall in his moholl (palace) where she dyed (died) and Jehangir in token of his love, commanded a sumptuous tombe (tomb) to be built of stone in the midst of a four-square garden, richly walled.” (Quote abstracted from The Mughal Throne: The Saga of India’s Great Emperors by Abraham Eraly.)
Haroon Khalid, in his book, Imagining Lahore, writes about the building occupied by the Punjab Archives, which was used as a residence for the Sikh Prince Kharrak Singh, a church during the British Raj (when the sandstone was whitewashed and that is how it has stayed to date), and also as a residence for one of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s European Army Generals, General Jean-Baptiste Ventura. “In the nineteenth century, as a bazaar developed here, it took its name from the mysterious mausoleum,” writes Khalid.
Although the Mughal princes and emperors were in the habit of writing detailed accounts of their lives in biographies, the Tuzuk–e–Jehangiri (Jehangir’s autobiography) does not mention Anarkali. The only close connection one gets from the Mughals is a description of a walled garden, with trees of pomegranate where the Sufi saint Mian Mir and Dara Shikoh, his disciple, used to walk, as per Sakinat-ul-Auliya, the autobiography of Dara Shikoh. There are also accounts from historians, such as Chishti who firmly believed that Anarkali died of a disease, while Akbar, her lover, was on tour of Deccan and it was Akbar who ordered the construction of the tomb for his beloved concubine.
Interestingly, there is a small engraving on the headstone of Anarkali’s grave, which reads, “Sultan Saleem Akbar.” This answers many questions. As for the official version of the building’s status, the official website of the Government of Punjab categorically names the building as Anarkali’s tomb.
The conclusion one arrives at after reading multiple accounts about the saga of Anarkali is that there was a woman named Anarkali in Akbar’s palace. She could be his wife or lover, but the annals of history have not been generous with chronicling women as much as they have been about men. So much so, the tradition follows to date, where modern writers, too, have found it easier to altogether ignore or avoid talking about the begums, princesses and popular women from the Mughal era in detail. A hurried mention here, a scarce remark there, is all women mostly get in historical accounts. Anarkali is a riddle, a puzzle, and a tragedy, not because she might have been buried alive or banished by a Mughal emperor in real or because her existence might have been censored in Mughal accounts, but because her very existence is in question. If she did exist, then the questions around her ‘being’ are unworthy and if she did not exist, pitching a fictional woman between father and son and creating a salacious scandal in which the woman gets punished, is itself undue.