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The historian of Lahore

Kanhaiya Lal - a multi-faceted personality

The historian of Lahore

Winston Churchill said the ‘best way to create history is to write it’. Punjab’s history was therefore created by Syed Muhammad Latif and Rai Bahadur Kanhaiya Lal by writing it in the second half of the nineteenth century. Interestingly, both of them not only wrote on Punjab but Lahore too was their focus as a subject of historical inquiry.

Both Latif and Kanhaiya Lal were not trained historians but pursued scholarship with unstinting passion. Latif was a civil servant whereas Kanhaiya Lal was an engineer. There were commonalities but also some differences that set them apart; these need to be underlined here. The scope and the spectrum of their books were the main point of difference. Latif’s history of Punjab begins from antiquity and comes to the contemporary era. Kanhaiya Lal restricts its focus on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He mostly deals with the Sikh period and his investigation, unlike Latif, has a grain of objectivity. He looks at the Sikhs and particularly Maharaja Ranjit Singh in a non-partisan manner. Besides, he was renowned for his Urdu and Persian poetry and used Hindi as nom de plume. In view of all these features, Kanhaiya Lal emerges as an interesting and also extremely important figure, when it comes to Punjab’s history and culture. Therefore, I have picked him as a protagonist for this week’s column.

Kanhaiya Lal was born in June 1830 at the town Jalaiser, District Etah in United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) in a Kayasth family. Kayasth is an important Hindu caste, which is said to be ‘the direct progeny of Vedic god Brahma’ according to the Hindu religious text. Right from antiquity, Kayasths were scribes and used to perform that service for the court. During the Muslim rule, they always figured very prominently in the state bureaucracy. Revenue matters were mostly settled by them. They performed the task of book-keeping too in an adroit manner. Perhaps the only people in the subcontinent who had the tendency to adapt to changed situation, they uncannily adhered to the eclectic ethos.

That intellectual eclecticism manifested in Kanhaiya Lal’s Urdu and Persian poetry and his history books. Kanhaiya Lal himself was quite conscious of his caste and remained vice president of Kayasth Sabha, Lahore. It will be interesting if some scholar takes it up to see their role in the evolution of Urdu language and literature. I will not be surprised if, as a result of some dispassionate inquiry, Kayasths turn out to be the principal agents in the development of Urdu. Salma Mahmud in her piece that she contributed to The Friday Times in 2010, notes, “Many recent eminent Kasathas have included Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Dr. Rajendra Prashad, the Bachan family and the Marxist actor Utpal Dutt.” She goes on to state, “That sophistication and its inherent elegance colours the mood of Kanhaiya Lal’s elegy on a city that he loved, so potently evident in his ‘Tarikh-e Lahore’”. That book ends at 1884.

Read also: The historian of Lahore-II

Kanhaiya Lal’s father Harnarain was an enlightened fellow who sent his son to a madrassa when he was six. He received his early education from that madrassa for seven years. His teacher was Maulvi Ghulam Hassan (Khorum), who himself was a poet and scholar of some merit. Once he had mastered Urdu and Persian, he was sent to Agra for the instruction in English. There he spent three years and became quite proficient in English. He was an extraordinary student and was therefore awarded a monthly scholarship of worth 5 rupees. With the passage of time, he excelled and with it his scholarship also increased to 25 rupees. He did his matriculation in 1846 with distinction and was awarded scholarship worth 100 rupees and was admitted in Engineering College, Rurki, Dehra Dun. He completed his engineering course in two years and was selected Assistant Engineer, probably in June 1850. His first posting was in Lahore. After coming to Lahore, he developed fondness for Lahore. Thus he lived all his life in this city of unusual splendour.

It is the salubrious weather of Lahore that is said to have played a role in Kanhaiya Lal’s fondness for the city. However, the time when he moved to the Punjab, was most conducive for the people of other regions. It was the same time when Sir Ganga Ram’s father moved to the Punjab from Muradabad (UP) just because Punjab seemed to be a land of opportunities for the people, aspiring for upward mobility. The doors of new opportunities were opened up.Mega projects like railways and canal colonisation were initiated. New institutions were being set up. Such development lured middle classes from different provinces to come and settle down in the Punjab. The Hindu Khatris, because of their ambitious nature and adaptability, reaped the optimum benefit. Those multiple factors might have persuaded Kanhaiya Lal to stay on in Lahore obviously, apart from its favourable weather.

Kanhaiya Lal served as an engineer in Public Works Department (PWD) for thirty years. In the course of his tenure, he supervised the construction of several elegant buildings in Lahore like Government College’s main building, Montgomery Hall, Lawrence Hall, the building of Medical College and Mayo School of Arts. He also went on to renovate and repair historical structures like Dai Anga’s tomb, Cypress Tomb of Shariunissa Begum, the tomb of Pervaiz, the son of Jahangir and Jahangir and Asif Jah’s tombs in Shahdara.

British Government bestowed on him the title of Rai Bahadur for the meritorious services he rendered in his field. As he turned 55, Kanhaiya Lal proceeded on superannuation in 1885 and started leading a retired life. But just after his retirement, he passed away at a relatively early age. He left behind a son Seva Ram and two daughters. His samadh is in Nawan Kot, Lahore which is in a dilapidated state. Next week I will take up his works and give my assessment of their merits.

to be continued

 

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

One comment

  • This is an excellent work. Deserves appreciation because of neutrality and deep exploration into the works of non Muslims like Kanhya Lal. Beyond doubts Mr Lal played a materly role in the ever learning beauty of Lahore i.e GC Main building.

    Once again I applause the interest of Sir Tahir Kamran and wishes him best of health and prosperity of mind.

    Wazir Ali, Ravian.

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