Visiting the Lahore Fort used to be a disheartening experience — it was about unkempt structures, poorly guided tours, and access to only limited parts of the place. The guides had limited knowledge and would usually exaggerate and fabricate stories. Highlights of the Fort such as Sheesh Mahal would be closed to the public, seldom opened for a limited number of people.
Kamran Lashari, Director General, Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), has contributed to improving great chunks of the oldest neighbourhood of the city that includes the Lahore Fort, the food street at its heart, among other places.
Recently, the Fort has started hosting events such as ‘Dastaangoi,’ and ‘History through the Night’ tours that have encouraged people to redevelop an interest in the city’s history.
‘History through the Night’ is a guided tour of the Lahore Fort that is offered every Saturday night. The tour starts off when the guests gather in front of one of the gates where the food street ends, and witness the guide ring a large bell hanging outside. The ring is followed by a booming voice that goes: “Yeh kis ka kafla hai? Kitne log hain?” (Whose caravan is this? How many people are there?) The guide responds by offering the required information.
The guide and the voice from the hidden source go back and forth for a while as the crowd watches on in anticipation, thoroughly amused. Finally, the enormous gates are flung open to reveal a regal sight, a panoramic view of the three great monuments, the Mausoleum of Iqbal, the Baradari in the Hazoori Bagh, and the Alamgiri Gate.
Iqbal’s Tomb is well lit at night — yellow spotlights ignite it from below, while a guard stands upright in front of it, all vigilance, on constant duty.
As the crowd gathers in front of the mausoleum, a sense of gratitude is born in your heart for the great poet who deserved no better place to be buried than in the middle of the great Fort whose shadow he grew up underneath, right next to the Bhatti Gate.
The crowd moves on to the Baradari. It’s becoming easier to imagine the lives that the Mughal royalty must have led at one point. The Baradari, which is open to the public to step inside, boasts of beautiful arches and pillars. As a flute player dressed in clothes of the yore, sits on a platform and plays a melody on the flute, the image of the lives of the royalty becomes stronger.
The architecture is more prominently visible at night, due to the strategically placed spotlights. The illuminating domes of the Badshahi Mosque are quite a sight, as the yellow spotlights make the white marble shine, and give the minarets a grander look.
It perhaps is a good idea to visit the fort at night, as more details can be seen under the spotlights. It is also desirable for those who do not want to be exposed to the heat during the summer months.
Once the crowd exits the mosque and climbs up the wide, elephant steps inside the Fort, one is thrust again back in time, by the imagination, visualising the life inside these great walls many years ago.
As our guide points out some bullet holes to us, one starts visualising the series of events that unfolded back then. The commentary of the guide is laden with detailed descriptions of the historical stories and incidents. One cannot help but appreciate the great improvement in quality in these guided tours. These can be heard through the microphone piece that he wears attached to his shirt. This is a pleasant change from the previous tours, where the guide would be seen yelling out random things at the top of his voice, but which unfortunately were never loud enough to reach everyone in the groups. This seems like a much more sensible solution.
After seeing other parts of the fort, including the courtyard where Ranjeet Singh held his court, the crowd makes its way to a queue of Rangeela Rickshaws. Once everyone has taken their places inside the truck art embellished vehicles, the drivers drive the rickshaws at full speed, across the length of the fort walls, to truly make the spectators aware of the grandeur and the might of the monstrous structures of the walls, which too are illuminated with spotlights.
The Rangeela Rickshaws end up taking the group to the Samadhi of Ranjeet Singh. At the entrance, the crowd is asked to cover their heads as a sign of respect for the Sikh religion. Interestingly this was not asked of us before entering the Badshahi Mosque. The women hastily cover their heads with dupattas, those not having one on hand, ask their companions to share it with them. The men however stand clueless. It’s a wonder why head scarves and caps are not provided at the entrance for tourists.
Once everyone is inside, the guide gives a brief history of Ranjeet Singh and the gurdwara. It is seemingly new information to some that the gurdwara consists of guest rooms where people of all religions are welcome to come and stay. He then motions the crowd towards a shallow pool of water which lies at the entrance of the gurdwara. He explains that one has to purify themselves while going inside and again purify themselves while coming out. Surprisingly, this is not appreciated by everyone and a few choose to remain behind, while the rest of the group progresses towards the main building.
Once everyone reaches close to the gurdwara, the previously open door is instantly closed. The guide meekly apologises, and explains that whereas the fort is under the WCLA, the gurdwara is not. He talks to a man in a turban who appears from another door. Finally, it is agreed that the anticipating crowd can get a view of the enclosed space from outside, standing at a distance as a door is opened for view.
A ride back to the Lahore Fort in the Rangeela Ricksaws ends at the Shah Burj block where the magnificent Sheesh Mahal is located. A group of men attired in Mughal era clothing, the traditional clothing of the era, raise their palms towards their faces in a gesture of ‘adaab’. As everyone enters the newly accessible, glass laden rooms, it is noticeable how well the surfaces have been refurbished. However, one can’t help but notice the graffiti and wall chalking on the outer side. It’s a pity that even so shortly after the refurbishment efforts, not everyone values the historical sites.
I wonder why people have this strange urge to write their names on the surfaces. This is a kind of vandalism.
Having said that, one has to appreciate the WCLA for taking some action, as signboards have been placed around the fort now, warning readers of fines that can be implemented.
The night tour of the fort ends, and dinner is served as the seated audience watches a kathak performance. Much like the rest of the tour, this too is dramatised by servers in Mughal attire as the Raja and Rani watch sitting inside the Sheesh Mahal.
Seeing the fort at night is a unique and worthwhile experience. It lets one experience and admire the beauty of the fort in a distinct manner.
For the price of Rs. 1000/- per head, the proposition is reasonable enough considering all that the tour has to offer. The only opportunity area that I could point out is that it is not a very detailed tour, which does not serve justice to the impressive scale and significance of the fort as it is quite rushed. However it may be intended to be that way, as the tours is meant to show the structures at night, and not on the brief history as much as the daily day time tours do.