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Lahore and modernity

Harmonisation of the old and new, the medieval and the modern, is what made Lahore so special

Lahore and modernity
Walking through Lahore even now, one can easily move from its Mughal to Sikh and then the British periods. — Photo by Rahat Dar

On January 1, 2014 the famed Government College Lahore celebrated its 150th foundation day. The founding of the college was in a number of ways the beginning of the ‘modern’ phase in Lahore and the Punjab. During the time of the Mughals, Lahore was at the pinnacle of its glory.

Father Antonio Monserrate who visited Lahore during the reign of Emperor Jahangir in the sixteenth century noted: ‘This city is second to none, either in Asia or Europe, with regard to size, population and wealth. It is crowded with merchants, who foregather there from all over Asia. In all these respects, it excels other cities, as also in the huge quantity of every kind of merchandise which is imported. Moreover, there is no art or craft useful to human life which is not practiced there. The population is so large that men jostle each other in the streets.’ However, by the time the British annexed it in 1849, Lahore was but a shadow of its former glory.

As noted by Syed Muhammad Latif in the first modern comprehensive history of Lahore in English, ‘For a long time after annexation in 1849, nothing was observable to the south-east but a vast expanse of uneven ground, studded with crumbling mosques, domes, and gateways; huge mounds of old brick-kilns, and shapeless masses of ruins. The invasions of Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah, resulting in the dismemberment of the Mohamaden sovereignty in the Panjab, the persecution by the local Governors of the Hindu subjects (particularly the Sikhs) and the retaliatory measures adopted, in their turn, by the latter, completed the work of destruction and devastation everywhere in the Panjab, and the capital was no exception to this rule.’

Therefore, the city which boasted one of the largest populations in South Asia in the sixteenth century was just over a hundred thousand people by the time the British took over. Lahore was no international city and only a regional centre at best. It is on the heap of such ruins that the British built their ‘modern’ city.

I just completed teaching a course on the history of Lahore from the earliest times to the present. While the recorded history of Lahore stretches back to the time of the Hindu Shahis in the 8th century, legend traces it back to the son of the Hindu deity Ram and his son Loh, after whom Lohawar, later Lahore, was named. Among other things which fascinated me about the city was the fact that different periods of the city seemed to mesh together and somehow achieve a sense of harmony.

In Pakistan, the word ‘modern’ has become synonymous with Westernisation or for lax morality or disrespect of the past, of traditions, etc.

Walking through Lahore even now one can easily move from its Mughal to Sikh and then the British periods with some sense of continuity. William Glover, in his excellent analysis of Lahore as a modern city, has also noted that ‘Lahore’s pre-colonial urban spatial forms and traditions exerted an important presence, both physically and imaginatively, throughout the colonial period.’ It is this milieu of Lahore which evokes such great passion about the city. In fact, I think there is hardly any city in Pakistan about which so many tomes have been written with such emotion.

When the British built the ‘modern’ city of Lahore, it was not simply what the new rulers wanted. Modern Lahore’s foundation was laid on its past, and its modern manifestation exhibited a clear collaboration between the rulers and the ruled. Interestingly, in 1849, the British, for a large part, simply reordered older, usually Mughal structures, for their use. So the famous Anarkali tomb was first used as offices for the Punjab Board and was subsequently used as St. John’s Church from 1851 till the construction of the new Anglican cathedral after which it was used as a record room, a purpose it still serves.

John Lawrence also moved into the house next door which was built for the French General Ventura in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army, and is now the office of the Chief Secretary Punjab. Today’s Governor’s House was also the tomb of Muhammad Kasim Khan, which had been used as residence during Sikh times. Similarly, the Baradari of Wazir Khan was converted into a reading room, being officially declared the Punjab Public Library in 1884, the first and to date the largest such library in this part of South Asia.

This appropriation and reuse of older buildings not only showed the power of the new rulers to alter the landscape but also exhibited their willingness not to discard the past but to reimagine it in a newer fashion. Glover notes: ‘…Lahore’s first colonial officials were perhaps more than normally willing to draw visible, material connections between themselves and the communities they ruled. Henry and John Lawrence, the first president and financial administrator of the Punjab Board of Administration, respectively, were known for addressing their subjects in the vernacular, cultivating firm but affective ties with the Punjab native “chiefs” and rulers, and eschewing the normal trappings and comforts of high imperial office — both men lived in converted Indian buildings throughout their terms of office in Lahore.’

Both these men, John and Henry Lawrence, essentially began the process of the modernisation of Lahore, and it was thought that the establishment of Lawrence Gardens and the Lawrence Hall will be lasting memories of their work, until of course independent Pakistan decided to change the names of these places.

In his work, Glover also contests the notion of ‘modernity’ as something ‘Western,’ thereby criticising the usual mantra of labeling everything undertaken under the Raj as ‘foreign’ or the ‘other.’ Glover, with other critics, asserts that ‘…the development of modern social formations in colonial settings, while coeval with similar developments in the West, were differently configured, and often forged in opposition to those same developments. The call for acknowledging “multiple modernities” entails an ethical assertion that there is more than one way to be modern in the world and more than one historical path to its realization.’ Herein lies the crux of the dilemma Pakistan is facing at the moment.

In Pakistan, the word ‘modern’ has become synonymous with Westernisation or for lax morality or disrespect of the past, of traditions, etc. However, in reality, such extreme discontinuities need not be the hallmark of modernity. As I have argued above, and William Glover in his book, when Lahore — the city — became ‘modern’ it did not disconnect itself from its past, and nor did its new rulers create something which was completely out of touch with ground realities. This harmonisation of the old and new, the medieval and the modern, is what made Lahore so special.

It was with this spirit of harmonisation that Government College was established at Lahore in 1864. Its first principal was Dr GW Leitner, the professor of Arabic and Mohammdan Law at the University College London. Dr Leitner had great love for oriental learning and opposed the Anglicising curriculum of the Calcutta University examinations.

Dr Lietner, in fact, helped the establishment of the Anjuman-e-Punjab in 1866 which called for the creation of an ‘Oriental University’ in the Punjab where, together with Western learning, oriental learning will also be promoted. Even in Government College, classes in English started at the same time classes in Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic also commenced, shortly followed by Urdu and Hindi. As I have mentioned earlier on these pages, the aim of this college, and the subsequent Punjab University was to create a class of individuals well versed in the knowledge of the West as well as the East — a synthesis we have yet to achieve.

As we start the sesquicentennial year of Government College, and shortly of Forman Christian College too, I think it is time for us to reconsider the way we assess the British period. A few months ago, I learnt that the proposal to rename Kutchery Road, where the Government College stands, Leitner Road, was shot down in the Punjab Assembly and a member of the assembly even noted, ‘we cannot have un-Islamic names to our roads.’ Such is the confusion in our minds that we simply reject whatever seems un-Islamic to us, even if that thing, being Muslim, might be actually alien.

Therefore, naming a road after the founder of the first institution of modern education in the Punjab, and who spent his life promoting oriental learning and also helped establish the first mosque in England was termed ‘un-Islamic’ but renaming a city, Lyallpur, after a Saudi king who had literally nothing to do with the city, is considered appropriate. Obviously, Sir James Broadwood Lyall, Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, who founded the city and did so much to bring prosperity to farmers in the Punjab through the establishment of canals and canal colonies did not deserve any commemoration simply because he was not a Muslim.

Lahore’s cosmopolitanism has always been its enchanting and enduring charm, and trying to forget or rewrite it not only does injustice to the memory of those who toiled to make the city ‘modern’ but also to our ownselves as by obliterating the past and rewriting it we lose a part of ourselves. By creating a disparity between ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’ or ‘Islam’ we are creating a false dichotomy which only confuses us but also deepens our identity crisis.

The city of Lahore is as much a creation of the past, both British and pre-British, together with its Hindu, Sikh and Muslim inheritances, as we are, and we must accept and celebrate this syncretic heritage. Let us hope that as we begin several anniversaries in the next few years we remain cognizant of its real story.

One comment

  • I enjoyed the article, and agree with its conclusion. I especially think this type of article should be published in Urdu, as it is generally the masses which do not speak English that are more rigid about keeping everything “Western” as un-Pakistani.

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