I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Monday, January 10, 2011

...Of Little Afghanistan And Its Patron Saint

I never spare an opportunity to offer unsolicited testimonials to that most wonderful of inventions, Google Maps. From my pilgrimage to Rehmat Gramophone House in Faisalabad to my travels across South Punjab, I've relied on Google Maps, and it's never let me down. A few of the places I've visited in Lahore have caused my acquaintances to exclaim, "I've lived in Lahore for 30 years and I haven't even heard of that place. How on earth did you manage to find it?" or variations thereof. The answer of course, is Google Maps. Due to the voluntary efforts of a team of dedicated digital cartographers, I've been able to feast my eyes on some of the most remarkable places in Pakistan.

While I was scouring the maps for places of interest in the Begumpura area of Lahore, a name caught my eye - Khwaja Mehmud's Tomb. I must confess I hadn't heard of the personage before. Google wasn't able to provide me with much information either, except for telling me that Khwaja Saheb's tomb was an architectural masterpiece and a well preserved relic of the Mughal times. So on my recent trip to Begumpura, I decided to follow Google Maps' instructions and look up the elusive tomb. What I had gathered online was that Khwaja Mehmood - also known as Shah Eishan - was that the saint lived during the reigns of Jehangir and Shahjehan and hence was a contemporary of Hazrat Mian Mir (RA).

After visiting the Gulabi Darwaza and the tomb of Dai Anga (which will be written about in a future post hopefully), I took a detour into Begumpura and after navigating a few winding streets, came across the tomb. Adjoined by a mosque and a graveyard (the usual accroutements of a Sufi shrine) and a well-kept park, the tomb stands tucked away between residences and shops. A gaggle of small children were playing near its walls, looked over by a bunch of benevolent elders smoking chillums and playing cards. The whole place gave an aura of isolated serenity that I've rarely felt at other places in Lahore.

Shah Mehmud's tomb is surrounded by residences on three sides, with the fourth occupied by a beautiful park. The tomb is architecturally similar to the rather austere tombs of Hazrat Bahauddin Zikriya, except that it's painted white rather than the tile-decorated red brick of the former. Maybe it's been that way since it's construction, but I think the white colour is the result of our recent penchant for whitewashing everything that we see. A three-story octagonal building topped by a dome, it's an massive structure. The walls are inset with sunken mehraabs, each having tiered trellises that stream light into the interior. The tops of the walls are adorned by 8 slim minarets.

The dome itself is an imposing structure, around 20 feet in diameter with tiered rows of square holes, probably for ventilation and light. Like most of the other buildings in the area, I suspect this tomb also features a "dome within a dome" with the inner dome serving an ornamental function. A filligree pattern runs along the circumference of the dome and it's top is crowned by a large minaret. Pigeons roost in the crevices and ventilation shafts of this 15 foot high dome that can be seen from afar.

A semi-subterranean passageway leads to the absolutely beautiful interior. The rather austere exterior doesn't prepare one for the interior, which is a riot of light and colour. The Saint's final resting place occupies the central position and a chandelier hangs over it. The walls are decorated with floral paintings and delightful Arabesques. There are sunken mehraabs on the interior as well, giving an idea of the solidity and thickness of the walls. The mehraabs have trellises as their centrepieces, with floral designs painted on either side, ascending up to a web-like network of vaulted archlets.The interior of the dome is a beautiful network of geometric designs set on a plain white background. For a building that's safely three to four hundred years old, the interior is astonishingly well preserved.

When I visited the tomb, I was struck by the ethnic composition of the devotees as well as the residents of the nearby colony. Almost all of the devotees I met there were Pashtun, with the hujras adjoining the tomb occupied by three related Pashtun families.Pashto was the language being spoken by the children playing outside the tomb and i could make out fragments of Darri in the conversation of their elders standing nearby. An exploration of the graveyard surrounding the tomb furhther confirmed my assumption that the surrounding population was predominantly Pashtun. A surprising discovery was the graves of two of the wives of Amir Habibullah Khan, the Amir Of Afghanistan . The two royal ladies were buried far away from their homeland, right next to the tomb of this saint at least eighty years ago in what was obviously even then a historically important site.

Conversations with some of the residents of nearby houses confirmed that there had been a fairly large cluster of Pashtun habitations centered around Khwaja Mehmud's tomb for at least three centuries. The Saint himself was a 'Hakeem' and scholar who came to India from Khorasan during the reigns of the earliest Mughals and was a contemporary of Hazrat Mian Mir. He had this tomb built for himself before he died and his tomb served as the unofficial spiritual centre of Lahore's Pashtun diaspora. The population hads been gradually thinning out over the last three centuries so that now there's only two mohallas with predominantly Pashtun populations where once there were a dozen.

The march of history and the demographic shifts that inevitably accompany it have diluted the cultural identity of this unique part of Lahore but Khwaja Mehmud's tomb is an enduring remnant of what was once a vibrant and culturally peculiar corner of Lahore. Little Afghanistan may have started fading at the edges but there's no chance of it completely disappearing so long as Shah Eishan's tomb stands at it's centre.

P.S As a sonic accompaniement to the description of this Pashtun sufi shrine, here's an incredibly rare and beautiful recording of a Qawwali by the legendary Ustad Sarahang of Kabul.

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