02 October, 2011

Hasanabdal of the Mughals

“On Wednesday the 12th [Muharram] the camp was at Baba Hasan Abdal. One kos to the east of this station there is a waterfall over which the stream rushes with great force. There is no fall like it on the way to Kabul. On the road to Kashmir there are two or three like it. In the middle of the basin, in which is the source of the stream, Raja Man Singh has erected a small building. There are many fish in the basin of the length of half a gaz and a quarter gaz. I halted three days at this enchanting place, drinking wine with those who were intimate with me and employing myself in catching fish.”
That was Emperor Jahangir recounting his hedonic capers in Tuzk-i-Jahangiri. He was taking a break at the delightful way station while on his way to Kabul in April 1607. Earlier, his father Emperor Akbar and later, his son Emperor Shah Jahan had been frequent visitors to this rest-and-recreation spot, where the watchwords were opium, wine, hunting and fishing. Today, the dilapidated relic known as Wah Gardens continues to be a relished picnic spot for locals and for whom, carbonated beverages and fowl-rich biryanis provide the ultimate high.

I had visited the gardens several times when we were young students at the nearby Cadet College. For those of us whose parents were located too far for a weekend visit, cavorting in the local bazaars and verdant gardens of Hasanabdal provided welcome relief from chronic homesickness. Now, almost four decades later, nostalgia of another kind took me back to Hasanabdal. The aroma of spicy fried rohu fish sold by street side vendors, verdant loquat gardens even now too tempting for a mischievous raid, the all-pervasive whiff of bhang that grows ever so wild and, every other restaurant dedicated to Lalarukh, whoever she was: these were sights and smells that had to be savoured to relive those teenage years long gone.

About three kilometres south of Hasanabdal near the small bridge over an anaemic Dhamrai Nala, a narrow road branches off into dense foliage. On the roadside is a romantic little cottage surrounded by a bamboo thicket, which I recall, was once owned by an old German lady. Winding around acute corners of villas of the well-to-do locals, one suddenly finds himself face to face with the ever-present extortionist, greedily waving the car parking coupon. The gardens seem abuzz with activity and revellers of all ages greet outsiders with the usual small town stare.

A fifteen-rupee entrance ticket allows you inside the gardens. In the middle of the green lawns is the fish pond described by Jahangir, but instead of fish of the half gaz variety one sees dozens of mammals of the two-legged kind, clad in all-purpose shalwars, thrashing about in the water to kill the intense summer heat. Alongside, families have laid out their feasts on mats under the cool shade of some very old chinar trees. A nearby marble plaque proclaims: Chinar, Platanus orientalis, 1908.

Besides the pond, the upper terrace also has a pair of utterly ruined baradaris, the only extant buildings in the gardens. Traces of an adjoining royal hammam (bath) are also visible. The lower terrace has a central water channel (now dry, of course) lined with elegant cypresses. At the north-western end of the channel is the main entrance gateway, which is closed to the public.

“Time has left nothing but ruins of buildings, parterres covered with grass and weed-choked reservoirs, a jungle of trees….,” wrote a certain Colonel Cracroft in 1932. Today, eight decades later, it is not much different from the Colonel’s description. Unhappily, one is left wondering what the gardens must have been like in their original imperial splendour.

For those of you who thought that something was amiss about Mughals on a rest and recreation trip, we shall move to another part of Hasanabdal to see if it connects. Turning into the Main Bazaar Street, one comes across the familiar Sikh Gurdwara of Punja Sahib. It is out of bounds for Pakistanis – which is no surprise, as things are – but that doesn’t matter if you are looking for a certain Lalarukh’s tomb that lies just across the street reeking with open drains and bubbling sewers. In the centre of a small chahar bagh style walled garden, stands an odd squarish structure made of rough stone blocks crudely plastered, standing about two metres high. The somewhat stubby corner turrets of perimeter walls are topped by small ribbed domes, hinting at a Timurid tradition. A later day cenotaph surmounts the pedestal rather loftily; there is no tombstone, no sign of the forlorn occupant of this strange tomb. Lalarukh, or ‘tulip face’ is supposed to rest here according to lore, but her real identity remains an enduring mystery.

Mughal genealogies or autobiographies do not record any princess by the name of Lalarukh. In any case, if she were a royal daughter accompanying the emperor and, died due to an accident or some natural cause, a splendid tomb would surely have been ordered. Could she have been a favourite concubine who accompanied the emperor as he tarried at Hasanabdal on his way to Kashmir or Kabul? Perhaps she contracted some tropical fever in the hereabouts and, was quietly laid to rest amidst the cypresses and cool streams, far away from the court chatter of Agra, Delhi or Lahore. On the other hand, she could well have been a local courtesan who knew how to liven up the emperor’s evenings with song and dance. As for the emperor who might have been associated with Lalarukh, all three mentioned earlier were consummate pleasure seekers; however, if the famous Anarkali offers a clue, it could well have been the unstoppable Jahangir!

Just when it seemed that some headway had been made in this right royal tangle, we have one Hasan Gujjar who is claimed by traditionalists to be the real occupant of the mystery tomb. Why a Mughal emperor would edify the Gujjar’s resting place with a garden and a tomb and, not mention it in his autobiography when even the most mundane activity gets detailed, is inexplicable, unless one of the emperor’s nobles undertook the initiative on his own. One of our professors at the Cadet College, the late Mr M H Siddiqui, who was well-versed in local lore and history, was of the opinion that Hasan Gujjar was none other than the saintly Sheikh Karim-ud-din Baba Hasan Abdali.

What is known for sure is that ‘Lalla Rookh’ is just a fictional character in Thomas Moore’s grotesquely amusing 19th century romantic poem, hung around the neck of Emperor Aurangzeb’s misnamed daughter. How she ends up in Hasanabdal, remains an unsolved riddle. Perhaps someone in the British Raj thought that Moore’s imaginary princess had just the right credentials to fill in for the unknown courtesan – or the Gujjar – and, could help attract odd tourists like me!

Nearby, a well-designed but little cared for tomb known as Hakimon ka Maqbara stands derelict and decaying. The tomb was constructed by Khawaja Shams-uddin Khawafi for himself in 1589. Khawafi was the Superintendent of Works during the construction of Attock Fort and had his summer headquarters at Hasanabdal. He was later elevated as the Governor of Lahore, but was not destined to be buried in his own tomb as Emperor Akbar ordered one of his favourite ‘Nauratans’ (Nine Jewels), Hakim Abul Fateh Gilani to be buried there instead. Subsequently, Abul Fateh’s brother, Hakim Hamam Gilani, was also interred in the same tomb. One suspects that Khawafi may have earned Akbar’s ire, possibly for trying to immortalise himself beyond what his station allowed.

The tomb’s basic form is derived from a regular square with bevelled front corners. Archways on the four sides lead to the tomb chamber which is vaulted on the inside. The archways, as well as the exterior and interior walls, have niches which break the monotony of the simple structure. Unfortunately, crumbling plaster and graffiti scribbled through the ages have rendered this building in as wretched a state as the rest of the Mughal buildings in Hasanabdal – and much of Pakistan, I hasten to add. It is said that the ruinous condition of the tomb is largely due to the wanton destruction of Muslim buildings by the terrible Hari Singh Nalwa, Sikh Khalsa Army Commander and later Governor of Peshawar under Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. The cenotaphs of the Hakim brothers were razed, all embellishments removed and the tomb was used as a munshi’s office for a long time. Apparently, no worthwhile renovation has been undertaken since then. A fish pond in front of the Hakims’ tomb is full of slimy water with hideous flotsam, including polythene bags and juice packets, floating about. The wonder is that many large-sized mahasher fish swim about, apparently in good health!

The next time the Archaeology Department decides to hold its annual seminar, Hasanabdal might be good venue to set up camp. Maybe it gets the archaeology mandarins’ attention for a long due repair job at this – once celebrated – way station of the Mughals.

© M KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 2 October, 2011.


  1. Dr. Aftab SadiqOctober 02, 2011

    A very informative and beautifully written article.

  2. This informs me all about it!!!!!
    I bet if I tried searching anywhere else, it would only have a little bit then move on to a nother subject...BEAUTIFUL!!!

  3. A very nicely and eloquently written article. Hopefully you have read my father's ( and your teacher) book Tareekh e Hasan Abdal. It is by far the most authentic account of history of Hasan Abdal.