However, most parts of this historic mosque are in a terrible condition: they are crumbling and fading away, or worse, being painted over. The diminishing reality of these structures is heartbreaking, but it makes you realize the role which power, funding, and priorities can play.
The place in question is Maryam Zamani Mosque, in Old Lahore. It is one of the oldest and most significant Mughal monuments in the subcontinent. But it is not as well known as the other Mughal buildings and is easily overlooked since it is surrounded by a dense bazaar. Although it has three entrances, you could very easily pass by all of them, without realizing the gem hidden within those walls.
Maryam Zamani Mosque, also more commonly referred to as Begam Shahi Mosque, was built between 1611-1614, making it one of the oldest remaining mosques in the city. This mosque was built for Emperor Jahangir’s mother Maryam Zamani, during the beginning of his reign. Historical accounts say that she was actually a Hindu Rajput princess (whose name in local accounts is ‘Jodha Bai’) who married Akbar, but it is unclear if she ever converted to Islam. After their marriage, Akbar gave her the name “Maryam Zamani,” meaning “Mary of the Land.”
It is debatable whether the mosque was commissioned by Maryam Zamani herself or as Akbar’s initiative, carried out by Jahangir. The former is quite possible, since Mughal women used to commission architectural projects, and the trend took off especially during the reign of Jahangir and Empress Noor Jahan. However, other historians argue that the commissioning of the mosque was actually a political move, to legitimize the Muslim identity of the empress in the eyes of the public.
The structure of Maryam Zamani establishes a style which has been seen in subsequent Mughal mosques and buildings: a single rectangular aisle with the entrance of five bays. The mosque is exquisitely decorated with symbols of Islamic art and architecture. The walls are painted with intricate geometric and floral designs, with a repetitive pattern that has no beginning or end – a metaphor for the presence of God.
The central dome is an architectural feat, due to its precise symmetry that displays the attributes of God in Arabic calligraphy. Domes are often meant to symbolize the sky and heavens in religious text, and while looking at the sheer detail of the Muqarnas and the use of colour, one cannot help but be overwhelmed. The mosque also has many Sufi aspects like Cyprus trees, which are seen in Sufi literature as symbolizing the meeting of the Lover and Beloved, Man and God. Such trees can also be found in Wazir Khan Mosque, which is heavily influenced by Maryam Zamani.
Interestingly, both Wazir Khan Mosque and Maryam Zamani Mosque are about a fifteen-minute walking distance apart. The path which extends from the Akbari Gate of the Lahore Fort, all the way up to the Delhi Gate is known as the Shahi Guzargah, or Royal Trail. This was because whenever royalty would visit Lahore from Delhi, they would take this particular route to the Fort.
There is another gate at the end of the trail, outside the fort and close to Maryam Zamani, called Masti Gate. Originally, Masti gate was supposed to be maseeti, as maseet means mosque in Punjabi. However, over time, maseeti gate became Masti Gate. Today, the physical structure of the gate cannot be seen, but it is symbolized by a tire and rim market. If one looks from a distance standing on higher ground, the three domes of the mosque, which are in very poor conditions, can be seen.
The Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), along with Aga Khan Cultural Services Pakistan (AKCSP) have been working on many restoration projects within the Old City, one of which has been the Royal Trail Project. This project involved the restoration of several key monuments along the royal path, including the Shahi Hamman, Wazir Khan Mosque, and Maryam Zamani Mosque. The majority of the project has been successfully completed, and an increase in local and foreign tourists in the area, is proof of the positive impact of these efforts.
Maryam Zamani Mosque is yet to be fully restored, but the documentation process has been on-going for the past few months. However, the conditions of the mosque are especially terrible, since it is older and suffering due to heavy encroachment, and harmful conservation efforts such as certain parts being painted over. Already, the main courtyard has been painted white and green, and only small parts of the interior’s original paint remain. Despite this, somehow the space has managed to preserve the essence of this beautiful city within its four walls. Hopefully, the restoration efforts will be able to preserve what remains, while keeping intact the essence of the living, breathing, historical monument.
This article is written by Mahnaz Shujrah and originally published at Youlin Magazine