Exploring The Majestic Lahore Fort

In the seventh part of this series, Tania Qureshi writes about the lesser known aspects of Lahore's magnificent Mughal heritage

Let me take you to another fascinating piece of the Fort, the huge stairs! These are known as Hathi Paer or the Elephant Stairs. These huge stairs were built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1631-32 A.D. interestingly these stairs were meant for elephants carrying the royalty from and to the palace. So for the purpose, it starts Hathi Paer gate and ends on the outer courtyard of Shish Mahal. It has 58 low and broad steps measuring 216 inches in length and 18 feet and 8 inches in width.

On one side of these stairs you will see some Dalans or rooms, these were for the courtesans to shower flower on the royal entourage. These stairs lead to summer palace as well. A tiny wooden door will be on your left from where you can access this masterpiece, but presently it is closed for public. If you wish to take a tour you need to get a tourist guide from Lahore Fort.

The summer palace of Lahore fort is actually the basement of Sheesh Mahal. Sheesh Mahal has two openings that lead to the summer palace. It was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as s summer house for the Royal families. He built it along with the Sheesh Mahal. Being a summer chamber the astonishing feature of the palace is its ventilation systems. The place remains cold during the scorching summer heat and humidity and warm during the freezing winters. It was also the secret escape route of the royal families. If there were some attacks, the royal females and children would make their way out of the Fort through these tunnels which led to the River Ravi. At that time River Ravi was flowing close to Lahore Fort and the basement was built according to the escaping needs in those times.

It is built in a style which provides an unexpected echo system. If one is standing in any corner and whispers, it would be clearly heard by the other one standing in a different corner of the palace. Well this was the spy system that was built by the Mughals and the guards could listen to all the gossips and planning there and would inform the King.

Interesting facts about the cold flooring of this palace… beneath the upper floor was another one and between the two floors a sewerage system was laid through which the water of river Ravi ran and kept the floors cold in summers. These were special channels of water and did not harm the foundations of the building. So how was the palace warm during a winter, that’s another interesting feature!  The water was heated and then sent to the water channels under the floor.

In some arches and chambers of this palace the original fresco work is still intact. The palace was ornamented with silver, gold and fresco paintings.

Another breathtaking fact about this palace. The ceilings of this palace have no iron or wooden beams or even the cement, rather those were made of grams, white lentils, clay, jiggery, eggs, dried grass, lime plaster and small bricks ( the ones found in all Mughal monuments). This mortar worked like glue keeping the small bricks intact and place cold and also helped in preventing the place from insects.

Now let me take you to the outer feature of the Summer Palace and Lahore fort which is the giant and world’s largest picture wall.

The world’s largest mural Picture Wall was exquisitely decorated with glazed tile and faience mosaics, embellished brickwork, filigree work and frescos during the Mughal period in the reign of Emperor Jahangir in 1624 AD and completed under Emperor Shah Jahan’s reign in 1632 AD. It is 1450’x50’ (450 meters long and 17 meters high) wall seen right there as you enter the Lahore Fort.

Each individual mosaic gives us an insight into the life and entertainment in the royal courts, such as battles scenes, royal portraits, mythical creatures, dance and music and geometric patterns; these unique elements became the principal reason for the Lahore Fort being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.

Somehow, the wall had been neglected and not much importance was given to it in terms of tourism and conservation. People didn’t know that it forms the longest mural wall in the world, decorated in fine embellishment of glazed tile mosaics, giving the Lahore Fort a world heritage status.

This wall envelops the Summer Palace and the Shah Jahan quadrangle, which includes the exquisite Sheesh Mahal and Naulakha Pavilion. The Hathi Paer gate forms an extension of the wall and entrance to the rest of the fort and latter structures, whereas the entrance to the surrounding context is served by the Postern Gate. A rich historical immediate context to the Picture Wall also includes the Sikh religious building of the Samadhi of Ranjit Singh; additionally adjacent are the Huzoori Bagh, Badshahi Mosque and Roshnai Gate.

The Picture Wall was constructed of small brick masonry with lime mortar; the bricks used were a special size specific to the Mughal period.  There are various decorative schemes used on the facade including  the typologies of glazed tile mosaic work, filigree work, fresco painting,  brick imitation  work, glazed lime plaster, pietra dura work, stone fret work, cut and dressed brick work and terracotta screens.

In 2018 the Aga Khan Culture Service Pakistan and Walled City of Lahore Authority took up the conservation of the western façade of the picture wall which is almost 240 feet long in length and 50 feet high on average whereas it consists of 635 decorated recessed panels composed on three levels and is most decorative and embellished.

The conservation of this picture wall is a land mark project in this region. The process of conservation included the stabilization and consolidation of the Picture Wall’s structure, as well as its decorative elements, and warranted the expertise of both heritage crafts as well as conservators. It also included archeological excavation in order to expose the original Mughal era floor level which is 7 feet below the present ground level.

The conservation of the Picture Wall was inaugurated by the Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr. Imran Khan who appreciated the efforts of the teams.

The conservation of the northern side of Picture Wall is being done these days by the Walled City of Lahore Authority and Aga Khan Culture Service Pakistan.

The Picture wall and elephant stairs along with summer palace are open for the tourists at night by the Walled City of Lahore Authority. The tourists taking history by night tour can easily visit it. 

The writer is a media professional and can be reached at heritagechroniclestq@gmail.com