In a remote corner of the Indian Himalayas, a river rises near the quaint hamlet of Bara Bangal. Fed by the melting snow of the most majestic of mountain ranges and the torrential rains of South Asian monsoons, the river meanders its way through the valley of Kashmir. It comes to the plains through the foothills of the grand mountains and then it enters the Pakistani province of Punjab. Flowing past the city of Lahore, the river takes a turn at the village of Kamila, from where going south, passing the village of Ahmedpur Sial, it merges with another river, the Chenab. Starting at the source, the river flows for some 450 miles before it finally joins the mighty Indus on its timeless journey down south, to drain into the vast Arabian Sea.
This is the river Ravi.
Could this also be the ancient Iravati mentioned in the Vedas?
We do not know.
What we do know is that many centuries ago, on the eastern banks of this river Ravi, in areas that are now part of Lahore, a community started organising a settlement. Not much is known about the earliest history of the beautiful city of Lahore. Nor can much be known about the people who settled it. No remnants of ancient settlements are found to vindicate the myth that the city was present in the times of the Vedas. No temple, no monument, no remains of antiquity have so far been discovered to take us back to the ancient times to prove the claims of antiquity that float around in the bazaars of Lahore today.
However, despite no historical evidence, the philandering tales continue, creating an air of enchantment around the city. It is said that a city was built around 1000 BCE as an ode to Loh the son of Lord Rama – thus ‘Lahore’. Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador in 300 BCE, describes a magnificent city in his travelogues. That, too, is equated to Lahore. Both interpretations are, of course, without substantial proof.
Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador in 300 BCE, describes a magnificent city in his travelogues
The little that actually emerges on the presence of this town is from the 1st century CE to about 950 CE when Lahore surfaces – but as an insignificant part of the Shahi kingdom ruled from Kabul. The Shahi dynasty itself was of similar obtuse origins. While some historians claim the Shahi dynasty to be of Turkic heritage, some consider it to be from the Kshatriya caste of Indian origins. Some still go on to say that it was a multicultural, multiethnic dynasty living in the realm of Turkic culture. Whatever it was, we know that the area that later comprised Lahore was part of that kingdom.
From 950 CE to 1000 CE Lahore became part of the Quraishi estates of Multan, but still not much is said in recorded history about it.
The first substantial mention of Lahore is seen in 1026 CE, when Mahmud of Ghazni, a Turkic noble who ruled a kingdom in the Khorasan region of Persia, attacked the Indian subcontinent and conquered the Punjab area. Mahmud found Lahore to be an ideal base from where to stage subsequent attacks on the riches of the Indian kingdoms. It is quite possible that there was a mud fort already existing along the river Ravi, which Mahmud fortified and built upon. Or was he the one who actually built that mud fort? Whatever the situation was, the reality of the 11th century was that the rules of Persia, the khanates of Central Asia and the people on the Eurasian steppes were developing a keen interest in trying their luck in the Indian subcontinent. To reach the fertile lands of the Doab and conquer the rich principalities it hosted, these invading armies needed a base to launch attacks. Lahore started to gain importance as a strategic point for these adventurers. In the 11th century CE, the Ghaznavid dynasty – though headquartered outside the subcontinent – had conquered small fiefdoms in the Peshawar and Punjab regioons. The Ghaznavids wielded influence on the population through vassals in the northwest and in the Punjab. These local rulers paid homage to the Ghaznavid hegemony.
These influences were bringing new philosophies and new cultural traditions into the subcontinent. Not just invaders, but traders and travelers were crossing the borders. Amongst them, Sufis, mystics and ascetics were streaming into India, all of them venturing into the subcontinent for different reasons. This was the time when Ali Hajveri, the famous Sufi saint of the city, set up home in Lahore. Hazrat Data Ganj Baksh, as he is called today, was born in Ghazni. Seeking knowledge and enlightenment he travelled far and wide until he had learnt enough to teach others. Then he finally settled in the little town of Lahore by the river Ravi. His teachings of peace, tolerance and humanity created an environment of acceptance and love. Common men and women were attracted to his message of unity and friendship. Data Ganj Baksh became one of the early saints whose teachings brought Islam to the people in the area. He wrote many books, amongst which Kashf-ul-Mahjub is read and quoted centuries after it was written. His shrine today is the most important pilgrimage site in the city.
The political dynamics of the region kept changing, giving opportunities to a variety of potentates in the neighbourhood to expand their empires. In the late 12th century another invader from a principality in what was once the greater Persian Empire, Muhammad Ghori, came into the Indian subcontinent. After his victory at Multan he proceeded towards Gujarat, now in present-day India. A different fate awaited Ghori in Gujarat: he was defeated by Rani Naikidevi, the Queen who led her forces on the battlefield and fought fiercely. Muhammad Ghori had to turn back. On his way, Ghori seized Peshawar. In a few years’ time he included Lahore in his territory.
The 11th and 12th centuries saw an invigourating dialogue taking place in medieval Lahore. The presence of Turkic, Persian and Arab cultures brought in a variety of nuances into the indigenous community. Poets and travellers visited Lahore and stayed – again enriching the society.
The Delhi Sultanate era from the 13th century onwards saw Lahore developing from a small insignificant town on the hinterlands of the Doab to a place of significant political and military activity. Although the Delhi Sultanate, as the name suggests, was headquartered in Delhi, the strategic position of Lahore remained important enough for the rulers to keep a vigilant eye on the area.
This was the time that the walled city must have started taking shape as we know it today.
In 1206 the first Mamluk sultan in the Indian Subcontinent, Qutb-ud-din Aibak ascended the throne in Delhi. Muhammad Ghori had bought Aibak as a slave, but held him in high esteem. Aibak became an important general in Ghori’s army. Muhammad Ghori with the help of Qutb-ud-din Aibak had conquered parts of Northern India. Aibak was placed in charge of the empire in the Subcontinent. After Ghori’s death, Aibak declared himself the Sultan. The strategic importance of Lahore remained – the Sultan’s presence in Lahore was noted on many occasions. Sultan Aibak died playing a match of polo in Lahore. He was buried inside the walled city. Aibak and his successors must have contributed architecturally and also culturally to the society within the walled city and the fort.
In the late 12th to early 13th century, the Mongols unleashed their campaign of rapid conquests upon the world. The Mongol empire was expanding rapidly and mercilessly. The potent Mongol armies also arrived at the periphery of the Indian subcontinent; Chinggis (Genghis) Khan the mighty Mongol Khaqan (Khan of khans) sacked Lahore, but he did not establish his rule. The Mongols went back, but only to return to Lahore ever so often to ransack and pillage it. In 1266 Ghias-ud-din Balban ascended the throne of Delhi Sultanate. He, too, was a slave who rose to become an able general and an administrator. Lahore’s location remained important to guard. Balban fortified the mud fort in Lahore and added new buildings. In the late 14th century, Timur – the ancestor of the great Mughals – attacked Lahore and brought major destruction to the city.
The first substantial mention of Lahore is seen in 1026 CE, when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked the Indian subcontinent
In early 15th century the viceroys of Timurid dynasty of Central Asia founded a seat of power in Delhi with suzerainty over Lahore. They were called the Sayyid Dynasty. The Sayyid dynasty’s rule was chaotic and tumultuous. The early rulers ruled as vassals of the Timurid lords. By the time Timur’s grandson Shahrukh ascended to the throne, the Sayyid rulers were minting coins in their own name in Delhi, but the Friday khutba (sermon) had both Shahrukh’s name and the Sayyid ruler’s name in it. Lahore stayed part of their domain. The last king of the Sayyid dynasty Ala-ud-din Alam Shah lived in Badaun before ascending the throne in Delhi. The turmoil in the kingdom continued: after eight years of rule he abdicated in favour of his governor in Lahore, Bahlul Lodhi, and himself returned to Badaun. For almost 70 years the city of Lahore became part of the Lodhi dynasty ruled from Delhi. In the 16th century the last ruler of the Lodhi dynasty, Ibrahim Lodhi, had differences with Daulat Khan, his governor in Lahore. Daulat invited Mirza Babur, a beleaguered Turkic warlord, to invade Delhi.
As Babur invaded northern India and Lahore became part of his empire, the river Ravi flowed as it has been flowing for centuries. The dynamics of varied dynasties which conquered the citadel on its banks were not only bringing an interesting political milieu to the city of Lahore, but eclectic cultural and literary nuances were also germinating in its soil.
In a latter installment, we will see Babur setting up a resplendent dynasty and its subsequent rise and fall; the Sikh rule in Lahore and finally the British Raj in Lahore.