Architecture, Identity and the Meaning of Home: Lahore, Pakistan

Architecture, Identity and the Meaning of Home: Lahore, Pakistan

How strange it is to feel both at home and not at home. When a Lahorian diaspora writer travels from Birmingham to her Pakistani city of birth, she reflects on the meaning of place and identity as she seeks connection through Lahore’s Mughal architecture and colonial buildings.

a diaspora writer, walking through the Old City streets of
Lahore is like looking through the peephole of an antique,
hand-cranked kinetoscope. The brown-tinted Victorian-style colonial
structures and softly red-toned Mughal buildings remind me of
postcolonial literary studies from my old university coursebooks.
Their connections between place and identity begin to provide a
sense of belonging, while at the same time, a sense of

Being born in Lahore, I’ve been fortunate to spend a few months
each year in Pakistan
at my family home. It’s where I go to take time out from the gloom
of Birmingham, and every visit is a chance to get to know my city
of birth better. When my latest trip was due, I planned to discover
Lahore through its architecture.

My journey begins in Shahdara Bagh, which lies on the western
bank of the now buffalo-swamped Ravi River. I head to the Tomb of
Jahangir, a 17th-century mausoleum to a Mughal emperor that has sat
on the tentative list to be a
Unesco World Heritage Site
since 1993. Its cypress trees and
the charbagh (a four-fold symmetrical garden divided by waterways)
remind me of the descriptions of paradise mentioned in the Islamic
verses of the Quran. It feels like I’ve time-travelled directly
from the past into a paradisiacal future of my Muslim belief.

I’m met by a group of craftsmen working on the tomb’s
restoration. Perched on a concrete slab, Muhammad Asif is
fine-tuning the geometric effect on the jali (latticework) screen
panel, using a hammer and a large nail.

“This is sangemarmar (white marble), which we can now find in
Pakistan. Previously, it was [made from] white Makrana marble
supplied from India,” Asif tells me. “We cannot even change the
stem of the floral motifs, it needs to be a readaptation of the
past designs with the same positioning.”

Farther along the verdant garden, I meet Muhammad Abid, a
working foreman. “I take care of all the repair works at the
historical buildings of Lahore, including Shalamar Gardens, the
Royal Fort and Badshahi Mosque,” he says. As with many of the other
artisans, Abid’s skills have been passed down through generations.
Once the design is agreed upon, he carries out the drawings
according to the size of the Mughal designs, which are then
fine-tuned and fitted. Measuring the red-sandstone panels finely
carved in cusped arch tracery shapes, with bottles, vases and
flower motifs mottled white, he is feeling rather pleased. But it’s
what he says that lingers in my memory: “I am happy with what I get
paid, but we are not given the respect and appreciation we

Preserving architectural wonders helps define the historical,
social and cultural identity and spirit of the city. Buildings’
appearances structure our imagination and memory. A peculiar
exchange occurs: I lend my emotions and associations to the place
and the place lends me its atmosphere.

Nowhere is that better epitomised than at Rang Mahal market –
the so-called “palace of colour” – where old buildings and
alleyways are filled with wholesale traders selling food, textiles,
crockery and jewellery – the list goes on. Here, I recommend trying
the street food ladoo pethiyan (lentil patties) garnished with
sauces and salad, while sitting on a simple wooden bench, enjoying
kaleidoscopic views across the stalls, people and noise to the
minarets of the Wazir Khan Mosque.

It is in Rang Mahal market, among the many colours of Lahore,
where I feel my homeland sending messages to me through the land
beneath my feet. My western clothes are drawing attention. How
strange it is to feel both at home and not at home.

The arches and roof of the Wazir Khan Mosque are covered in
glazed-tile mosaic work in yellows, greens and blue; its spiral
staircases lead you to the rooftop, from where you enjoy panoramas
across the bright city. I perform ablution while squatting on a
marble block by the small fountain of the courtyard pool. Getting
ready for prayer permits me to engage fully in the spiritual
dimensions of the building. Yet my consciousness is quickly
directed back to the present world when I spot a cat quietly
sleeping on a prayer mat.

It’s so different from Birmingham. Back there, the Selfridges
building in the city centre is simply covered in silver discs,
expressing itself without the need for ornamental decoration. In
Lahore, I dine on a rooftop overlooking the Badshahi Mosque crowned
by bulbous domes. As the sun sets, a flock of birds flies around
its octagonal towers and the adhan (call to prayer) echoes through
the high walls of the Lahore Fort embedded with miniature paintings
of the Mughals.

I’m reminded of one of my father’s old stories. He often tells
me about a show of sound and light that bathed the walls of the
Lahore Fort in the 60s. As the show progressed, he recalls,
spectators learned about the Mughal Empire and then the era of
British colonial rule. The information came slowly at first, then
quickened with the intensity of the sound effects.

For further study of past events, the Victorian-style
Quaid-e-Azam Library, constructed in the mid-19th century during
the British Raj, has a collection of more than 125,000 books.
Flipping through its bookshelves feels like I’m being transported
back to university, when lecturers described cultural

Onwards to Haveli Barood Khana, an 18th-century mansion built
during the Sikh rule. Currently owned by Yousuf Salahuddin – or
Mian Salli as everyone calls him – the haveli has a breezy,
plant-filled central courtyard with a wooden swing strung up by
ropes draped with fresh, white daisies. Though a busy socialite of
the Pakistani entertainment world, Salahuddin is extraordinarily
warm and invites visitors to stay for chai. This is the kind of
place where wealthy Lahoris attend traditional folk concerts and
rent out rooms for private events. I can see why; the haveli’s
location is away from the bustle of the city along with its
intricate balconies and antiques create a regal, opulent

As I head back home, passing through central Lahore and into the
outskirts, the buildings are less dusty and crumbling. Between
luxury villas on lush green lawns, mosque domes appear larger and
grand shopping malls seem to be illuminated brighter. This
cityscape is down mainly to the artistic designs of Nayyar Ali
Dada, an architect who famously dotted Lahore with breathtaking
public buildings. With respect to the historic city, his work
injects a modernist touch. Completed in 1992, the cultural hub of
the Alhamra Arts Council is perhaps his most outstanding creation –
its high walls reminiscent of the Fort; the red sandstone a nod to
the Mughals.

Each time I travel back to Lahore after weeks spent in
Birmingham, I feel like a child who has discovered something for
the very first time. Like a piece of music, Lahore’s architecture
can move me, influence my mood with a distinct excitement, and
affect the way I experience myself in the city and the city in

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