The Mughal Underground Chambers


The Mughal Underground Chambers
Archaeology below Lahore Fort,
UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pakistan:
The Mughal Underground Chambers
Prepared by Rustam Khan
For Global Heritage Fund
Preservation Fellowship
The author thanks the Director and staff of Lahore
Fort for their cooperation in doing this report.
Special mention is made of the photographer Amjad
Javed who did all the photography for this project
and Nazir the draughtsman who prepared the plans
of the Underground Chambers.
Map showing the location of Lahore Walled
City (in red) and the Lahore Fort (in green).
Note the Ravi River to the north, following
its more recent path
Archaeology below Lahore Fort,
UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pakistan
1. Background
Discussion between the British Period historians like Cunningham, Edward
Thomas and C.J Rodgers, regarding the identification of Mahmudpur or
Mandahukukur with the present city of Lahore is still in need of authentic
and concrete evidence. There is, however, consensus among the majority
of the historians that Mahmud of Ghazna and his slave-general ”Ayyaz”
founded a new city on the remains of old settlement located some where in
the area of present Walled City of Lahore.
Excavation in 1959, conducted by the Department of Archaeology of
Pakistan inside the Lahore Fort, provided ample proof to support
interpretation that the primeval settlement of Lahore was on this mound
close to the banks of River Ravi. Apart from the discussion regarding the
actual first settlement or number of settlements of Lahore, the only
uncontroversial thing is the existence of Lahore Fort on an earliest
settlement, from where objects belonging to as early as 4th century AD were
recovered during the excavation conducted in Lahore Fort .
“A trench measuring 180 by 60 feet was laid in the spacious lawn in
front of the Di wan-e-Aam dug down to the maximum depth of 50
feet, thus reaching the natural soil. In all twenty stratified
cultural layers were encountered which represented from t o p
bottom on the natural soil, four distinct periods viz. the British and
Sikh, Mughal, Pre-Mughal and the Pre-Muslim”(Pakistan
Archaeology No.5, 1968).
As early as the 4th century AD the Ravi River surged on the southeastern
and northern sides of the settlement now occupied by Lahore Fort. Then
during ensuing centuries; the River shifted more rapidly to its present
course along the northwestern side. The site of present Lahore Fort since
as early as 4th -6th century AD, and even before, was an occupied place
surrounded by residential settlements on three sides. On the east the River
Ravi gradually changed its flow and created a noticeable depression on the
northern side of the settlement leaving it standing on a hilly part of the area.
Stratigraphy of the excavations carried out in 1959 in
the Meidan of Lahore Fort, courtesy of Department of
The city of Lahore since then has remained a constant victim of outside
invasions, more noticeably during the 10th to 14th centuries AD when waves
of the subsequent Muslim rulers from northern borders time and again
overran the city. In the 16th century AD, the third Mughal Emperor Akbar
paid serious attention to the needs of the growing city of Lahore. He fortified
the city with a thirty feet high wall providing 12 main entrances all around
the city with an outlet for drainage of sewerage and rain water presently
known as Mori-gate.
The hilly part of the city in the north western side, on which Akbar built his
fortified palace was not, however, a completely natural landscape feature.
The excavations in the great Meidan, or open courtyard of the Fort,
revealed that the hill is in fact a mound created from multiple cultural layers
and archaeological deposits representing over 2000 years of earlier occupations and dynasties. The present height of the mound is approximately 15
m which represents stratified archaeological material.
2. The Issues and Architectural Response
In the 16th c. the mound was under threat of erosion during flooding of
River Ravi, which ran along its northern side and so the Emperor Akbar
devised an innovative solution to consolidate it for construction of his
palace. Most startling thing is the new idea of architectural brilliance that
taken up to utilize the slanted space towards the River side. A
complex of multi-storied, maximum two to three storied, interlinked
basements or substructures was built running along the north of the mound.
These basements had wings running south deep into the cultural mound in
order to make a sound platform to built palaces on top.
Jahangir (1606 – 1627) and Shahjahan (1628 – 1656) extended the
process, and built numerous elegant chambers, colonnades and garden
courtyards atop the basements. It is interesting to note that no
contemporary historians had mentionned about the Shahi Qila (Royal Fort)
but instead refer to the Summan Burjes (summer palaces) regarding these
buildings, obviously referring to the substructures/ underground chambers
which were especially built to use for residential purposes during those
days to put up with the hot summers.
View of the Kala Burj area under which there are
three levels of chambers
The first or upper row of chambers under the royal buildings was used mainly
for residential purpose by the royalties; the second storey for the purpose of
storages, for services like gutter cleaning, ventilation and watch & ward
facilities. The third or lower storey consisting of only a few chambers/rooms
seems a direct secret way to escape through River side.
3. History of the Underground Chambers
A study of these basement chambers revealed that dilapidation process of
these chambers started as early as Jahangir’s period, mainly because of the
water logging and increased load of structures build on top, which kept on
increasing until the end of British occupation. The problem concerning to the
structural instability of these underground chambers started with the rapid
shift of River course; it was accelerated as the erosion loosened the sand
making it slide away from the compaction under the foundations of the
View of the Hall below the south side of Shah Burj
At the northwestern end of the colonnade of multi-storied basements and
structures, Emperor Shahjahan started the construction of two new buildings,
the Naulakha pavilion and Shish Mahal ,for his beloved Queen Mumtaz
Mahal. They were constructed atop of the single storied complex of underground chambers in the north western corner, constructed during his father
Jahangir’s period. Shahjahan did a number of alterations and also demolished some structure to elevate the present building of Shish Mahal. No
record of the demolished and altered buildings during that period is available.
When Shahjahan began this building program the severities of structural
instability of these basement chambers were realized seriously. Before the
new additions could be constructed on top there was a need to stabilize and
consolidate these underground chambers. To tackle this complicated
structural issue without bringing down the entire portion of buildings in this
corner, a simple but highly innovative idea of architectural engineering was
introduced and applied here in Lahore Fort. A perfect solution to stabilize and
give long lasting life to these rapidly deteriorating basement chambers was
executed. A brick masonry wall about1500 feet in length 47 to 55 feet in
height and 12 feet thick with 15 feet deep and 25 feet wide foundation was
raised along the northern and western frontage of these chambers. The wall
acted like a buttress to contain the outward pressure of the chambers and to
support the eroding footings of the Fort.
Detail of wall fresco in
Hall 3 below west side
of the Shah Burj
Wall added by Shahjahan
to reinforce the Fort wall
that was being eroded
Added corridor
between the
original external
wall and the
new addition
Opening in the added Pictured Wall leading from ground floor of
the underground chambers to the exterior of the Fort
Hall 3 under the west side of the Shah Burj with
Mughal period fresco
Plan of Lahore Fort showing th location of the supporting Pictured
Wall (red), the Mughal chambers underneath the Shish Mahal
(yellow) and under the Kala Burj area (green)
The wall itself was decorated along its great height and extent with innumerable
intricate tile mosaic pictures depicting court life during the Mughal Empire. The
entire northwest frontage of wall is decked with 2116 panels of brilliant tile
work, and fresco paintings. A succession of square, rectangular and arched
panels, are amongst the most remarkable decorative and architectural
renderings. This outstanding array of decorations and designs make the Lahore
Fort a monument of unique prominence and pride. This wall not only a chief
feature of decorations and beauty but also technically serves as a solid and
majestic retaining/supporting wall to overcome the issue of erosion and attrition
of built portions of Lahore Fort on this side which for the most part rests upon
the underground chambers.
This wall provided with openings at certain places for ventilation and light. The
original ways for going to the River side pierced through the wall are still
traceable and most of them can be reclaimed easily.
4. Current Condition and Issues
At present this huge retaining wall, known as the Pictured Wall, has developed
some serious structural cracks causing it to lose its hold against the fragile
construction of basement chambers, especially the sections of two and three
storied chambers. The structural problems of these basements are in fact a
great threat to the buildings constructed atop, important heritage buildings that
are declared as part of the UNESCO World Heritage site.
The present managers of the site have focused their attentions on the
conservation and preservation and up - lifting of the buildings constructed atop,
without realizing the deteriorated and appalling condition of these underground
chambers. The chambers are actually bearing the load of the landmark and
iconic World Heritage structures above: including Lal and Kala Burj ( Red and
Black Towers), Paeen Bagh (ladies’ garden) , Naulakha pavilion and Shish
Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) and a number of other important small buildings in
this portion.
The underground chambers and additional supporting wall have experienced
stress and growing damage and instability for centuries but the problems have
gone unaddressed.
View of the Pictured Wall along the west of the Fort
Detail of the Pictures Wall
There is some sparse evidence in the underground chambers themselves
of supporting pillars and preventive measures taken by the managers in
past as emergency treatment; but no record and documentation of that
work is available.
5. Conclusion
The World Heritage site of Shahi Qila, or Lahore Fort, is located on a hill in
the north western part of the Walled City of Lahore. It was royal court of the
Emperor Akbar from 1585.This fort very rightly is called as a showcase of
the best architectural ensembles of his period and for the expansions and
embellishments by later Mughal emperors Jahangir and Shahjahan.
Actually the Fort is an assemblage of various period garden palaces that
comprises a series of linked gardens surrounded by elegant chambers,
towers, pavilions and courts; including the exquisite Shish Mahal or Palace
of Mirrors. ”
This study has described the prehistoric and early historic occupations and
destructions which contributed to the growth of the archaeological mound of
Shahi Qila, providing a rich narrative of the history of Lahore. It has also
looked at how the Mughals employed a complex architectural solution to a
17th c. environmental and archaeological conservation problem by building
the underground chambers and then reinforcing them by construction of the
facing “Picture Wall”.
Recent supporting pillars placed to try and hold up
the endangered substructures
This structurally important structural feature of the Fort — the complex of
underground chambers —- has not been paid due attention and completely
ignored. It has been “out of sight and out of mind”.
It is quite clear that serious and immediate action must be taken to
consolidate these chambers including the Pictured Wall. Less attention
should be paid to the sad state of the decoration of the Wall and more to
the real possibility that it might collapse as a result of major structural
instability. About two years ago a corner Burj or tower of the Lahore Fort
simply collapsed and fell off the Fort due to neglect of issues. It is a real risk
that continued neglect will result in a major irreversible collapse of four
hundred year old and magnificent buildings of World Heritage caliber and
Deteriorating red sandstone elements used in middle floor
below Kala Burj
Condition of middle floor showing dangerous condition of masonry and
structural elements
Ground floor area of recently collapsed
Photographs of the Chambers
below the Shah Burj and
Shish Mahal
The courtyard of Shish Mahal with Shish Mahal behind and the Dlans (colonnaded rooms) around it
Room 1 gallery below the Dalans that surround the
Hall 1 view from east with window in the Pictured Wall
visible at the rear
Hall 1 and 7 below the Shah Burj, view from west
Underground water tank below Shish Mahal courtyard
View looking north down a ventilation path running between solid
portions of the underground comRoom 5 along west of the courtyard
Photographs of the Chambers below
Kala Burj
Chamber on the top floor of the complex immediately
below the Kala Burj
Entrance door to underground chambers
below Kala Burj
Main Hall of top floor of chambers
Domed area over linking staircase
Corridor of the middle floor chambers
Stairs between Kala Burj and Lal Burj
entrance to middle floor
Room on the middle floor at risk of collapse;
note recent attempts to consolidate
Corridor that joins Pictures Wall (right side) and chambers (left side)
Main corridor along the lower portion of the underground chambers
Mughl period chamber at ground
Ground floor showing original Mughal masonry and British period intervention
British intervention to consolidate structure
Modern cement
Sikh period patching
Mughal original masonry
British period
supporting wall
Interventions: different period s Ground Floor
Opening in Pictured
Sikh period supporting
added by
Shahjahan to
reinforce the
north wall of
the Fort
British period addition
Mughal wall added along north of
the Fort
(Pictured Wall)
Added layer on which the Pictured Wall is made
Interventions in wall of middle floor of chambers
British period intervention of a small door to
allow access to closed areas of the chambers for maintenance
Views of a modern drainage system introduced into the underground
chambers to try and solve problems of water damage