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The Shahi Hamaam, an epitome of architectural brilliance

Farooq Muhammad explores the past and present of the Shahi Hammam of Lahore

Suppose you’re traveling from Lahore to Karachi in winters via train and the transportation authority gives you the facility of steam-bath. Wouldn’t you be delighted? If yes, then imagine your ancestors availing themselves of this facility four centuries ago. Doesn’t it amaze you? Such was the architectural magnificence of the Mughals.

Royal baths were mostly used by Turks and Persians. Providing the nobility and chieftains with the tranquilizing steam bath in the freezing cold was the peculiarity of Shahi Hammams. After traveling continuously for days and nights, the travelers would make a stay at Royal Baths to freshen themselves up. Among them, most were the royal guests who’d travel a long way to meet the Kings.

The Shahi Hamam of Lahore which is adjacent to the Dehli Gate is an epitome of the dexterous brilliance of the Mughals. The Hammam was built in 1635 at the behest of the then governor of Lahore, Wazir Khan. With the emergence of the Sikh rule in India came the deterioration of many historical monuments, the condition of which even more aggravated after the arrival of the British. The Hammam was converted into a school during the British Raj, which shows the abhorrence the British had for our past.

For many centuries it remained unobtrusive till it was partially reinstated in 2015. Many lost antiquities were discovered and the result of the excavation is what stands boisterously amidst the crowded shops of the Walled City, the splendid Hammam that you see today. Before its renovation, the Hammam was used as a place for parties, especially for the bureaucrats. The friend with whom I visited the Hammam told me that people used to hold even concerts in the premises, which is a lamentable indication of the carelessness meted out to the place. Lahore which is a hub of monumental places of the Mughals has never been properly attended to.

It was recognized as a cultural asset in 1955 by the Department of Archaeology. The up-gradation of the Walled City in which the Hammam is located was initiated with the collaboration of the World Bank and the Government of Punjab. In 2014, the Agha Khan Trust for Culture with the financial support of the Norwegian government managed to partially restore it. The major portion of the building which was pulverized in the days of British was also renovated by 2015.

The Hammam comprised of three parts: the Jama khana (dressing area), neem garm (warm baths), and garm (hot baths). The bathrooms were gender-disaggregated and had a small prayer room as well. Steam-bathing, in the age when it was hard for the common people to get away with the bone-chilling cold highlights luxurious services the Mughals were availing. We still desire such a bath! And it makes us envious of our forefathers.

The walls of the Hammam are equipped with beautiful paintings and drawings. Its sewerage system is highly sophisticated and is still intact. The waiting room in the Hammam is a hallmark of the éclat the Mughal architectures were bestowed with. As I was examining the remnants and relics of the building, I couldn’t help lauding the aesthetical tendencies of the Mughals. The Shahi Hammam of Dehli Gate is the sole monumental building emblematic of sanitary facilities of the Mughals. The complicated function of the Hammam has flummoxed even the top experts of the world.

Shahi Hammam is one of those exotic cultural heritages the likes of which are not to be found anywhere in the entire sub-continent. And we hope that the Government of Punjab will take such monumental places under protection.

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