Saturday, April 21, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Tales Lost to Time

Malerkotla is one of the oldest princely states in the region, and the tombs of its rulers represent the depth and breadth of the state’s history and culture. These burial places symbolise the values of individuals, communities and the historical periods in which they were constructed. The forms of the memorials are determined by the cultural, artistic and religious sensibilities of the builders, writes Anna  B. Bigelow.

EVERY memorial has a story. Some tales are known only to a few beloved and bereaved, and many are lost to time. Others are widely known, indicating the scope of the deceased’s impact on the living. The Shahi Maqbara in Malerkotla contains all types of graves — of rulers and ruled, known and unknown, saints and soldiers. Nearly every nawab since 1712 and many of their relations are buried in close proximity to one another in an amazing complex of tombs unlike any other in eastern Punjab.


The graves of the mighty are more than just the final resting places of individuals. Monuments to the dead provide the living with substantial links to the past, defying physical mortality. Through these graves, dargahs, mazars, kabarsthans, samadhis, tombs, mausoleums, and so on, the living maintain contact with the deceased. The memorials built by children, spouses, parents, communities, and states are the symbols of the impact of the departed on the lives of those they touched.

The tomb of Nawab Sher Mohammad KhanAs one of the oldest princely states in the region, the tombs of Malerkotla’s rulers represent the depth and breadth of the state’s history and culture. These burial places symbolise the values of individuals, communities and the historical periods in which they were constructed. The forms of the memorials are determined by the cultural, artistic and religious sensibilities of the builders. The Shahi Maqbara in Malerkotla was clearly built under a Mughal influence. In its graceful minarets and domes, we find small echoes of the exquisite tomb of Humayun or the pristine beauty of the Taj Mahal. Although the Malerkotla rulers were linked by blood to the previous dynasty, the Lodhis, these nawabs were laid to rest in imitation of the more elaborate style of Babur’s lineage, during whose time the state reached its apex of power.

Although the most famous tomb of Malerkotla, that of Sufi saint Haider Sheikh, is not there at the maqbara, those of his many descendents are. Sheikh Sadruddin Sadr-i-Jahan, a saint, founded the ruling lineage when he was given a number of villages in this region as a jagir at the time of his marriage to the daughter of Bahlol Lodhi in 1454. The jagir became an independent kingdom, or riyasat, in the mid-17th century when Aurangzeb was favourably impressed by the military service of Bayzid Khan (d. 1657). Local histories also report that Bayzid saved the Emperor’s life by slaying a charging tiger with a single blow of his sword. In appreciation, the jagir became a riyasat and Bayzid was given the title of Nawab and allowed to build a fortified city to protect his family and citizens from the warfare that pervaded the Punjab. According to one source, the nawab summoned a Sufi saint, Shah Fazl Chishti, and a Hindu sadhu, Damodar Das, to place the first stone, thereby founding not only the new city, but also the spirit of secularism and brotherhood that has characterised Malerkotla ever since. Although Bayzid himself is not buried in the maqbara, the only remaining burj, or tower, of the boundary wall he built still stands at one corner of the site. Several locals say that Bayzid is buried in a tomb across the town. This grave is a popular local dargah where residents light chiragh and make offerings every Thursday.

The tomb of Sikander Ali KhanPerhaps it is fitting that the most famous of Malerkotla’s nawabs, Sher Mohammad Khan, is also the first ruler laid to rest here. All Sikhs and most Punjabis know the story of Sher Mohammad Khan’s haa da naara, in which he appealed to Aurangzeb to spare the lives of Guru Gobind Singh’s two young sons when they were captured at Sirhind. He declared that their execution sentence was "absolutely against the dictates of Islam and the laws propounded by the founder of Islam." He went on to declare that if his plea "is deprived of the honour of acceptance, still your Majesty’s humble and devoted servant shall have the consolation of having performed the sacred duty of expressing what was right and just and not having allowed his pen to deviate in the expression of truth." Upon hearing of the martyrdom of his sons, the Guru inquired if anyone had spoken on their behalf. According to the Mahan Kosh, when told that the Nawab of Malerkotla had raised his voice, the Guru blessed the house of the nawab, declaring that its "roots shall remain forever green." This story is the most frequently cited reason for Malerkotla’s history of communal harmony. However, in contrast to his fame, Sher Mohammad Khan’s grave is one of the least ornate ones. It is without a roof. According to some local legends, every effort to build one has failed, in accordance with the nawab’s wishes. Others merely state that as the oldest of the tombs, it has suffered most from the effects of time and weather and vandalism that are taking their slow, inexorable toll on the entire complex.

Walking through the maqbara with Chaudhry Ahmad Shah, one of the principal mutawalis, or overseers of the property, is like walking through Malerkotla’s history. Ahmad Shah’s family has been looking after the site for over 100 years. Their ancestor, a Sufi saint called Ghulam Shah, was given about 100 bighas in waqf, or charitable endowment, by the mother of Nawab Sikander Ali Khan (d. 1871). This nawab’s elaborate tomb stands at the main entrance to the complex. Its interior walls display some of the best-preserved and most delicate examples of decorative paint and plaster work in the complex. His mother, Maher, is buried next to him, between the nawab and his wife. Sikander died childless, and the rulership passed to Ibrahim Ali Khan (d. 1908), the son of a relative, whose tomb is just behind his own.

The burj of Bayzid KhanThe most intricate and ornate tomb in the maqbara belongs to Zulfiqar Ali Khan who, although not a nawab, was an extremely interesting figure in the literary history of the riyasat. A close friend of Muhammad Iqbal, he was the author of the first biography of the famous poet, titled A Voice from the East. Iqbal himself is said to have come to visit the grave and he memorialised his friend’s car in the poem Motor. "How true it was when Joginder said, ‘The motor of Zulfiqar Ali Khan is so silent!/Its movement makes no tumult like the lightning’s flash, like the breeze it is silent.’ But I say that silence is not just a matter of the motor/In life’s journey the fastest runners are always silent./From constant sounding the bugle is exhausted, but the caravan trail of perfume, like the wind is silent./Wine always gurgles when it is poured, but the practiced drinker is always silent./It is in this silence that the poet’s thoughts will soar, the voice of substance is always silent." The form of this ornate structure is like that of the Taj Mahal, as there is a single zarih, or decorative tomb, above and the graves of Zulfiqar and his wife are in the vault beneath. The stone screens and other ornamentations are broken in many places, but the four minarets and central dome still soar gracefully over the maqbara.

Other graves tell other stories of this ancient kingdom. In a somewhat separate area, members of the Shi’a branch of a family are buried. One tomb became a shrine due to the saintly reputation of its occupant, and there lamps are often lit and incense offered. The grave of Nawab Ibrahim Ali Khan’s wife lies partially in his vault, but extends under the wall to the outside, where the graves of her family are located. The last nawab, Iftikhar Ali Khan (d. 1982) and two of his wives (one of whom is still living) served as MLAs after Independence. Then there was another nawab who was so strong that it is said he once twisted all the coins in his mother’s treasury out of shape, and straightened them when scolded. Chaudhry Ahmad Shah relates these accounts with both pride in the heritage that is in his keeping and fear that these stories will not survive his generation. Not surprisingly, since the time of the original grant, the family has grown into 10 families with over 100 members. The land is given on rent, generating enough income to help the families survive, but most have found additional employment as shopkeepers, tailors and badge-makers. Nonetheless, the mutawalis still clear debris from the tombs every Thursday. Sadly, often the bricks, mortar, and stones they remove are pieces fallen from the very tombs whose maintenance is in their trust. Without professional help or training and with little financial support from the government, the few surviving members of the nawab’s family, or any other source, it is difficult to imagine that the kind of repair necessary to keep these repositories of Malerkotla’s history from crumbling into dust will be possible.

Chaudhry Ahmad Shah MutawalliThings have changed here in many ways — even in Chaudhry Ahmad Shah’s time. "When I was young", he says, "no one would wear shoes in here. People were hesitant to come at night. Now we have to lock it up and still people run around everywhere, children play and even sit on the graves." He also remembers times when the neighboring community would light chiragh in the niches of the wall, a portion of which includes Bayzid’s burj. Remnants of this wall and bits of the town’s seven gates are visible throughout the town. However, these incredible structures – 20 feet high and nearly 3 feet thick, painstakingly constructed with tiny Nanakshahi bricks – are rapidly falling victim to weather, vandalism and encroachments. This last may be the greatest threat to the integrity of the Shahi Maqbara. The burj and the wall uniting it to the maqbara are currently under dispute in a court case between the mutawalis and several small-time businessmen whose shops back up onto, and over, the wall.

There are several schemes currently under way to preserve these remarkable monuments. One is the initiative of the Sangrur District MP, Sardar Simranjit Singh Mann. His interest in saving the site derives in large part from his interest in preserving the history of Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan and his famous protest. According to Mann, Sher Mohammad Khan is a great character in Sikh history who "raised his voice against a communal ruler to save the two young sons of the Guru, and he said that killing of young boys was wrong and even against Islam." "However", Mann says, "getting across the red tape in the government is proving to be a challenge". In the meanwhile, the state too could initiate a plan to save the tombs and the tower by declaring them a protected monument. The Director of Cultural Affairs, Archaeology, Museums and Archives, Inderjit Singh Sandhu, has expressed enthusiastic support for such an initiative.

Also increasing the chances for the site’s survival is the growing support of the community for such preservation work. Through local initiatives such as the newly formed Malerkotla Heritage Society, residents are beginning to develop programmes to educate the residents of this historic place and its long heritage of secularism and communal harmony. Through school programmes, seminars, festivals, and especially with plans to establish a local history archive at the new Municipal Library, community leaders are creating an environment of respect for the past that will help to preserve the lessons of peace for the use of future generations. The stories of the nawabs and the beauty of the structures that memorialise them are veritable treasure houses of Malerkotla’s history, worth seeing and saving.