The scoundrel who outlived the sage

A few weeks ago, I was searching the internet for some information on Garhi Shahu, that I came across this well composed but quite obscure article written by a journalist named Majid Sheikh. In keeping with the historical theme I have set up for my posts, I would like to share this thought provoking story with you.

WHEN we think of Garhi Shahu, we think of the railway station, we think of the Christian community, we think of the Burt Institute and that wonderful dance club that no longer functions, and we think of the Convent of Jesus and Mary. But surely there is much much more to this place than we have ever cared to explore.

The pinnacle of fame for the Garhi Shahu area was during the British period when the rail track was laid, and being an engine driver was the ‘in thing.’ Initially all the engine drivers were British, and the Raj laid out beautiful residential colonies for them near the rail track, starting from the still superb Mayo Gardens to the Burt and to the other colonies on both side of the old Mayo Road, now renamed after Iqbal. Just why do we have to forget our history, one will never know. The British then started inducting into the railways Indian Christians, mostly of Portuguese origin from Goa. Lahore was full of D’Souzas, D’Sylvas and Ferrairas, not to speak of the fairer skinned British origin names like Burtons, Brians and Nibletts.

They were also inducted into the railway police, and later on into the Punjab police, and all of them served with distinction. Today, almost all of them have flown, for very valid reasons of our prejudices, to cooler climes. The social and cultural environment of Ghari Shahu was markedly different from the rest of Lahore, and it was a much sought after area.

But then the real story of the area must begin from the days of Emperor Shah Jehan, for during his reign an Arab sage by the name of Abul Khair came to Lahore. He was a well-known scholar of Islamic jurisprudence who had set off on his travels from Baghdad. On reaching the Punjab, he found the weather most agreeable to his temperament and decided to stay a while in Lahore. In those days, the area now known as Garhi Shahu was known as Mohallah Syedan, because in this area lived scholars like Syed Jan Muhammad Hazuri, after whom is named the famous Hazuri Bagh. The intellectual environment was much to his liking and he decided to settle down here.

During the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, the fame of Abul Khair had spread far and wide, and the emperor wished that the maximum number of people should benefit from the sage. He ordered that a madressah be built for Abul Khair and a suitable residence be arranged for the scholar. A maintenance fee was also ordered by a firman for the upkeep of the house and the madressah. And so Abul Khair’s institution was founded. Today it exists, empty and derelict on one edge of a small graveyard at the end of a small lane as the road curves towards the main Garhi Shahu crossing.

Abul Khair kept teaching in his madressah till the age of 105, and on his death he was buried here, as were other well-known persons of that age. As the Mughal empire was folding and anarchy was slowly setting in scholarship and learning were no longer on a premium. Lahore was ruled by three Sikhs before Maharajah Ranjit Singh finally managed to bring order for 40 odd years. During this period anarchy reigned supreme, and the madressah was taken over by a khalifa by the name of Muhammad Naeem, who taught there. On his death there was a void.

But anarchy has rules of its own, and it knows how to fill in voids on its own accord, just like in our times ‘qabza groups’ make a mockery of the law. In a way very little has changed. The house and madressah that existed near the crossing of the present-day Garhi Shahu had many scoundrels with an eye on it. People started stealing bricks from the buildings of the madressah. Groups of dacoits set upon the students of the madressah and stripped them of their meagre belongings.

Then a real godfather by the name of Shahu came along with his gang of rustlers, and he took possession of the buildings meant to accommodate Abul Khair and his scholars. They would steal cattle and other things from the area and keep them there for safekeeping. If the owners came, for a small price they would return their goods. Otherwise, they would be sold.

This was the age when the three Sikh rulers were restricted to their small domains. In between there was no law. The gang of Shahu ruled supreme, and it was from him that the name Garhi Shahu came. The Sikhs called it by this name, and so did the British, and so do we, and there seems no reason why we should change its name just because Mr. Shahu was a shady character and lived a life very much like many a “respectable” citizen these days, and one does not say this in jest.

But the British changed the character of Garhi Shahu, for it was the hub of their entire effort to provide their forces and subjects with a means of communication that revolutionized life in a major way. Come to think of it, life is revolutionized by changes in the means of communication, like the internal combustion engine or the mobile telephone in own time. But who would have ever thought that an area that came up to accommodate a most learned man never kept his name, and a complete scoundrel managed to keep his name alive because he was a genuine ‘qabza group’ leader. Strange are the twists of fate that we see in Lahore, for every brick has a story to tell.

2 Comments so far

  1. B. P. Dass (unregistered) on July 21st, 2006 @ 5:02 am

    Mr. Raza:

    I am a native of Lahore. Your article about Garhi Shahu brought back many pleasnt memories.

    Your article was very interesting and iformative. You write well.

    Would you be able to write on :KILA GUJAR SINGH?

    Where was this “Kila?” Who was Gujar Singh. In my days of Lahore a number of railway workers lived there.

    If you would give some information on this matter it would be greatly appreciated.

    I must comment that your style of writing is precise and simple and the construction of sentences was not convoluted.

    Thank you once again for your very informative article on Garhi Shahu.

    Best regards.

  2. Raza (unregistered) on July 21st, 2006 @ 11:00 pm

    Thank you very much Mr. Dass. I will try to get some information for you on Qila Gujjar Singh. I know it has something to do with one of the 3 Sikhs who controlled areas around Lahore before Ranjit Singh finally took everything under his control.

    I am pleased that you like my posts. Just to clarify again, that article was not my own work but written by a journalist that I found on the internet and I just wanted to share it with the readers here.

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