This, the first comprehensive history and guidebook of Lahore, perhaps more than any other work summons what must have been the wonderous environment of late 19th century city, with its numerous masterpieces of Islamic architecture, lush gardens and some of the British Empire’s finest colonial edifices. The work is a pageant of imagery, with an amazing 105 full page illustrations of Lahore’s main buildings and sites, as well as its archaeological heritage. Authored by the esteemed Indian scholar and jurist Syad Muhammed Latif, the text provides a thorough, yet entertaining, description of the city, as it was and as it became in contemporary times. It stands out as one of the finest 19th century works on any Indian city, as well as one of the seminal pieces that epitomized the growing trend of Indian writers taking control of the narrative of their own country’s history, which had hitherto been dominated by European voices.
Latif in his ‘Preface’ notes before the publication of the present work, there was no comprehensive history written of Lahore in any language, nor a guidebook, even though numerous such works had been issued regarding the other great Indian historic cities, such as Delhi, Agra and Lucknow. The colonial civil servant T.H. Thornton had published A Brief Account of the History and Antiquities of Lahore (1873), and while of work of high quality, it was true to its description, in that its scope was far too limited to provide an adequate overview of the city and its heritage. Latif, a brilliant and well-connected scholar, with peerless access to archives and historical sites, dedicated a great deal of energy to creating the present work. His love of Lahore is captured in this passage:
“Although the capital of the Panjáb could never vie with the Imperial city of Delhi, the Rome of Asia, in the variety and profusion of ist ancient monumental remains, or with the city of Akbar (Akbarábad, or Agra) in the splendour of its architecture, it, nevertheless, possesses as many and as interesting historical sights and reminiscences as any other famous city in India; while no Indian city can boast of having been the seat of so many Imperial dynasties as Lahore. Its lofty houses, gilded minarets and bulb-like domes, visible from afar, give it an imposing appearance, while ist crowded streets, busy markets, and thriving industries, furnish internal evidence of great prosperity and successful progress.” (Preface, p. 1).
The ancient history of Lahore, verdant Punjab’s greatest city, remains murky, although the city was supposedly founded by Hindus, and its early period involved interactions with Buddhists, as well as the armies of Alexander the Great. It was subsequently one of the main cities of various Islamic states, including serving as the capital of the Ghaznavid Empire. Destroyed by the Mongols in 1241, the city gradually recovered until it was conquered by the Mughals in 1524. The Mughals favoured Lahore, which served as their capital from 1584 to 1598, and otherwise was frequently the residence of the emperor. The famous Lahore Fort, the powerbase of the city, was commenced in 1566 and subsequently expanded on many occasions. Lahore became graced with numerous of the finest examples of Mughal mosques, palaces, and monuments, as well as some of Asia’s most exquisite gardens. Its greatest days were probably under Shah Jahan, when the city grew enormously, fueled by unprecedented imperial patronage and economic growth. Lahore suffered a decline during the 18th century when after city was conquered by the Marathas. It enjoyed a new golden era, when from 1799 it served as the capital of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ‘Lion of the Punjab’s’ Sikh Empire. The British conquered Lahore in 1849, and greatly valued the city, constructing numerous grand public buildings and institutions.
Latif’s text explores the history of Lahore from its inception until the late 19th century, in fluid and easily-to-read prose, interspersed with Persian and Arabic quotations. The work is illustrated with 105 monochrome plates, based upon original sketches, that illustrate virtually all the important edifices and monuments of Lahore, including some of the world’s finest examples of Islamic and British colonial architecture, as well as great masterpieces of ancient art from archeological finds in the region. Following the Preface, the text is divided into 5 chapters.
Chapter I, ‘Historical’ (pp. 1 – 83), captivatingly narrates Lahore’s rich and exciting story.
Chapter II, ‘Descriptive (The Ancient Period)’ (pp. 84 – 250) describes the physical appearance of the city in ancient times, and vividly captures the setting during its Mughal heyday, and includes 51 illustrations. Chapter III, ‘Descriptive (The Modern Period)’ (pp. 251- 351) sets the scene during the British colonial period, with 33 images of its ‘modern buildings and institutions’. Chapter IV, ‘The Antiquities of Lahore’ (pp. 352-394) describes the greater region’s amazing archeological heritage and features 21 plates illustrating the magnificent ‘Buddist Sculptures’ found in the area.
Importantly, the work includes a large folding map (56 x 59.5 cm), ‘Sketch Map of Lahore and its Environs’, which, executed to scale of 880 feet to 1 inch, is one of the finest plans of the city made during the first half of the British colonial era. Printed after a manuscript drafted by a local cartographer, ‘Hossein’, the map shows the old walled city of Lahore, with its dense warren of streets, prominently featuring the fort, in the upper left, while the new city is built on the spacious plain to the north, south and east. Created amidst various Mughal monuments, the colonial city features broad thoroughfares, interspersed with gardens and parks, the map outlines the numerous massive complexes constructed during the Raj, including government buildings, cultural institutions, schools and hospitals, etc. One gains the impression that during the late 19th century Lahore must had been a wonderous place, before the explosive urbanization of the second half of the 20th century. That being said, the great majority of the edifices and sites portrayed in the present work survive to this today.
A Note on Rarity
Latif’s Lahore is very rare on the market. Although we can trace around a dozen institutional examples, we can find only a single sales record from the last 30 years, whereupon an example appeared at auction in 2019.
The present 1892 issue is the first edition and the only contemporary issue. The work remains of considerable interest and has been reprinted several times since 1981.
Syed Muhammad Latif: Prominent Popular Indian Historian
Syed Muhammad Latif (c. 1845 – 1902) was one of the most prominent Indian historians of the second half of the 19th Century, as well as a respected linguist and jurist. Born into a scholarly family in Delhi, he received stellar tutoring in Arabic and Farsi from an early age, and later mastered Hindi, Sanskrit, English and French.
Latif married a close relative of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817 – 1885), an eminent Islamic scholar, and the father of modern Muslim nationalism in India. Sir Syed became a mentor to Latif and assisted the progress of his career.
Having moved to Lahore, in the late 1860s, Latif became the editor and translator of the Punjabi newspaper. In 1868, he was appointed to the lucrative post of head translator of the Chief Court of the Punjab (which paid 100 silver rupees per month!). He was subsequently promoted to become a district and sessions judge.
Despite his heavy professional workload, Latif found the time to write. He first book was a work of poetry, the Dewan-e- Latif (1870), although he soon turned his energies towards the study of history.
Latif was able to solidly anchor his works due to his fluency in many languages, his superb knowledge of religious and academic texts, his contacts with leading librarians, as well as his privileged access to historical sites. His writing style was lucid and engaging, enlivened with intriguing vignettes and curious facts, making his books a pleasure to explore even for today’s readers.
In addition to the present title, Latif’s most famous works were History of the Panjab from the Remotest Antiquity to the Present Time (1889) and Agra Historical & Descriptive with an Account of Akbar and his Court and of the Modern City of Agra (1896).
In 1902, Latif was appointed to become senior judge of the Chief Court of the Punjab but, sadly, he died suddenly before he could take up his post. However, he left an estimable legacy, as his works remain popular, and have been reprinted on many occasions. He also epitomized the trend by which Indian scholars gradually reasserted control over the historical narrative of their own country after a period when Indian history was generally written by Europeans.
References: British Library: General Reference Collection 010057.k.8.; Victoria & Albert Museum (National Art Library): 4.C.72.