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The Lahori astrolabist

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Image from Archnet, Lahore collectionLahore is the city of Mughal heritage. Grand buildings with delicate landscaping express the story of a splendid era of building construction. Some chapters of this monumental architecture have been torn or distorted by subsequent rulers and others are slowly turning to ruin but still stand as a witness of Mughal grandeur, as these wonderful images from the architectural website Archnet demonstrate. Lahore contains three gems of Mughal architectural treasure: Lahore Fort, Jehangir’s tomb and Shalimar Gardens. The fort and gardens were declared Unesco World Heritage Sites in 1981.

Raza Rumi, a freelance writer from Pakistan, writes an evocative diary of Lahore at ‘Lahore Nama’ (he also writes regularly for the Pakistani weekly The Friday Times, The News and Daily Dawn).

“Mughal Empress Noor Jehan (d. 1645) was prophetic when she composed the epitaph for her own grave,” he writes. “It runs thus: ‘Pity us, for at our tomb no lamp shall light, no flowers seen/ No moth wings shall burn, no nightingales sing’. What she did not foresee was that a similar fate would befall the nearby tombs of her brother Asif Khan and husband Emperor Jehangir at Shahdara.”

Image from Archnet, Lahore collection“They too were laid to rest in the empress’s once delightful and sprawling Dilkusha Gardens across the Ravi river from the imperial Lahore Fort. The legendary Mughal couple so cherished Lahore that both chose it as their last abode. Little did they know that in times to come, an indifferent archaeology department would be made the custodian of their tombs.”

But there is an astonishing tale obscured in the Mughal history of Lahore. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in northwest India a Lahori family maintained a remarkable workshop that, through four generations, produced numerous well-made scientific instruments, in particular planispheric astrolabes and celestial globes.

Lahore, on the upper course of the Indus river, was then the capital of the Mughal province (or suba) of the same name, later called the Punjab. The activity of these metalworkers covered the reigns of the second through the ninth Mughal rulers of India, who spoke the vernacular Turki but maintained Persian as the official language of the court.

Islamicate celestial globe

Globe dated 1055 H/AD 1645-1646, by Diya-al-Din Muhammad of the Lahore workshop

“The earliest extant instrument by this family is an astrolabe made in 975 H/AD 1567-1568 by the apparent founder of the workshop, Allahdad. He called himself simply Ustadh Allahdad Asturlabi Lahuri, that is. Master-craftsman Allahdad, the Astrolabist from Lahore.’

“Three extant astrolabes were made by him, only one of which is dated. The name Allahdad is a compound of Allah (God) and dad (gift),” wrote Emilie Savage-Smith in her extraordinary research work, ‘Islamicate Celestial Globes: Their History, Construction, and Use’ (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1985).

“It is only from other members of the family—his grandsons and greatgrandsons—that further information about Allahdad can be gathered.”

“In the name as it is written by later family members, Shaykh Allahdad Asturlabi Humayuni Lahuri, it is likely that Humayuni was intended to indicate the fact that the founder of the workshop had lived at the time of Humayun, who ruled India from 1530 to 1556 as the son and successor of Babur, the Timurid conqueror who had come from Kabul in the Afghan mountains into the Indus plain to found the Mughal dynasty in India.”