area of Garhi Shahu in Lahore has many a fond memories for me because I spent my
childhood running around in its winding streets.
Lahore, definitely has a rich historical past and when talking about
Garhi Shahu, one cannot forget but mention the railway station, or the Christian
community, or the Burt Hall, that wonderful dance club (Nautch Ghar) that no
longer functions. Then there are
also the Convent of Jesus and Mary, the Jamia Naimia Mosque, and the Taj and
Crown cinemas but surely there is much more to this place than we have ever
cared to explore.
Garhi Shahu reached its pinnacle of fame during the British period with the laying of the railway track. Initially, all the engine drivers were British for whose accommodation, the Raj laid out beautiful residential colonies near the railway station. Many of the spacious colonies still exist as reminders of favors bestowed upon its employees by the Raj. As the railways grew, the British then started hiring Indian Christians, mostly of Portuguese origin from Goa and soon Lahore became filled with DíSouzas, DíSylvas and Ferrairas, alongside the fairer skinned British origin names like Burtons, Brians, and Nibletts. The new recruits were also inducted into the railway police, and later on into the Punjab police, where they all served this city with distinction. During that time, the social and cultural environment of Garhi Shahu was markedly different from the rest of Lahore, making it a much sought after area.
Abul Khair taught in his madressah till the age of 105, and on his death, during the reign of Muhammad Shah, he was buried here. As the Mughal Empire was folding and anarchy was slowly settling in, scholarship and learning were no longer on a premium. Before Maharaja Ranjit Singh came to power in 1799 and finally managed to bring order for 40 odd years, Lahore was ruled by a triumvirate of Sikhs of dubious character for about 30 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 but on his death there was a void.
Then came a gangster by the name of Shahu, and along with his gang of rustlers, he took possession of the buildings meant to accommodate Abul Khair and his scholars. His gang went on a rampage, stealing cattle and other valuables from the area which they then hid in the madressah for safekeeping. If the owners demanded their possessions back, they would return them for a small price otherwise, they would sell their goods.
This was the age when Lehna Singh, Suba Singh, and Gujjar Singh (the three rulers of Lahore) 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 (Fortress of Shahu) came. Shahu died five years later and his men took control of the land. They did not have the same influence as Shahu did so the residents of mohallah Thathi Gagga, who had earlier taken shelter in Fata Shah, found an opportune time and managed to kick Shahu's men out and occupied the buildings for themselves. But Shahuís name forever remained attached to it and was never changed, even by the British.
The actual fortress building itself had a solid brick boundary wall with towers in all four corners. Portions of the original wall and the towers still exist, incorporated in walls of some of the houses. The entrance is through a large arched gateway to the north, which still exists, although the original door is long gone. Beside the western wall is the domed mosque with its tall minars. It is still known as Abul Khair's Mosque. Some of the original rooms, built for the students are still intact under the modern houses that have sprung up everywhere. Once all the land inside the fortress was built upon, people started building outside the boundary walls and so a number of havelis sprung up all around the original fortress. Then the British came and expanded it even further by laying out the Mayo Road (now renamed Allama Iqbal Road) and establishing residential colonies for the railway employees. Today, the area known as Garhi Shahu is much larger than the original fortress that was built for Abul Khair and then subsequently occupied by Shahu and his gang.