The meaning-making walkthrough of Shahi Hammam

Issue | 42

Project Name:  Conservation of the 17th Century Shahi Hammam

Implementing Organization:  Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan

Client:  Walled City of Lahore Authority

Design & Implementation Team:  AKCSP & WCLA


Mr. Masood Khan (Architecture, Planning and Conservation Consultant)

Mr. Rashid Makhdum (Consultant Architect)

Prof. Jagath Weerasinghe (Consultant, Murals Conservation)

Mr. Ahmed Ali Tariq  (Electric Consultant)

Mr. Ahmed Tariq Ashraf (Structural Consultant)

Mr. Suhail Ahmed (Public Health Consultant)

Covered Area:  1000 sq-meter

Project start & Completion:  July 2013 to June 2015

Walled City hosts many buildings, bazaars, monuments, public spaces and even squares of high cultural value due to its rich history of being the center for the Mughal Empire. The urban fabric rehabilitation and infrastructure up gradation of Shahi Guzargah began in 2007 by the Government of Punjab in association with World Bank. The walled city of Lahore Authority has been the force behind further projects of renewal and conservation since 2012 along with Agha Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP) as their technical support. AKCSP has won a number of prestigious awards and is widely recognized as premier organization in the field of cultural heritage in Pakistan.

Mughal era Shahi Hammam stands out in its urban fabric with its pre-colonial features inspired by Persian and Turkish influences. It was subjected to encroachments due to its central location in walled city of Lahore. The structure has gone through many changes especially it being reused over the years as boy’s primary school then it was converted into a girl’s vocational school. Later it was rehabilitated as a dispensary and as an office for government. It changed in space utilisation multiple times. The Shahi Hammam had gone under massive deterioration especially on its façade and interior. For this particular project, it is important to note the structure’s versatility for adaptability. As Heidegger suggests that buildings are the ethos of the people living in them, the Shahi Hamman resides in itself various tales from different times. According to the report by AKCSP, though the building was declared as a cultural asset in 1955 but the structure was severely altered to adapt to its countless uses over the years. The report also suggests that in 2005 Hammam was used as a restaurant and T.V set. It was decided in 2012 that instead of adaptive reuse it should be restored to its original form as bathhouse. The conservation process of excavation had led to the discovery of Hypocaust systems, which created its urgency for the site to be formed into a museum for public.

Ar. Masood khan explained during a conversation with the scribe; “the main objective was restoring the heritage value of the Hammam. The aim behind the venture was to present the historical identity to the public. It is fundamental to document and display the varied changes for inculcating a much more nuanced opinion about the usage of the building that could inform the body of knowledge and general awareness of the culture of the region as well”.

The Hammam has been a space of social significance whether it being a purpose built urban complex or a connection between halls and communal spaces or connecting the said to Masjid Wazir Khan and caravanserai. Its location as per AKCSP report was immensely vital and strategic just being inside the Delhi gate as it welcomed the weary travellers. It also gives a look into the everyday life of Walled City dwellers right under the shadow of royal fort. The Hammam also provided support to the Mosque by giving facilities of ablution and baths for Waddu. It can be noted without a doubt that the Hammam followed the Turkish-Persian bath concept not only as a functional space but it also provided a meditative purpose.

The writer arrived in the Walled city from Delhi gate. The Shahi Guzargah runs on the Northern side of the Hammam. The other side of Guzargah has shops that have been uplifted also as part of the contextual renewal, on the way towards Masjid Wazir Khan. Historically, the entrance was from the western façade, however, after the construction the entrance is now on the eastern façade. The eastern side also has a number of shops right in front of it, which can now be classified as spice bazar. In case of visitors for Hammam, the street in itself holds an experiential journey because of aroma of not only Turmeric, Cinnamon, Red chili but also of dried herbs, spicy jams and pickles. The street converges towards a shady Banyan tree with shops on either side. There was a usual hustle bustle of people around the shops and right before Ramadan, visitors were engaged in grocery shopping during the visit.  As one enters into the complex from the eastern façade, it leads into the courtyard sitting area with a big Banyan tree inside. The porous boundary wall gives a vivid sense of outside from the inside that informs the numerous considerations that the project consultants must have considered in creating an intensified connection with the context. The entrance courtyard leads one to a distant cafeteria and a souvenir shop with a volume of bricks (constructed gallery for display of 17th century drainage) right behind the Banyan tree. Adjacent to the entrance a step down takes one towards the ticket booth with a glass flooring that exposes the drainage system below. The project team had done a careful spatial analysis and interpretation of building spaces and form that had lead them to the conservation of the Hammam by using highest conservation standards in reuse design and construction methodology. According to AKSCP report the team has followed international conservation charters such as Venice Charter (1964), the Burra Charter (1979, 1999), the Nara Document on Authenticity (1994), The International Cultural Tourism Charter (1999) and The Charter on the Built Vernacular Heritage (1999).

The newly designed walkway heralds the visitor inside the Hammam from the eastern entrance. Least interventions is the core of the project that is noted throughout the journey into the Hammam. Also, most important is the fact that instead of musealisation of all the spaces, some areas such as previously used gathering points are converted into social interaction spaces by adding seating to view a running video regarding the history of the Hammam.  While the less important areas are contributing towards the proper management and maintenance of the museum site. The original and authentic historical features of the Hammam are displayed as the museum arte-facts for educational purposes throughout the intelligently designed walkway in the Hammam.

The water supply networks, drainage and extensive hypocaust system has been given due attention in the conservation process of the Hammam. They have been discovered in the process of excavation as indicated by Ar. Masoond Khan in his interview for this article. He also suggested that comparative studies for understanding the spatial layout of Hammam were also made in order to explore the features that may have been lost during the course of time.

The entrance leads into the massage hall which is now a transit towards the Great hall through which one can explore the public and social spaces of the 17th century Hammam,  that lead into the transitory space, which then culminates in to the massage hall (Tepidarium). The said, leads towards the hot bath and rub area (Caldarium) and also into the transitional spaces with glass floor standing on stilts exposing layers of construction. This leads to the then used public and social spaces (newly reconstructed) back into the southern courtyard.

Figure 2 Spatial analysis and interpretation of building spaces and form. Source AKCSP report on Conservation of Shahi Hammam

Throughout the walk one observes the Frescos (Ghalibkari) on some of the walls. As per AKCSP report a team of conservation specialists were trained by Fresco conservator Jagath Weersinghe. The team conserved the surviving wall paintings. The traditional Muqarnas were completed on certain domes by team of local experts.

The newly added features are to facilitate the visitor experience methodically. These features also aid and support the museum for its sustainability. A new drainage system, an underground viewing chamber has been constructed that displays a historic city drain, a 110 meter long elevated steel walkway, protective steel shed, internal and external electrification and illumination system, audio-visual equipment and ancillary structures to house visitor facilities. In case of usage of material the team has responded to the site very sensitively. The only new materials applied on the historical fabric were specialised paints in restoration of Frescos. New materials in terms of additions to the building were steel and glass. While certain areas of the Hammam’s reconstruction, traditional bricks and marble is used that is imported from India according to AKSCP report.

This project not only brings back artefacts of 17th century but contributes towards the visitors, researchers and academics a comprehensive time line of this area, be it design, technology, methods of construction or cultural miscellany. The project has won many international awards and is applauded by the surrounding communities and professionals.

Projects such as Shahi Hammam as a cultural arte-fact in the context of Walled City of Lahore is an intervention as a cultural and historical connectivity to the society.

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