A Visit to the Fakir Khana

Feb 2016

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Fakir Syed Saifuddin in his office, the lobby at the Fakir Khana Museum. | Photographer: Saman Tariq

What is Lahore?  There are people who see the city as the sum of its historical sites. Others see it as the composed of the people who live in it. I then ask: Who are these people? What are their stories? The qissa’s (stories) of Lahore are too numerous to recount. Often passed through oral traditions, they remain central to perceptions of what Lahore once was as opposed to what it is now. They cater to a particular imagination of the city. But, most of all, they cater to a view of history filtered through a people’s narrative. It is a view that remembers Lahore by evoking and cherishing the lives of those who have walked this city, men whose existence has been forgotten in the fabric of time.

As such, those who have visited the abode of the Fakirs, in the bustling Bazaar-e-Hakeeman inside Bhatti Gate, would know of the prestige that this family enjoys. The Fakirs have turned their home into a private museum, the Fakir Khana Museum, which counts itself as being among the largest in the world. The prestige they hold is not only a consequence of their inherited profession as hakims, or physicians; rather, it is also linked to their rich involvement in the history of Punjab, and Lahore in particular. Since their involvement dates back to the period of Mughal decline in the subcontinent, the family is known to have a special association with the city. 

The Fakir Khana Museum, curated and owned by Fakir Syed Saifuddin, is the single largest privately-owned museum in South Asia. But walk into it, and it does not look like a museum at all.


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When I entered, Saifuddin said: “This is a living museum. Not one where historical objects are locked behind sealed glass shelves. I live here. Everything in this space holds onto its history. I, too, am a part of this history.”

This was then, the beginning of my conversation with Mr. Saifuddin that turned a rather ordinary visit to the Fakir Khana that day into something much more than admiring his family collection of more than 20,000 historical artifacts. The visit was also a lesson in an untold history of Lahore–one I had never heard before. As Fakir Saifuddin claimed, “This history is a story about how the Muslims of Lahore called upon a Sikh leader, Ranjit Singh, to ‘save’them from the threat of foreign invaders. It is a story about how under this illiterate ruler who was blind from one eye, Lahore became a universe unto itself. It is also, at the same time, an insider’s account about the history of the Fakirs–how they rose to prominent positions and worked in the court of a Sikh ruler, serving him to the best of their abilities and helping in the development of the city of Lahore.”

Illustration of the Fakir family. | Photograher: Saman Tariq

Illustration of the Fakir family. | Photograher: Saman Tariq

Who were the Fakirs?

Fakir Syed Saifuddin hails directly from the Fakir family. Three members of this family, Fakir Nooruddin, Fakir Azizuddin, and Fakir Imamuddin were emissaries to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Fakir Syed Saifuddin belongs to the sixth generation of Fakirs who reside in Lahore. As one of the most respectable families in the city, the Fakir khandan is proud of its strong lineage; the shajra of Fakir Khana known as the “khandan-e-fukra-e-Lahoretraces its origin from Hazrat Jalaluddin Hussain Makhdoom Jahan Ghasht of Uch Sharif, down to Syed Hussain Pir Kamal of Chunia, and finally to Fakir Syed Ghulam Mohiuddin ‘Nausha-e-Sani’of Lahore, the real founder of the Fakir Family. It ends up with Fakir Syed Nooruddin, his son, from whom the present family of Fakirs derive their decent.

As Mr. Saifuddin reveals, the Fakir family was one of the oldest Syed (Bukhari) families who settled in Lahore in the years close to 1730. Here, they established a publishing house and began rewriting, illustrating, publishing, and selling books throughout the entire subcontinent. By approximately 1780, the Fakirs were in possession of more than 10,000 books that marked not just their passion for gathering and preserving texts, but also the beginnings of a huge collection of works out of which about 1800 books are still to be found in the Fakir Khana Museum. During their stay in Lahore, one of Mr. Saifuddin’s ancestors, Ghulam Shah, established a deep association with Hakim Abdullah Ansari. After Ghulam Shah’s death at an early age, his son, Ghulam Mohiuddin, was adopted and counseled by Hakim Abdullah Ansari who transferred the knowledge of his hikmat onto him. Ghulam Mohiuddin travelled and developed an affiliation with a sufi named Fakir Imanat Shah Qadri. As his murshid (disciple) the title of the ‘Fakir’eventually passed onto him and has ever since been the family name.

Fakir Ghulam Mohiuddin’s three sons, Azizuddin, Imamuddin, and Nooruddin, grew up during a turbulent period in Lahore’s history. As Saifuddin narrated: “Us zamane mein Lahore ka koi pursaaney haal na tha(Those were terrible times in Lahore.) He argued that being furthest from the center of Mughal administration, Lahore had been susceptible to frequent invasions by Afghans who left behind ineffective rulers. “It was during this period that about 12 Sikh Misls (tribes) raised their armies and established a stronghold over Punjab. Thus, Lahore fell into the hands of the Bhangi Misl. in the middle of the 1730’s and was divided into three parts ruled by Gujar Singh Bhangi, Sobha Singh Bhangi and Lehna Singh,”he said.

The Bhangi Misl was dominant all over Lahore and their ill-rule was based on absurd taxes and religious and social restrictions that caused the people of Lahore to become discontented. The need of the time was to have a savior who would help curtail the threat of the Afghans and the Bhangis.  As Saifuddin pointed out, this savior came in the guise of Ranjit Singh, a young chieftain of the Sukerchukia clan, who was ‘invited’by the Muslims of Lahore to rescue them from the miserable rule of both the Afghans and the Bhangis. A letter of invitation was signed by 18 different families of Lahore, following which Ranjit Singh captured Lahore from the Bhangi Misl and, later, made it his capital. This was the first important step in his rise to power. In the following years he brought the whole of central Punjab, from the Sutlej to the Jhelum, under his sway.


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But, how did the Fakirs become acquainted with Ranjit Singh? People living inside the Bhatti Gate tell a story that has elements of legend and myth. And yet, the story is significant to the extent that it allows an insight into the way in which this family’s history is locally consumed and interpreted. According to a local salesman, “After the conquest of Lahore, one day Ranjit Singh wandered away from his men towards a tower on the side of the River Ravi.  Peering into the darkness before entering he was taken aback when he saw the form of a tiger. He turned to walk away, but heard a voice calling him from inside: ‘Ranjit Singh do not be frightened, come in.’ Upon entering the tower, he found himself in the presence of a frail, white-bearded old man who told him that he would soon establish an independent kingdom of Punjab.”

According to the shopkeeper, to whom I spoke, Ranjit Singh was given several instructions by the old man. One of these instructions was to befriend Syed Ghulam Mohiuddin of Lahore, a man who had been appointed a spiritual guardian of the new state, and whose sons would serve it well.

In his conversation too, Fakir Saifuddin derives a great sense of pride in his family’s service to the Maharaja.

As he pointed out, “Faqir Azizuddin was the most respectable figure in Ranjit Singh’s court.” According to him, though Fakir Azizuddin was in charge of foreign affairs, the Maharaja consulted him in all matters concerning the state and never undertook any decision without his consent. Fakir Azizuddin was also in charge of the Maharaja’s relations with the British. In the Maharaja’s absence, he took charge of defense and general administration. Fakir Nuruddin was the Maharaja’s home minister as well as the royal physician and custodian of the key to the royal treasury. He commanded Ranjit Singh’s arsenal at the Lahore Fort. Aside from this, he was also responsible for commissioning arts all over India. As a result, the period of Sikh rule witnessed a flourishing of art. Fakir Imamuddin, on the other hand, was the custodian of the fort in Amritsar. The three Fakirs were, without doubt, the Maharaja’s most loyal men. A large part of the collection in the Fakir Khana Museum consists of gifts given to the Fakirs by Ranjit Singh.


An old Quran in the Fakir Khana Museum. | Photographer: Saman Tariq

Even today, generations of Fakirs living in post-partition Lahore, including Fakir Saifuddin, look up to the figure of the deceased Maharaja and held him in high esteem. The greatest description of their loyalty surfaces in the books they have authored in praise of this rather forgotten figure in Muslim history. Two of the well-known works are The Real Ranjit Singh by Fakir Syed Waheeduddin and The Resourceful Fakirs by Fakir Syed Aijazuddin. Fakir Saifuddin mentioned that he was also in the process of writing a book. These works are an attempt to rectify gaps in history-writing that overlook the narrative of the Fakirs and present an alternative history of Lahore under Sikh rule. However, writing books is not the only means sought by the Fakir family in documenting their past. They are also deeply invested in a tradition of storytelling, which happened to be the most interesting part of my conversation with Mr. Saifuddin.  The stories that he told are framed around incidents during Ranjit Singh’s life witnessed by the Fakirs themselves. In narrating these stories the Fakirs not only reinforce their significance but also reconstruct the rather tarnished image of Ranjit Singh to whom, according to Fakir Saifuddin, history has been unjust: “Tareekh ne bohat ziyadati ki.” 

Compelling Stories 

Fakir Saifuddin narrated that, one day, Ranjit Singh was on the balcony of the Sheesh Mahal when he saw a bull cart passing by the Lahore Fort. Upon inquiry, he was told that a calligraphist was carrying the Holy Quran to Sindh. The calligraphist was called upon by Ranjit Singh. Faqir Azizuddin read a portion of the Qur’an to him, and translated it into Punjabi, after which Ranjit Singh purchased the Qur’an from the calligraphist and made it a part of his private collection.

Later, Faqir Azizuddin asked him why he had paid the price for the book upon which Ranjit Singh replied: “God intended me to look upon all religions with one eye, that is why he took away the light from the other.”


A rare miniature painted on fine ivory at the Fakir Khana Museum. | Photographer: Saman Tariq

Another anecdote narrated by Mr. Saifuddin dates back to 1831 when Lord William Bentick requested to meet with Ranjit Singh. The British were interested in securing Sindh for themselves and wanted to prevent Ranjit Singh from preempting them. During this visit, Lord William Bentick asked Faqir Azizuddin why one of the Maharaja’s eyes was closed. Azizuddin replied that he had heard from his ancestors and read in the Shastras that the sun had one eye, for if the sun had two eyes, it would burn the world. When asked which of the Maharaja’s eyes was without light, he replied: “The glory on my Majesty’s face is such that I have never looked at it closely enough to know.” According to Saifuddin, upon hearing this reply, the British Governor General gifted a watch to Fakir Azizuddin as a token of appreciation for his loyalty towards the Maharaja. The watch is still in possession of the Fakir family and constitutes an important part of the Fakir Khana Museum’s private collection.

One is, however, left astounded when Saifuddin reveals that the Badshahi Mosque was never intended to be made, and all those red tiles were instead meant for Dara Shikoh to create a path straight from the court to the shrine of Mian Mir. He also rejects the view that the Badshahi Mosque was turned into a stable during Ranjit Singh’s time. To many people, it may be hard to believe his version of history, but it is fair enough when he argues that “There are layers of meaning to every historical piece and every historical monument.”

The Fakirs are not only proud of being able to preserve and maintain their collection; they are also proud of being able to preserve the stories attached to each relic that they possess. “These stories give us a sense of history that is far richer in content and context as opposed to official histories,”said Saifuddin. From miniatures painted with a single strand of hair on ivory, to needle sketches, to ancient manuscripts and Qur’anic texts, Fakir Khana is an impressive and eclectic collection of relics that demonstrate a diversity of the people that once peopled Lahore, all from different religions, ethnicities and ideologies. These artifacts do not only remind the Fakirs of their past days of glory–they are a testament to their involvement in history itself.

Injustices of history writing

Aside from tracing his family’s own past, Fakir Saifuddin’s version of history underscores a conscious attempt to break through national narratives that seek to produce a moderated version of the Sikh period in Lahore. The actualities of history are of course debatable but it is important to bear in mind that the only past that is ever made available to people is one that is strictly scrutinized and censored, and often reduced to mere dates and important events. No wonder, then, that anyone would be surprised to come across a different view of Lahore like the one endorsed by the Fakirs.


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The period of Sikh rule in Punjab corresponds to a significant chapter in Lahore’s history, albeit one that has been (mis)represented within nationalist historiography. At the risk of stating the obvious, the figure of Ranjit Singh is relegated to the footnotes of almost all historical accounts. An oft-repeated story about this man limits itself to describing him as someone who converted the Badshahi Mosque into a stable following the Sikh invasion of Lahore in 1799. Ranjit Singh is also notorious for stripping Lahore’s glorious monuments of almost all the gilded ornaments and jewels and having them transferred to Amritsar. It is believed that the most affected monument was the Sheesh Mahal–its mirrors were removed and later used to decorate the Golden Temple. This is, then, the nationalist version of history, in which Ranjit Singh’s life is reduced to a story of loot and plunder. Such an impression of Ranjit Singh also comes at the cost of distorting an image of what Lahore had been like under his rule.

7 copy“It is this distortion that is so tragic, for Ranjit Singh and Lahore cannot be and should not be contained within a version of history that speaks only of violence,”says Mr. Saifuddin.

He began his side of the story by arguing that it was never an ‘invasion’that brought Lahore under Ranjit Singh’s rule.

“In the wake of a declining Mughal empire, Ranjit Singh’s entry into Lahore was not a moment to be mourned but a blessing in disguise,”he argued. This is where nationalist versions of history clash with the perspective of the Fakirs. The tension between these two versions of history is a symptom of the kind of nationalism fostered in Pakistan: a nationalism that  filters history through the prism of religion. Our history textbooks endorse the good deeds of Muslim rulers and downplay the role of others. There is a clear agenda underlying representations of the past found in textbooks.

This is, then, one of the reasons why listening to stories of people like the Fakirs and visiting places like the Fakir Khana becomes valuable because here one becomes aware of what can be thought of as local rather than national history. This history, mediated through artifacts and stories, seeks to bridge large gaps in accounts about Lahore. For instance, one not only learns who the Fakirs were, and how they fit into the history of this city; we are also made to think of alternative narratives according to which Ranjit Singh could never have looted Lahore because he was a Punjabi at heart: “Punjab was his home. It was his pride,”said Saifuddin.

Saifuddin sees his stories as significant for today’s generation because, as he puts it,“It was during the period of Ranjit Singh’s rule that Punjab was unified for the first time. The man never had a coin minted in his own name. From him we can learn how to run a commonwealth and even what it means to run a secular state.”

While the issue of secularism is debatable and far more complicated, the Fakirs see the period of Sikh rule as a moment of great stability and solidarity in Lahore. Visitors to the Fakir Khana today are not just given a mere tour of the museum, Fakir Saifuddin provides them with the history of the museum and does so through stories he relates with great enthusiasm.

Perhaps the most important question that arises after having heard Fakir Saifuddin is the rather tricky question of truth itself. In the field of history, truth remains a contentious term, especially when there are a range of voices, each which claim to be credible. It can be argued that there are various truths to a particular facet of history. Fakir Saifuddin explores only one possible truth about the history of Lahore, leaving it up to his listeners to judge for themselves what they may think of as their truth.

The Fakir Khana museum is an unusual museum because here, according to Saifuddin, history becomes a lived experience.“I am a part of this history,”he said. The stories attached to each object in the Fakir Khana give the family, including Saifuddin, a sense of being so distant and yet so close to their past. For visitors on the other hand, the nostalgia is not the same; most people have no idea about the history of the Fakir Khana to begin with and often they are taken aback by the stories they hear. Yet, a conversation with Syed Saifuddin, I believe, is worth its own merit. Not only is he a man with an electric personality, he knows how to make his viewers question how their sense of the past is constructed. His lively manner and the stories he tells both amuse and inspire his listeners, while suggesting that Lahore yet has to be ‘discovered.’But, most of all, regarding the question I began with, “What is Lahore?” they emphasize that there is more than one way in which Lahore can be imagined and continues to be imagined by some people. These stories about the Fakirs, presented to the listener as one of the many qissa’s of Lahore interact with our imaginations in different ways, evoking the multilayered and diverse nature of this city.

Saman Tariq Malik is a student at LUMS, pursuing a major in English along with a minor in History. 

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29 Responses to A Visit to the Fakir Khana

  1. Ifrah Waqar on Mar 2016 at 9:32 AM

    An excellent article on the contributions of the Fakirs to the city, Lahore. Beautifully penned down

  2. Fatima Zahid Hussain on Mar 2016 at 11:32 AM

    This is great Saman meri jaan! You really nailed it MashAllah. Once again I look forward to reading more of your work and getting in touch with you.

    • Faqir syed Wajieh ud din on Mar 2016 at 2:54 PM

      Dear. Kindly be noted that Faqir saif uddin is curator and Secretary of the Faqir khana museum not the owner ,j It is run under the Faqir khana trust , from major General (R) Fakir sabih uddin bukhari.

  3. MUSTAFA IMRAN on Mar 2016 at 1:09 PM


  4. Shahid Ahnad on Mar 2016 at 1:43 PM

    Saman, I am impressed!

  5. bushra ahmad on Mar 2016 at 2:12 PM

    A great article, beautifully written. Well done Saman. Proud of you.

  6. Mahnoor Amir on Mar 2016 at 3:25 AM

    saman I am so proud of you. its such a great piece. being a history student I can tell you the potential of tthis article;you have made a very powerful point about how some people are written out of history so conveniently. I remember you told me a couplee of months back about that history textbook issue you were interested in.I saw your interest surface here too. its a very movimg piece

  7. Arif Ilahi on Mar 2016 at 4:30 AM

    reading a well written article after a while. thankyou tanqeed and saman

  8. Shabbir Ahmad on Mar 2016 at 1:57 PM

    Saman I am so proud of you. This is too too good. A highly recommended article. Has much scope for future history scholarship. her previous article was a hit on Tanqeed. Keep it up Saman.

  9. Lisa Prassack on Mar 2016 at 1:23 PM

    That’s a captivating article. Few history articles are well written.

  10. Noor Khan on Mar 2016 at 1:25 PM

    Saman this is amazing. You really write so well. I wish you could help in my college essays too.

  11. Hafsa Khan on Mar 2016 at 12:27 PM

    Hey! Thought this was a great article. Love how its not a random reflection on a place. What is Lahore? ‘But, most of all, regarding the question I began with, “What is Lahore?” they emphasize that there is more than one way in which Lahore can be imagined and continues to be imagined by some people. These stories about the Fakirs, presented to the listener as one of the many qissa’s of Lahore interact with our imaginations in different ways, evoking the multilayered and diverse nature of this city.’ Beautiful lines

  12. Maha Ibrahim on Mar 2016 at 12:57 PM


  13. Maliha Sheikh on Mar 2016 at 11:23 AM

    SAMMANNNNNNN this is a mindblowing article. What makes it so appealing is how you frame your point that there is a need to look into other stories of Lahore’s past. The Sikh period is indeed important, I am glad you brought that out as well as the problems in history educational texts. Its all so wonderful. I am sure Faqir Saifuddin would be so happy. This article needs to be published also in the Lahore Nama. i see some one is in the making of becoming a great writer. BEST WISHES AND LOTS AND LOTS OF LOVE.

  14. Nauman Yasin on Mar 2016 at 11:29 AM

    There you go a great great piece by a brilliant and beautiful friend. Too happy for you Saman. MashAllah hai

  15. Mehru Asad on Mar 2016 at 1:16 PM

    Saman I am impressed. This was so well explained in such a simple and eloquent manner. I am recommending this to all. Worth a read!!

  16. Ali Jaffery on Mar 2016 at 1:22 PM

    She is one of the most popular girls in LUMS. A decent, sweet and well turned out girl. No guy could ask for more. She is intelligent too. Think the essay she has written is too good!! Very original

  17. Muhammad Farid Ahmed on Mar 2016 at 4:03 AM

    Very nice. The caliber of this essay wasn’t a surprise at all, given that its written by a genius like saman (aka Samantha). Happy to know that your magazine has someone like her to pitch in some ideas that are out of the way. She is excellent at that. For those who haven’t read her previous articles check them out: http://www.tanqeed.org/2015/08/karachi-on-canvas-art-review/

  18. Asad Rana on Mar 2016 at 3:26 AM

    She is as gorgeous as she is intelligent and brainy. Perfect article

  19. Abid Mohsin on Mar 2016 at 8:54 AM

    “In the wake of a declining Mughal empire, Ranjit Singh’s entry into Lahore was not a moment to be mourned but a blessing in disguise,”he argued. This is where nationalist versions of history clash with the perspective of the Fakirs. The tension between these two versions of history is a symptom of the kind of nationalism fostered in Pakistan: a nationalism that filters history through the prism of religion. Our history textbooks endorse the good deeds of Muslim rulers and downplay the role of others. There is a clear agenda underlying representations of the past found in textbooks”. SHE HAS REALLY MADE A THOUGHTFUL POINT THERE. GOOD ONE.

  20. Rehma Khairi on Apr 2016 at 10:23 AM

    She is a fabulous writer. I have read a couple of her essays and each one is mindbowing. She also has a charming personality, atleast from what I remember when I met her. Very graceful and soft spoken

  21. Shazad Baqar on Apr 2016 at 10:25 AM

    She is a fabulous writer. I have read a couple of her essays and each one is mindbowing. She also has a charming personality, atleast from what I remember when I met her. Very graceful and soft spoken

  22. Ameel Khan on Apr 2016 at 6:15 PM

    A relevant article to regional Punjab histories . Worth a read. Saman’s a literature student at heart, but her flair for history is remarkable. Never came across someone so down to earth. A friend of mine who is her class fellow in a literature course says she is so brilliant that the instructor has her read and check drafts of essays that people write. In my friend’s words “she is a saviour and role model”.

  23. Naima J on Apr 2016 at 5:02 AM

    Wow Saman. This is so nicely written. The insight is original. For as long as I have known her at LUMS, I have only heard so many good things. People say shes beautiful, shes outspoken shes also every guys dream (whatever thats suppose to mean. Maybe yeh such hi hai). But mere liye Saman has been a constant support academically. Its true shes very pretty. But more than that she is Brilliant and that briliance speaks for itself when she speaks in our class. Its like you are listening to leader. Its that good. She steers the class discussions in ways that perhaps leave her instructor dumbfounded too. Its the way we have all gone to her at odd times asking her to read our papers, tell us what to write, how to write. And she has always been there. Lover her for the person she is. wish I could someday be like her.

  24. Umar Ghauri on Apr 2016 at 4:10 AM

    Its true she is one of the most intelligent girl in her English batch. Saman’s interest in literature has lingered on the side of South Asian and postcolonial Pakistani fiction. She is a history student as well and equally good in that. I have not known her for that long but as it goes and the way a friend of mine puts it ‘she is a gem of a person’. KIYA BAAATT HAII JANAAB KI!!! Yes, as others have been eager to point out, she is very beautiful. But this beauty is complimented by her simplicity, intelligence and strong personality that speaks for itself.

  25. Suneel Munj on Apr 2016 at 4:39 PM

    beautiful piece. Superbly written with the right amount of emphasis where needed. Within mainstream history syllabi we dont see the mention of Fakir Khana at all. This piece puts light on that factor- on how are syllabi needs change to incorporate left out histories.

    I have always, always admired the author. Its when she walks and talks it takes my breath away. Its her personality that is captivating, You can talk to her for hours. As we graduate from different departments at LUMS I wish her all happiness in life.

  26. Malik Anas Awan on Apr 2017 at 10:49 AM

    Amazing article..!
    let me know the location of this amazing museum and also the contact information of owner ,if possible ….!if not then make it possible….!

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