Many years ago I wrote a piece about ‘Paharis’ or Mounds of Lahore and was pleased with readers’ response, wherein it was suggested that I write something about old historical structures. A few days ago an old school chum mentioned ‘Khuni Burj’ in the old Multan Fort now known as ‘Qila Qasim Bagh’ and unwittingly provided me with ‘grist’ for this week’s story.

The word ‘Burj’ has two main connotations in Urdu Thesauruses – the first denotes a Constellation of stars and is frequently used by astrologers and horoscope makers. The second is an Arabic derivative and refers to the room at the top of a tower or fortified wall. It is the second ‘Burj’ that features in this narrative.

This ‘room at the top’ was normally octagonal or round in shape, but square and even rectangular structures have also been reported in Roman and Greek fortifications. The primary purpose of the burj was to enable long distance observation. This was necessary to spot an enemy from afar and warn the garrison of impending danger or conversely to issue an early warning of royal arrivals. The tower’s use however was not restricted to observation and early warning alone - it served as a royal bedchamber on account of its cool cross ventilation or a place from where the monarch could show himself to his subjects on special occasions. Some ‘burjs’ gained notoriety by becoming cells, where son kept father and vice versa as prisoners, while others became infamous for becoming execution chambers, from where fratricide and patricide was committed by flinging the victim to his death. The structure therefore, can perhaps be called a symbol of violence, romance and tragedy.

Take for example the ‘Khuni Burj’ at Multan. This part of the citadel wall is also referred to as the ‘Bloody Bastion’ by many, because of the blood that was spilt during many battles that were fought upon, below and around it. It was during the war between Mulraj and the British that the spot gained a notorious stature in history – a stature that endures to this day.

I first visited the place five decades ago and was bombarded with stories about how two ‘Sahib Log’ were cut up and thrown down the ramparts followed by similar reprisals, when the British entered the city victoriously, giving the bastion its name. It was later that I read the true version of the story in a series of historical writings authored by those who had taken part in the battle. The Political Assistant Patrick Van Agnew and Lieutenant Anderson were treacherously ambushed as they rode out of the fort after parleys with Mulraj, the Governor appointed by the Sikh Durbar in Lahore. The officers along with their depleted escort took refuge in a nearby garden having sustained multiple wounds. They were then set upon by the ‘rebels’ and hacked to their deaths.

In 1658, one of the greatest of Mughal Emperors Shahjehan fell ill, only to see his sons battle one another for the throne. The conflict for power was won by Aurangzeb, who incarcerated his father in a Burj at Agra Fort after declaring that he was incompetent to rule. The aged Mughal and creator of the Taj Mahal, breathed his last here in AD 1666 aged seventy four.

A popular punishment for rebel leaders or traitors during the Mughal era was to try them summarily and throw them from the ramparts or the burj, onto the ground below. There are instances in history, where the victim survived the fall and was borne up again to be thrown down a second time.

Burjs are not in any way confined to our part of the world, but can be found across the seven seas. The crenulated towers of European Castles or the four point towers of western outposts in US history are a variation of our Sub Continental landmark. One European Burj that lived up to its sinister reputation is the Tower of London, where the executioners axe decapitated many an Englishman for crimes of treason.

This is perhaps the reason that some burjs carry the reputation of being haunted by the ghosts of those that died violently here. I have been to many of these burjs and towers at home and abroad, but have yet to encounter something supernatural. Yet, somehow the word ‘Burj’ has a certain mystique surrounding it.