As we entered the newly built gate to the famous Qissa Khwani Bazaar of Peshawar of the days of yore, I proudly told my young daughter, “This is the historic Qissa Khwani Bazaar.” But she was prompt to shatter my pride by referring to a gory bomb blast that had occurred just a few weeks ago there that she had earlier seen on TV. “Papa this is a dangerous place, please take me out of here. Let’s shop somewhere else,” she requested in a tone tinged with fear.
In fact, a decade or so ago, this was a prime tourist spot and the area was once thronged by swarms of people of all descriptions, but now fear, despondency and desolation is evident on the faces of its dwellers and shopkeepers. The bustling Qissa Khwani Bazaar — the storyteller’s market — once used to draw tourists as well as locals in large numbers as it offered a large variety of things from fresh flowers, dry fruit, bouquets, qehwa (green tea), glazed pottery to silver and brass coated handmade utensils. Peshawari handicrafts used to travel from here to Europe and the Gulf states.
The hangout of ancient Central Asians dealing in different things, Qissa Khwani acquired its name from local ‘storytellers’ who offered the unique entertainment of relating interesting tales drenched in romance and history about the lifestyle and culture of the local inhabitants to the en route traders. The caravans of travellers stayed in the walled city of the bazaar where Bara River ran through, storytelling coupled with music and dance provided a further boom to its fame.
When British soldiers came to Peshawar in 1849, the Qissa Khwani dwellers entered a new age; the crystal clear Bara stream was diverted. A mobile theatre and Bazaar-i-husn (red-light area) found its place near Qissa Khwani Bazaar. Interestingly, Peshawar’s Qissa Khwani has also served as the winter retreat for Afghan kings; the magnificent Afghan building (now Afghan Trade Centre) built in 1933, is still the property of the Afghan government. The wise, old Chinar Gul, who used to drive a tonga in the early ’50s and ’60s and now runs a rickshaw workshop in the city, is an eyewitness to numerous incidents that occurred in Qissa Khwani Bazaar.
“I was a teenager when the British soldiers opened fire in April 23, 1930 on peaceful protestors in the heart of the city and killed and injured many.” (A monument was raised at the place of firing in memory of the martyrs — Da Shaheedano Chowk). “As I was a child, I ducked among people to get a clear view of the dead; the gory incident still haunts me in my dreams.
“I used to ride a tonga from Qissa Khwani Bazaar to Saddar and charged only five paisa per passenger per ride. I have seen Yousaf Khan (Dilip Kumar) and Prithviraj (father of Raj Kapoor) the Indian film stars in the prime of their youth, whose birth abodes are located near Qissa Khwani.
“Celebrities most often visited this famous bazaar for its wonderful artisans’ works and colourful evenings,” Mr Gul recalls.
The thriving business of Peshawari handicrafts has already slumped due to militancy as only three shops dealing in glazed pottery and brass utensils out of 23 are surviving today. “In the early ’60s and ’70s, local and foreign visitors used to turn up in thousands every day, about 500 artisans and craftsmen around the city could hardly meet the demand by casual visitors for special Peshawar handicrafts,” Haji Khan Wali, 50, running a shop of bronze utensils in Qissa Khwani says. He said that Kashmiris had handed down this art to his forefathers some 200 years ago.
Mohammad Ibrahim Zia, 65, who has recently brought out a 600-page book in Urdu tilted Peshawar ke Fankar (artists of Peshawar) on the occasion of the completion of 100 years of Indian cinema has profiled about 150 actors hailing from Peshawar, including Agha Pir Jan (the first ever actor in silent movies from here), Master Gul Zaman, Akhtar Nawaz Khan, Tila Mohammad ‘tiger’, Gul Hameed Khan, Akbar Peshawari, Madhu Bala (Mumtaz Begum), Gulshan Ara Begum, Zibunisa Begum, Wazir Mohammad Khan and Hassan Khayyam (who later acted in 12 Hollywood films), Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan. They were the people who contributed immensely to Bollywood industry.
“There used to be a cinema called Imperial Theatre before partition in Qissa Khwani following the launch of talkies in 1925-26. Most actors from Peshawar valley were born artists, few got training in theatre. People from far and wide would come and enjoy these shows. In the ’70s Qissa Khwani Bazaar was the most favourite tourist spot for foreign visitors; there was perfect peace … There were numerous attractions around but now one can see only encroachments, dirt and dingy constructions and fear of bomb blasts. Who can expect foreign tourists to come to a place marred by dozens of blasts? Even locals feel scared. I remember the delightful evenings, political gatherings, rallies and celebrities streaming along its clear paths. The fame of Qissa Khwani is now fast fading away,” Mr Zia says with a deep sense of nostalgia.
Qissa Khwani has also served as a rendezvous for political gatherings as well as for the erudite scholars. Most political stalwarts have delivered their fiery speeches here on more than one occasion; like Baacha Khan (leader of the Khudai Khidmatgaar Tehreek), Allama Inayatullah Mashriqi, Maulana Abul A’la Maududi, Abdul Wali Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Z.A. Bukhari, Ahmed Nadim Qasmi, Khatir Ghaznavi, Ajmal Khattak, Abdullah Jan Maghmoom, Samandar Khan and Amir Hamza Khan Shinwari, all affiliated with Radio Pakistan Peshawar would get together at a Balakhana in Qissa Khwani Bazaar for literary and cultural debates. Local poets have romanticised the beauty of Qissa Khwani Bazaar in their verses and even a storyline for a Hindko film written in the ’70s, centred around the bazaar.
Rahim Khan, 70, summarised his thought thus: “Fresh flowers can still be seen around but they smell of explosives, fear reigns in its narrow lanes now which earlier used to be the abodes of peace and serenity. Qissa Khwani is still in the news, this time not because of its fame but because of the notoriety it has earned over the years. I don’t know how and why this storyteller’s place became a horrible story itself. I wonder whether Qissa Khwani would regain its past glory and fame!”