The fabled bazaar where epics and legends abounded

Published August 12, 2013
Kashmiri Bazaar as seen from Wazir Khan mosque.
Kashmiri Bazaar as seen from Wazir Khan mosque.

Every time I walk through Lahore’s Delhi Gate and head towards the now fast dilapidating mosque of Wazir Khan, I invariably think of the now long lost book shops inside the mosque and, more importantly, the few remaining book publishing concerns of the fabled Kashmiri Bazaar that starts from the mosque onwards.

Last week I visited the area with a foreign research historian working on the “role of students in the freedom movement in northern India”. In this, the role of Lahore remains paramount. The ancient book shops in the inner perimeter of the mosque fascinated her, for she had no idea of how old the book industry of Lahore was. In this piece let me dwell on the relatively recent past of Kashmiri Bazaar, and the great book and poster publishing concerns that once existed, as well as the few remaining old historic ones that have dwindled in size.

To understand the dynamics of this industry, let me present to you two pictures. One the early official records starting 1849, and, secondly, a glimpse of a single publication, the legendary story of Ranjha and Heer as told by several well-known writers and poets over the ages. This approach, though not perfect, I feel will give some perspective to an industry that has long been ignored by the people of Lahore, much that it is their own very loss. Probably the oldest book published in the old walled city was the poetry of Masood Saad Salman, who died in the year 1121 AD, born in Lahore and captured and made a slave by Afghan invader Mahmud of Ghazni. His poetry initially carried on word of mouth, but several different versions exist of what he wrote. Almost all of them are hand-written. I cannot pin down the location in Lahore where they were produced.

We know of the ‘janam sakhi’, the traditional biographies of Nanak (1469-1539), being produced in large numbers in Lahore. The location of these is mostly in the Lahori Gate area, where the industry initially existed.

By the time the mosque was completed in 1642 in the reign of Shah Jehan (1592-1666), the Kashmiri Bazaar was forming, though of much more importance in those days was the Kesara Bazaar – the Brass Bazaar. Slowly the publishing shops began to appear as the demand for cheaper hand-written books grew. The major leather-bound ‘qissas’ in exquisite calligraphy using floral decorated Lahori hand-made paper was a much sought after product by the camel trade caravans that congregated outside the mosque -- then a market square. Mosques invariably emerged where markets existed. In the square, ‘qissa khawans’ – story tellers – made good money, exactly on the lines as they did in the Kissakhawani Bazaar in Peshawar. It was a tradition that stretched across the Indian sub-continent and Central Asia – the mosque, the market square and the story-tellers. Specialist editions of the classics were produced and the caravans purchased them to sell in the markets of Central Asia, eventually ending up with Orientalists, and libraries and museums, in a Europe awakening from the Dark Ages.

As demand increased, publishing shops started opening along Kashmiri Bazaar, as did shops specialising in paper supply, paper floral decorators, calligraphists, book-binders and book sellers. The story of Lahori hand-made paper is a legendary and interesting one, for women in the ‘mohallahs’ manufactured the paper in their houses, with the pulp being made along the river Ravi. A few shops even sold paper pulp which the women purchased and converted into hand-made paper.

At this stage let us take a look at the most popular book hand-written and sold in Kashmiri Bazaar over the last 200 years -- the story of Heer and Ranjha as produced by different poets and writers and published by various publishers in Kashmiri Bazaar. We have the ‘Si Harfi’ series of Fazl Shah produced in 1886 by Chiragh Din Kutab Farosh, a 32-page publication. This ‘Si Harfi’ edition was also produced by Shaikh Ashraf of Kashmiri Bazaar in 1887, along with other stories. This shop still exists. A different version of Munshi Ghulam Hussain was published by Munshi Gulab Singh of Kashmiri Bazaar and was produced in 1891. In its days this had the largest print run of 2,000 books.

But an earlier version of this epic written by a poet named Hussain was published in 1873 by the Maktab Sultani of Kashmiri Bazaar titled ‘Heer Hussain’. His concern in the same year also published the ‘Heer Si Harfi Arora Rai’ with an amazing print run of 2,100. On this we will dwell later in this piece. By this time you might be wondering just where was the ‘Heer’ of Syed Waris Shah of Jandiala Sher Khan near Sheikhupura. This had been published by almost every publisher in Kashmiri Bazaar, and an amazing hand-written version prepared in the mosque of Wazir Khan was also produced which today lies in the Berlin Museum in Germany.

Among the publishers who printed and sold this classic were Haskal and Sons, Munshi Azizuddin Kutab Sarosh, Malik Din Muhammad Kutab Sarosh, Prem Singh Sachdio and Sons (who also produced it in Amritsar), Rai Sahib Munshi Gulab Singh Kutab Farosh and Malik Hera Tajar Kutab. All these concerns were major publishers in Kashmiri Bazaar.

The classic by the great Domadar Das Arora, a Rai of Jhang, who lived in the times of Akbar the Great and was a ‘patwari’ in the village of Heer. He claimed to have witnessed the real events, a claim most serious researcher tend to dismiss. His classic titled ‘Heer Domadar’ was produced first by the mosque shops, and much later in 1824 in the Sikh era in Kashmiri Bazaar by a ‘kutab farosh’ by the name of Maktab Kadimi, a small shop which still exists. Later on almost every publisher in this bazaar produced this version, and most Urdu Bazaar shops continue to print and sell this and the Waris Shah versions for supply to the Punjab rural market.

Just why is it important to research and write about Kashmiri Bazaar and its publishers? The answer is simple, for this represents the finest traditions of learning of the walled city of Lahore, a tradition that needs to be revived and carried to a new level. I do know of an effort by a Lahore-based NGO who are preparing to train poor women in producing hand-made paper along the lines of the old and legendary Lahori paper. This income-generating activity can breathe new economic and cultural life into an ancient city stifled by ruthless wholesale markets that have taken over 70 per cent of the old city’s housing for illegal commercial activities.

Will they once again produce a hand-written ‘Heer Domadar’ in an exquisite leather-bound version using Lahori hand-made paper, or for that matter the Waris Shah classic, or other epics that made this city great, or even such exclusive versions of Shah Hussain, Ustad Daman, Faiz and Iqbal, all of whom once roamed about in Kashmiri Bazaar looking for books? This only time will tell.



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