The very words ‘Heera Mandi’ conjure up images of beautiful women, lively dancing, music, food and drink and carnal pleasures beyond the ordinary. Many imagine rich men enjoying themselves till their eyeballs dilated with pleasure. The ugly reality is surely the opposite.

Let us today examine the names, the places and the reality of Heera Mandi, so named by Maharajah Ranjit Singh after his favourite general, Heera Singh. The name ‘Shahi Mohallah’ simply means the royal precinct, named so because it was nearest to royal quarters in the Lahore Fort. It is the main bazaar of Taxali Gate where once the royal mint was located.

This is where the great Punjabi Sufi poet Shah Hussain lived in whose house in relatively recent time did live an equally great Punjabi poet, Ustad Daman. We all consider this to be centre of the prostitution trade only. Nothing could be further from the reality of it today.

The Taxali Gate was built from 1575-1585 when Akbar the Mughal emperor expanded the original Walled City while rebuilding Lahore Fort. To the west of Lahore, he built a straight wall without any gateway except at the northwestern tip, which was Taxali Gate. The straight wall was perceived to be the first wall of defence against invaders from Afghanistan and beyond.

The bazaar inside this gateway led straight to Tibbi Chowk, which in the ancient Walled City was the sole gateway at the northwestern tip. The word Tibbi is derived from ‘tibba’, meaning mound.

We must keep in mind that the western wall of the ancient Walled City ran to the east of the Bhati Gate Bazaar and even today you can notice a ‘ghatti’, or mound, running along the entire bazaar right up to Tehsil Bazaar. What the name of that lost gateway was is still a mystery.

It is very clear from the very geography of the place that this Shahi Mohallah did not exist before 1575, and the word ‘Taxali’ came about because Akbar built the royal mint, or Shahi Taxal as old documents name it, near this mound.

The original inhabitants of this place were in line with Akbar’s policy of relocating the fierce Rajput tribe that he managed to contain by battle, appeasement and a number of marriages into Rajput royalty.

For this very reason the first gateway at the southwestern tip of this western wall was Bhati Gate, named after the Bhat Rajputs who still inhabit the lands around Lahore, especially its western portions. Bhati is just one variation of this Bhat tribe.

Rajputs being the proud people that they remain preferred to live as far away from the Lahore Fort as possible, and according to one account filling up the northwestern area of the expanded Lahore proved a problem for Akbar. So, forest dwellers who had fled Mughal persecution were sought and the Rajput tribe of these forest dwellers who had converted to Islam were given large sums to actually take up housing in the new Lahore of Akbar. The Kangar sub-tribe moved into Taxali. As all property and land legally belonged to the ruler, this is understandable. Private property ownership was initiated, legally, after the British set about with their Punjab canal colonisation.

Lest you think they were in the prostitution trade from the beginning is incorrect. The very word Kangar is derived from the word ‘kanana chara’, a Sanskrit word meaning forest wanders. They were originally hunters and berry-pickers and very good at making clay toys and utensils. In fact, the first shops in Taxali Bazaar were clay utensil and toy shops.

This tribe claims their ancestors belonged to Rajasthan and they have descended from Manu Guru and his wife Nathiya Kanjarin, who was an acclaimed dancer.

The five clans of the Kangar sub-tribe are Kalad, Suprala, Diyal, Rachband and Patharkat. Amazingly these clans never intermarry, and those who converted to Islam were discarded, and to even talk to them, let alone touch, was considered a virtual sin and could be purified only by a dip in the Irawati (Ravi River), followed by a sweet offering.

In a way that rejection of the Kangar tribe still continues. With time these rejected people took to prostitution though dancing and singing was already a way of life for them when settled by Akbar in Taxali Bazaar. The ‘connect’ was not difficult. However, by the time emperor Shah Jehan ascended the throne a lot of people connected to royal activities, because of its proximity to the court, also settled here and soon children of the court were being educated and ‘cultured’ in the finer arts by people living here.

It was then that in the eastern portion of this bazaar, that now constitutes the Food Street of Fort Road, settled some of the most famous classical musicians of the subcontinent. A local legend has it that even the great Tansen once stayed in a house during a visit to Lahore. We all know that till the 1980s almost all the famous ‘gharanas’ of classical music had their best exponents living here. Most have now shifted to other areas of the city.

It was during the Sikh period that some of the leading Sikh military sardars built their havelis in or near this precinct, some of which still exist. The Sikhs were particularly fond of pleasures in all its forms. To meet these demands a whole new side to life emerged in the Shahi Mohallah. It was Maharajah Ranjit Singh who discarded the word ‘Shahi’ and renamed this place Heera Mandi after his favourite general, Heera Singh. Many connect ‘heera’ to its English translation ‘diamond’, now an innuendo for prostitution.

When the British took over in 1849 they recognised the utility, as Gen Montgomery so aptly described, of ‘essential horizontal pleasures for tired fighting gentlemen soldiers’. They presented a ‘googly’ by passing ‘appropriate’ regulations to control prostitution where a compulsory medical check for those registered was put in place. Those not registered were arrested and it is from this that flowed the practice of arresting ‘non-registered night workers’.

The law stated that a mujra and its ‘allied activity’ was a dance session and every mujra had to pay a small tax, which the police station of the area, the Tibbi Police Station, had to collect. Needless to say, they set in place a very efficient and ruthless ‘tax collection’ service.

With the existence of a large number of visitors, a lot of spicy and tasty food shops opened up. Even today shops like Phajja and other sweet rejuvenating milk shops exist with their brands expanding to other parts of Lahore. They have become part and parcel of our collective heritage. To the east, musical instrument manufacturing shops sprung up.

Come the Islamic era of Gen Ziaul Haq in 1979 and prostitution was banned. The result was that this ‘world’s oldest profession’ shifted to other more ‘respectable’ areas of Lahore. Instead of controlling and restricting them to one area, today almost every area has its fair sprinkling of local, and even foreign, prostitutes with fair faces like Russian and Chinese and darker ones like Nigerians competing with a variety of Pakistani prostitutes. The ‘kangar’ label has become irrelevant.

The Zia ban also led to the Taxali Bazaar emptying and soon newer trades moved in. At the moment, traditional khussa manufacturers work there. During the day, modern posh eateries and traditional food shops, khussa shops and musical instrument shops vie with flashy, and even expensive, clothes outlets. Within 400 years of its existence, the Taxali Bazaar has changed completely, naturally keeping in mind demands of the population and whims of the rulers.

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2016

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