There was a time before the Mughal emperor Akbar moved to Lahore, basically to fight Punjabi peasants up in arms against grueling land tenure taxes, when the south-eastern corner of the mud-walled city of Lahore was the dead end of the lane to Bazaar Chowk Chakkla.

If you enter Lohari Gate, surely the oldest of the ancient city, you reach a point where to the east juts out Mohallah Maullian. Opposite it is ‘Bhaitak Katiban’ where once lived Allama Iqbal. Not surprisingly it is next to ‘Koocha Kababian’ where also once worked Ustad Pedro, the bookseller. As you move eastwards you reach Chowk Chakkla, or the Prostitutes Crossing. Given the ‘pious’ times in which we live it is officially called ‘Chowk Bukhari’, though people in the walled city prefer to call it by its original name. Our interest in this piece is in the lane that moves eastwards, the bazaar now called Pappar Mandi.

Before the walled city was expanded outwardly on the eastern and western sides by Akbar, this lane was called Bazaar Chowk Chakkla. It took a northward turn when it reached the mud walls of the old walled city where today is the ‘ghati’ that runs to the west of Shahalami Bazaar. That rising can still be seen.

To the east of Shahalami Bazaar when Akbar arrived were open barren grounds known in old documents as ‘rarra maidan’. The old Bazaar Chowk Chakkla then thinned out to join a narrow ‘nullah’ next to the old walls running all the way on the inside. Outside the River Ravi flowed. This was the original prostitutes bazaar of old Lahore, which as the city expanded then moved to Tibbi Bazaar, or more correctly nearer the Lahore Fort, and in pragmatic terms nearer the power centre of the city.

Women and power have an amazing relationship, just as we see in Byzantine and in Roman times, both attract each other. No wonder it is called a ‘fatal attraction’. It was very much in this tradition that we have the story of one of the most powerful woman to have ever lived in Lahore. She went by the name of Mai Moran, or Moran Sarkar, though in common parlance she was called Moran Tuwaif, or Moran the Prostitute.

Before Maharajah Ranjit Singh came to power, he had known this exceptionally beautiful and highly cultured dancing girl who lived at Makhanpura on the Lahore-Amritsar Road. In British papers she is identified as a ‘nautch girl’ and she used to dance for the Sikh ruler at a place that came to be called ‘Pul Kanjari’. Here some comment on the word ‘kanjari’ for it is derived from the Persian word ‘kanchani’ which means “dipped in gold”.

During the later Anglo-Sikh wars this place was fiercely fought over, as again it was during the 1965 Pakistan-India war. The Indians out of respect to a former Sikh-era queen have recently renamed it ‘Pul Moran’.

So impressed was Maharajah Ranjit Singh by the beauty, skill and learning of Mai Moran, that he decided that once he had established himself as ruler of Lahore, he would marry her. And so it was that in 1802 he visited her in Amritsar and sought her hand in marriage. This angered the Sikh religious leaders of the Khalsa Panth. He was summoned to the Akal Takht at Amritsar and awarded the punishment of public flogging. For his love he accepted the punishment and was then flogged once and fined. He then took his bride to the River Ganges for a dip and then returned to Lahore in grand style.

His real queen, the queen of his heart, had arrived. To honour his father-in-law the Sikh ruler settled her entire family near Amritsar at a place called ‘Sharifpura’. It was in Lahore that the new queen constructed a house for herself in Bazaar Chowk Chakkla, and as the years passed she decided to ask the maharajah to get her a beautiful mosque constructed next to her house.

The Sikh ruler commission a small, yet beautiful, mosque in the Bazaar, which came to be known as ‘Masjid Moran Tuwaif’. This name remained even after the ‘chakkla’ had moved to Tibbi, and it was only recently that the authorities in Lahore decided to give the mosque the more ‘appropriate’ name of ‘Masjid Mai Moran’. So on both side of the line of hate, finally, this amazing woman was given the respectability that she surely deserved.

After the death of Maharajah Ranjit Singh the amazing Mai Moran moved from the Lahore Fort to her own house in Bazaar Chowk Chakkla, and there she became a very religious woman. In her lifetime her power over the ruler was such that a gold coin was struck on her name called ‘Moran da Sikka’, and hence the people of Lahore started calling her ‘Moran Sarkar’ for her name is what ruled the bazaars. In the turmoil for power after the death of her husband she spent most of her time and money trying to set up Persian and Punjabi language schools. She passed away probably in 1862 and was buried in the Miani Sahib Graveyard. Her grave location has been a mystery, with many a charlatan claiming to have found the grave.

But what about Bazaar Chowk Chakkla and how did it fare? With the new Tibbi Bazaar housing most of the population of Lahore’s dancers, singers, prostitutes and musicians, the old bazaar started to have new tenants. Initially those selling aphrodisiac formulas expanded to start selling herbs and medicinal plants. Many of these shops moved eastwards to the new Mochi Gate herb bazaar, while a lot of the ‘hakeems’ shifted westwards to Bazaar Hakeeman. In their place a lot of new condiment shops sprang up to cater to the Shahalami area. With time these shopkeepers grew in size.

Come 1947 and this area came to be called Pappar Mandi because of the increasing number of people in the ‘pappar’ business who worked there. The lawlessness of the trading classes then took hold and to move outside more freely they knocked down the walls of the old walled city and opened up a new gate which is now called ‘Gate Naya Bazaar’.

This is, in reality, the 14th gate of old Lahore, which runs over an ancient well that local legend claims, and I have my serious doubts, was where Ram’s son Loh, after whom Lahore is named, used to bathe. But these legends no longer matter to most, least of all to traders. Along the bazaar the house of Mai Moran and her beautiful mosque still stand, testimony to a very intelligent and beautiful woman who graced our city.

Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2016

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