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Any Lahori worth his salt … and pepper … would know about the Food Street on Gowalmandi’s main bazaar. Besides the ups and downs of this venture, the history of this place is fascinating, and let it be said not often narrated.

Last week a well-known TV and theatre person contacted me to learn more about one aspect of life in Gowalmandi. It occurred to me why not write about this place in some detail. My first contact with the place was as a schoolchild when my father made me cycle there to buy fish and kebabs for his friends, mostly musicians and poets and virtually the ‘Who’s Who’ of literary Lahore.

It was almost a daily occurrence, so much so that given the instructions I repeated to the shopkeeper, they would, fairly accurately, guess who the guests were. But then Lahore was a much smaller city where everyone knew something about everyone.

After the old man passed away and I joined his newspaper, the late journalist, Muhammad Idress, would literally force me to accompany him for fish at Sardar’s in Gowalmandi Chowk. So my love affair with food and its details has been a lifelong pastime. But let us travel back almost 800 years to the once open flat plains outside the once-walled city and the ruler Qutabuddin Aibak (1150-1210), the founder of the Mamluk Dynasty, playing polo there. Where he lies buried, after a polo fall, near the Anarkali Bazaar, on Aibak Road, was one end of a vast grassy plain stretching from Gowalmandi to the Lohari Gate. Mind you in those days Shahalami Gate and Mochi Gate did not exist. So through what is today Gowalmandi ran the road towards Mozang and the ancient village of Ichara.

Over time small huts appeared and by the time Emperor Aurangzeb died in 1707 this was where a few Muslim rich had built a few houses. As Sikh power rose before the rise of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the marauding Sikh ‘misls’ started raiding this place and very soon it was completely vacated.

Once Ranjit Singh came to power he had undertaken a major invasion of Kashmir. This is when the ‘gujjars’ living on the foothills of Kashmir moved to Lahore with their cattle herds and set up a market. Hence the name ‘Gowalmandi’ came about. With time it became the largest in the Punjab.

But there were two major problems concerning this place. One was that almost all the cattle rustlers of the Punjab rushed their stolen cows and buffaloes to sell at this place. This gave rise to the need for larger cattle pens, and within this problem rose the gangs who fought over land for larger pens. So stolen cattle and gangsters were the hallmarks of Gowalmandi.

Let me make clear that there were other very positive elements to life in Gowalmandi, the most interesting being that the literacy rate was higher than other parts of Lahore. Immigrants all over the world tend to concentrate on educating their young. At one point in the Sikh era, so claims Khushwant Singh in his description, the Lahore Darbar Army was sent in to tackle warring gangs. So the culture of the place very much was influenced by the initial pastimes of its pastoral inhabitants.

Once the British came in 1849 peace returned to the land and very soon there was an abundance of meat and milk. Gowalmandi had already excelled in manufacturing by-products of these two basic materials. Kashmiri cuisine was beginning to critically influence the Lahore of old in no small a manner, which was till then, in the cuisine sense, a fairly normal north Indian city, mostly vegetarian but with pockets of meat-based shops.

Interestingly, as the British cracked down on Sikhs around Amritsar, there was a major influx of Sikhs, and it were these immigrants who introduced to Gowalmandi spicy battered fish using gram flour (basin). A lot of Hindus of Lahore, who were in a majority then, took to this non-red meat delicacy and soon almost everybody, save a few Hindu puritan sects, patronised this delicacy. The milk shops also started producing the finest sweets and soon a few Gowalmandi inhabitants grew fairly rich.

But then as the British authorities cracked down on thugs and cattle rustling, so it seems by reports in old British-era Gazetteers, the solution lay in formally urbanising the place with the presence of a very powerful police force as a deterrent. These are very much in place even today. Then came the 1947 Partition and suddenly the first major inflow into Lahore were the Kashmiri Muslims of Amritsar, who had originally emigrated from Kashmir after the Sikh invasion of 1819 under Hari Singh Nalwa.

During the 1819 invasion of Kashmir, the then ruler of Rajouri, Agar Khan, fought a battle at Shopian just before Srinagar. Amazingly, the Sikhs found the Kashmiris very determined and considerably skilled in fighting resulting in a lot of losses to both sides. But Nalwa prevailed and hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris fled to Punjab, especially to Amritsar. So in 1947 Gowalmandi experienced a major influx of Amritsari Kashmiris.

After 1947 as the area became more prosperous we see the emergence of major business houses, the most famous today is the Sharif family who then lived on Fleming Road which juts out of Gowalmandi Chowk. Their iron works did well and they soon moved out to Kot Lakpat.

The same was the case of other concerns, especially food and sweet shops that expanded. But then as the Kashmiri population took to politics major rivalries emerged. This saw the return of gang warfare and with the creation of the Food Street a new rivalry emerged. Two major political families fought out lethal street battles, followed by a string of killings. The recent elections have further brought a new tension to the area.

But if we look back at what have the Kashmiris contributed to the culinary life of Lahore we have amazing fish, harissa and delightful ‘amrati’ sweets as well as milk-based delights. Often forgotten are the ‘kulcha’, ‘roghani-naans’ and ‘khatais’ that they excelled in. A lot of the barbeque varieties of chicken and mutton and stringed beef kebabs all have their origin in the Kashmiri families that originally inhabited Gowalmandi.

But then we also have a lot of medicine clinics with the famous Amritdhara Building in Gowalmandi Chowk being the origin of this herbal medicine brand. Sadly, after 1947 the owners moved to India where today it is a major industrial concern.

The reputation of Gowalmandi precedes it, and for all the wrong reasons. We forget the excellent schools and colleges, not to forget classical music houses. The ‘pehlwans’ of this place still excel as do their sportsmen. It is an important ‘sub-culture’ of old Lahore and one that needs much more research.

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2018