Post-Partition Lahore emerged as Pakistan socio-cultural hub, but it lost something along the way

Published August 13, 2018
Badshahi Mosque with the Gurdwara Dera Sahib in the background.—Jahanzeb Hussain
Badshahi Mosque with the Gurdwara Dera Sahib in the background.—Jahanzeb Hussain

There once used to be a gateway here, one of the 13 gates that allowed entry into the walled city.

In the aftermath of 1857 and the debacle for the British in Delhi, the walls of Lahore were razed.

However, despite the gateway and the wall disappearing, the name of the gate still survives — Shahalam Gate.

It is the largest wholesale market in the city. Others claim it is the largest market in Punjab, while some enthusiast will even suggest it is the largest wholesale market in Asia.

Dominated by Hindu traders and businessmen before Partition, who formed the backbone of economic activity in the city, Shahalam market became witness to one of the worst riots at the time of Partition. The entire market, it is narrated, was burned.

For many prosperous Hindus, whose families had been long associated with Lahore, the city of Lav, the son of Ram, this became the final nail in the coffin, the last straw which led them to the conclusion that their city was not safe for them anymore.

Up next: How different are we from the partition generation?

In the years to come, Lahore managed to rise from the ashes of Partition. Perhaps it was easy for Lahore to do that.

Much of the infrastructure had been laid by the colonial state, under whom Lahore had become the economic, political and cultural centre of the Punjab, and one of the largest cities in British India.

After the creation of Pakistan, it was the largest city of the country, eventually to be outgrown by Karachi, due to a massive influx of refugees from the other side of the border.

The middle class, the professionals, the artists, who had helped raise Lahore to the pinnacle of its grandeur, had all left.

To add to the woes were refugees, living without any proper arrangements in the largest refugee camp in the country on Walton Road.

However, Lahore in Pakistan once again emerged as the cultural, economic and political hub of the country.

With writers and artists such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Manto and Nur Jahan making the city their home, it scaled new heights.

But in many ways, this Lahore that was emerging was not the Lahore that had been. The Lahore of the colonial era was a multi-religious society where Diwali and Holi were celebrated with as much fanfare as Eid and Basant.

Read next: The transformation of Punjabi identity over the centuries

That was a Lahore where Hindu and Sikh professors taught Muslim students. It was a city where Muslims visited Hindu temples and Hindus the courtyards of Sufi shrines. It was at Lahore that Hindu and Muslim nationalists had stood together to challenge the might of the colonial state.

A new Lahore that was emerging was quickly becoming a monolithic society. It was the city where the fire of anti-Ahmadi riots was first ignited in 1953, resulting in the declaration of martial law in the city.

While there was dissent and a push back against an overarching uniform culture, perpetuated by a state increasingly defining itself through a narrow lens, it was a battle that was eventually lost.

A Lahore that was to emerge in the years to come was a conservative city, eager to align itself with the status quo. Partition had fundamentally altered the nature of the city.

Yet despite the fundamental changes, scattered all over Lahore, are remnants of that former city, that was lost at the time of Partition.

About one and a half kilometres from the Shahalam market, for example, is the famous Laxmi Chowk, once home to the iconic film industry of the country, before the violence of the Zia years brought the entire edifice down.

Related: Lakshmi chowk’s volte face

The name of the junction is derived from the Laxmi building, an architectural marvel that was once a residential complex but now only the façade survives.

I am told by members of the Hindu community who still live in the city with dual identities that the Laxmi Chowk used to host the largest Diwali celebration in Lahore.

The entire building would be lit up by lamps as Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, men and women gathered to celebrate the return of Ram to Ayodhya.

In a new Lahore that was eager, almost desperate to shed away its multi-religious identity, the name of the junction was changed to Maulana Zafar Ali Khan Chowk, after a stalwart of the Pakistan movement.

Yet today hardly any resident of the city would be able to identify where this chowk is while everyone would immediately recognise Laxmi Chowk.

The story of Krishan Nagar, named after Lord Krishna, is also no different. The housing community established in the 1930s to address the changing architectural sensibilities of the educated class in Lahore was once dominated by Hindu professionals.

After Partition, as it became home to Muslim refugees, its name too was changed to Islampura to reflect the changing sensibilities. However much like Maulana Zafar Ali Khan Chowk, the name never caught on.

It's not just the Hindu past of the city that suffered with the emergence of a new Lahore, but also its Sikh past.

Now read: Gowalmandi’s tryst with old Lahore’s culture

Sikhism has a particular association with the city. It is here that the fourth Sikh Guru Ram Das was born. His son, Guru Arjan was assassinated here, and Lahore was also the capital of the Khalsa Empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Gradually, with the exodus of the Sikhs from the city, its heritage too began fading out as memory of these monuments and the shared history started receding.

But sometimes this history simply becomes impossible to ignore.

It raises its head occasionally, forcing the people of new Lahore to acknowledge the remains of a Lahore that does not exist anymore.

One such example is the locality of Qila Gujjar Singh, a small fort town that was constructed at a little distance from the walled city of Lahore by Gujjar Singh, one of the triumvirate rulers of Lahore, before the rise of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Much like Laxmi Chowk or Krishan Nagar, Qila Gujjar Singh forces the people of the city out of their comfort zone and their attempt to whitewash its past.

These names and many other similar structures continue to confront and frustrate all efforts to ignore Lahore’s past. For as long as there is a new Lahore, its predecessor, the old Lahore will continue to survive in its shadow.

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