The amazing colours of life that come through our ears, noses, eyes and tongue when you visit the old Walled City of Lahore just cannot be replicated in the new colonies of the city as it expands its ugly racing tentacles. Why they are referred to as ‘modern’ is a wee bit puzzling.
The description of ‘modern civilisation’ as provided by the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking has at best thrown up cities that are uniform. Modern cities, mostly, are dull and uniform, be it the ‘modern’ portions of Lahore or ‘modern’ Delhi or even the ‘modern’ portions of Cambridge, or Seville, or even Istanbul. The sheer lack of character lies in the uniformity that newer planned cities bring with it.
The Lahore of old can only be experienced if you live there. Short visits for a few hours seem to repel those known locally as ‘burger people’. Every city has its own unique set of smells, call them odours if you like: sweet when passing by the shop of the sweet-maker, or pungent when crossing an open gutter. With every passing day the smells change, like last week the offal heaps of the sacrificed made people pull strange faces. That surely is not the face they make when drooling over piles of meat. But then meat itself has a unique smell, depending on how old it is. That you can learn if you know the local butcher and seriously discuss meat quality with him. The same goes for the clients of milk shops, ‘naan’ shops and the scores of other such outlets. People discuss in detail what they buy to eat. No wonder old city folk know so much about food.
In this piece let us enter the old ‘once-Walled’ City of Lahore from three different directions. If you enter Mochi Gate on the south-eastern side and walk northwards towards Laal Khoo, you will see spice and condiment merchants not to forget the ‘Made in China’ plastic-brigade, sitting silently legs folded. They can sit for hours and not move. As soon as a customer is seen as a potent ‘kill’, they jump to life like a lion springs to silence its prey. Merchants love the lion symbolism for it strangles unsuspecting prey. Ultimately, lions have to be caged. As you weave your way towards the famous ‘barfi’ shops opposite Laal Khoo, the smells change and suddenly the colours look brighter.
Many moons ago while leading a team of students and professors from a ‘posh’ university, we stopped at Laal Khoo and I narrated the story of Guru Arjan Dev and his imprisonment in a room whose top window opened onto Laal Khoo’s ‘well and its tree’. A British-Sikh visiting professor who was lecturing me on the evils of religion and blind faith suddenly sprung to life, tied a handkerchief on his head and purchased ‘barfi’ from the original shop from where once Hazrat Mian Mir purchased it for the guru. It was ‘prashad’ for the family back home.
Suddenly two mullahs approached and informed that they would not allow any ‘red rags’ to be hung on the tree as has been done for centuries. The very name ‘Laal Khoo’ is derived from this practice. They claimed it was disrespectful to their beliefs, which claim I have never been able to figure out. Their evil roguish looks and threats is a reflection of our times where colour and history among other things annoy the ‘faithful’. Suddenly they demanded alms for repairing the local mosque. The priestly classes never change. Last year while visiting the ancient Spanish city of Seville we were ‘hit’ by monks who used the same ‘priestly’ threats of sending me to ‘hell’.
But then the old city of Lahore - whose ancient wall bricks have been stolen by the new trader-politicians to build warehouses – has an array of markets. The original markets start from the middle, almost all originating from Rang Mahal where the grave of the handsome, or should I say beautiful, Georgian slave Ayaz, a favourite (to put it politely) of the Ghazni invader Mahmud, is the starting point. Ayaz was originally buried outside the city walls, and the markets grew around the grave, just as they did outside the shrine of Ali Hasan Hajvery outside today’s Bhati Gate, which did not exist when he died. When he was buried the grave was on a mound about a thousand yards from Mori Gate, which then was the nearest gateway of sorts of the old once-Walled City.
But the smells and colours of old Lahore are very different if you enter through Lohari Gate and take the western fork of the road which ends at the shrine of Pir Bhola. Along the road the smells and sights are more sedate and it is a more settled area, being almost the oldest, with decaying houses. It is amazing that this ancient and exquisite Lohari Bazaar remains almost devoid of the ever-invading warehouses that have taken over 65 per cent of residential old Lahore. But the invasive threat of commercialisation is growing thanks to their political connections added to a dubious cost paid.
Outside the shrine of Pir Bhola sit five old beggars, who claim they never beg but would not mind a crisp bank note. They look like drug addicts with their heads bending over their navels. The sound of a fresh bank note sees them jerk into action, and once having claimed their victim they shrink back to their original positions. I have been seeing them there for years now. To be honest I even recognise their begging bowls which lie before them.
The sights and sounds and smells, which you can taste in your mouths, of the bazaars that exist before and after entering Delhi Gate are so very different, with well-fed spice merchants, mostly sitting on low chairs, waiting for buyers, who are aplenty. Given the new egalitarian times that have been promised, it would be interesting for our sleuths to find out their worldly possessions and match it with the taxes they pay. The beggars in these lanes operate in stealth lest the traders shoo them away for harassing clients. These days, increasingly, women in ‘burqas’ beg and what can one say about them.
But if you enter the old city from their only western ‘gateway’, that is Taxali, we enter an impressive shoe bazaar, not to speak of the narrow lanes jutting to the left and right where live and operate women who claim their ‘oldest’ business is a recognised one. Here in a subtle sort of way a small man with his head wrapped in an old muffler will sneak near you and in a hushed sort of way say: “You want something”. Of course I know what he means, but when told we are looking for traditional ‘khussas’ he leaves with a smile as if to suggest that we are missing out on the best that life offers.
Amazingly, there was a time when beyond Taxali Chowk this trade ended and then started the music and dance area. Here the finest classical musicians once lived and operated. These families have left after a political ‘don’ got the Lahore Fort food street made. At the opening next to me sat a very sad Ustad Hamid Ali Khan whose house they had got vacated. This robbed old Lahore of a great music and dance tradition going back hundreds of years. Even Amir Khusro once walked here.
Today the sounds and smells and colours of old Lahore are so very different at every corner. Hundreds of years of tradition prevail. The curse of uniformity, pushed by the profit motive, in the name of progress seems to be slowly creeping in. Will our heritage prevail or will the colourless habitation of modernity win? This is what all of us need to seriously think about.
Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2018