For those interested in the history of Lahore, the very name ‘Gowalmandi’ conjures up mouth-watering images. It is amazing how a precinct that first appeared on Lahore’s map in the days of Aibak over 800 years ago, and developed by Akbar and Ameer Khusrau as an elite precinct, has a history that few know about.
Let us start from the oldest narrative of a dwelling where today is Gowalmandi. The mausoleum of Qutabuddin Aibak is located at the place where in 1210 he fell from his horse playing polo, or ‘chaugan’ as he would have called it. The pommel of his saddle pierced his ribs killing him instantly. According to a brief description of the incident in Peter Jackson’s book ‘Aibak’, he was playing ‘chaugan’ with Aram Shah who one account alleges was his son from a Turkic slave. Aibak had, so the account states, been playing on his horses on the playground of the ‘jagir’ of Aram Shah which was “as far as the eyes could see”.
From this description it would be fair to conclude that the estate stretched from the edge of Anarkali Bazaar, through which the ancient road from Lohari Gate went southwards. So the ‘haveli’ of Aram Shah could well have been where today is Gowalmandi. But then this is a calculated conjecture. That it had open fields goes without saying for a polo field is normally 900 feet by 475 feet, which means given where he fell, or probably was taken to one side of the field, Gowalmandi was well within his playing area. Just to provide perspective, Mochi Gate did not exist then, so open fields were the norm.
From the era of Aibak, we jump to the age of Akbar. We know that when the Walled City was being expanded outwardly, the eastern wall shifted from where today is the western side of Shahalami Bazaar to where it stands today to the east; opposite the Circular Road. The gate added was Mochi Gate, and just opposite it is a road that leads to Gowalmandi Chowk. This area is known as Takia Mirasian. The name was given after Ameer Khusrau stayed here and his ‘Miras’ (tradition) continued.
Inside Gowalmandi is Chamberlain Road, where the graves of some great classical musicians exist, albeit in terrible condition. A small tannery has sprung up nearby with its stink covering the area. The emperor Shah Jehan built a beautiful garden with fruit trees there as he loved to listen to the great masters. The last of the great Mughals saw Gowalmandi at its peak, though the area was not as yet known by this name.
It was in 1820 that the Sikh ruler of Punjab, Maharajah Ranjit Singh, conquered Kashmir and the initial attacks sent thousands of people from the lower hill tracts fleeing southwards. It was in that era that Kashmiris fled towards Gujranwala, Sialkot, Amritsar and Lahore, all cities within a ‘reasonable’ radius of the Kashmiri foothills. Those who came to Lahore were initially not allowed to live inside the walled city “lest they create trouble”. So in the area that is today known as Gowalmandi they settled in makeshift tenements. Their cows became their main source of livelihood and soon they became skilled dairy farmers. Thus the name ‘gowal-mandi’ arose as a functional name that stuck.
With the coming of Hindu Dogra rule in 1846, even more Muslims were forced to flee to the south. Conditions were so harsh because of heavy taxes on all Muslims, irrespective of whether they earned anything or not, soon starvation and famine conditions set in. By 1833 most of the shawl weavers had anyway moved to Jammu, and then on towards Amritsar and Lahore. It was then that a massive famine had set in and the Muslims shifted to the Punjab’s cities.
By 1891 Kashmiri Muslims migrating to Punjab equaled 111,775, which was larger than the population of Srinagar then. Such was the magnitude of the migration. Ten years later another 60,000 had moved to the southern cities of Punjab. So we see that by the time the 20th century started, of those who had moved to Lahore, almost 80 percent sought refuge in Gowalmandi, which by that time had become a thriving cattle market.
Soon it became the centre of Punjab’s cattle rustling market as they struggled among themselves for space, given the small area allowed to them and their increasing population.
It was at that time that these very dwellers acquired a reputation for thuggery and theft, resulting in mafia-like organisations. At one stage the Sikh Army had to move in to separate warring rustlers. That social organisational mode continued till the British took over Lahore in 1849. In a way that mode still continues as the well-off of Gowalmandi took to politics as a way out to rise in society.
Once the British settled in after the 1857 uprising, they concentrated on developing two areas, -- Lahore Cantonment and Gowalmandi, then officially known as MacDonald Town. In and around it they built educational institutions, and the streets itself had proper housing virtually forced on them. The narrow lanes in a way replicate those in the posh portions of the walled city, but as it was flat land and not on mounds as in the walled city, Gowalmandi had proper sewerage and water supply system.
As soon as the cow colony was shifted to the area just near the eastern portion near the mosque and tomb of Shah Abul’ Malli, newly-built shops and workshops emerged and soon milk and milk products became famous. The famous Amritdhara had a building there by the same name. This was followed by fish shops which mostly catered to Sikhs, and soon Gowalmandi became famous for its food and milk-related drinks.
However, it also acquired fame for its small furnaces and iron works. From these small workshops emerged many large business groups like the Ittefaq Foundries of the Sharif brothers. As business houses became rich they found comfort in the mafias of Gowalmandi. Today these very groupings are among the most feared in the city.
With time Gowalmandi and its food quality and variety led to it officially and formally becoming the first Food Street of Lahore. It was an instant success. But then two evils struck. Initially in 2012 a ‘Rat Crisis’ hit the area because of the food waste that lay about. One account tells of ‘Rabbit-sized’ rats chasing cats away. A lot of small children were also bitten and a petition to close Gowalmandi’s food street became the point of discussion.
With this crisis came the incident of two Gowalmandi mafias clashing. The ruling party supported one while the other had an upper hand in street warfare. The government decided to close down the food street, which shifted to Old Anarkali. Today the Old Anarkali one has virtually closed down as old clothes vendors – a new Landa Bazaar - have taken over. The interim Punjab government of Najam Sethi decided to reopen the Gowalmandi Food Street, much to the delight of the population. It continues still as almost a cultural landmark.
So the evolving history of Gowalmandi continues, with rich stories of Pehalwans, classical musicians, mendicants, fish and meat shops, exquisite Kashmiri delicacies like ‘hareesa’, ‘khatais’ and ‘bakarkhanis’, a leather market, and a host of other pastimes. Mind you its population is still the most literate in all of Lahore given its schools and colleges. It is amazing how the once polo fields of Lahore kept metamorphosing into new delightful forms. Just what will it evolve into next only time will tell.
Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2020