I got a rather interesting comment from a reader on my column from last week, which was about how I discovered two popular items of Lahori street food in Islamabad and the three unique characters, who travelled from Lahore to introduce these delicacies to the residents of the Twin Cities. The comment was interesting as it suggested that while I claimed that I was a historian, I actually appeared to be a ‘foodie’. My reply is, you can ask any Lahori – especially one who has been born and bred within the old walled quarter, and the reply will invariably be that a true Lahori is one who loves to eat well and substantially. I shall nonetheless refrain from touching on the subject of food this week and will focus on another facet of this great city’s culture – public bathing.

Growing up, we would frequently take the short walk from our parking spot outside Mori Gate to my grandparent’s house in Maidan Bhaiyan. It was during these excursions that I often saw signs that advertised a facility called ‘Garam Hamam’. The spot looked like an ordinary barber shop with towels draped over a clothesline, with the difference that an inner door led to multiple cubicles equipped with barrels and buckets of hot water and soap cakes. These were the public baths of the old city, whose origin reached back hundreds of years and where one could remove the day’s grime by paying a pittance. I was overjoyed to see that some of these establishments are still doing business inside the old city.

In the historical perspective, Hamams were not a facility that was restricted to the public, but was a feature favored by Mughal Royalty within the privacy of their majestic palaces and gardens. The Lahore Fort is reported to have had more than one such spot and there is one in the famous Shalimar Gardens. These royal bathing facilities were generally spacious square marble structures constructed below ground level, which could be accessed through a marble staircase. The walls of these structures had small arched niches or ‘taaks’, where oil lamps could be lighted to give the place a magical look. Heated water in winters and cold water in summers was then poured on the bathers either through a piping system or manually. An unconfirmed report, often referred to by my paternal grandmother, spoke of one such place in the Red Fort at Delhi, which was dug up by British Archeologists to discover how the water was heated and then piped. It is said that while the system had operated seamlessly before the dig, it ceased to function after being tampered with.

As summer temperatures rose to scorching levels, those without the benefit of air conditioning made a beeline for Lahore’s famous landmark – the Upper Bari Doab or Lahore Canal separating the Civil Station from the Cantonment. Visitors to Lahore during the hot season were likely to see hundreds of bathers in this waterway right from its source at Jallo (near Batapur) to the Niaz Beg Weir (Thokar Niaz Beg). If the more curious of these visitors dallied awhile, they were apt to see scores of children and young men diving from the bridges that spanned the canal, oblivious of the dangers that threatened them. I believe that a ban has now been put on this activity by the Punjab Government, but a recent drive along the canal indicated that mere words would not quell the Lahori spirit.

An architect friend of mine is now planning to replicate a Mughal ‘hamam’ in his home complete with lamp niches and the lot. I have tried to dissuade him, but to no avail. Nonetheless, I am awaiting the day when his project becomes a reality, for I shall then ‘eat my cynicism’ and indulge in a unique experience – in the way of royals.

 The writer is a historian.