This week’s piece is for those of my readers, who have never been inside the real Lahore with its maze of narrow streets, overshadowed by surviving ornate wooden balconies and expansive brick paved spaces known as ‘maidans’. It is also for those, who were raised in the old city, but forsook it for one reason or another, never to revisit, what was and remains, the throbbing Heart of Lahore.

The area inside ‘Bhaati’ Gate was (and continues to be) indisputably known as the home of literature, intellectual excellence and the arts. It was for this reason that Hakeem Ahmed Shuja declared it as ‘Chelsea of Lahore’. This particular entrance to the walled city is flanked on the East by the Mori, which according to many researchers cannot be categorized as a gate, since it was perhaps an outlet in the wall for disposal of the city’s refuse.

Early historical reference to Bhaati Gate dates back to the third century and Raja Rao, whose descendants came to be known as ‘Bhuttis’ or ‘Bhaatis’. According to some historians, the original name of the gate was Bhutti Gate, marking the spot, where Bhutti Warriors from Multan camped before the arrival of Mughals. Perhaps with time, the name was mutated to ‘Bhaati’. The original gate was rebuilt by the British and reflects a Gothic style covered archway approximately 187 feet long, with barracks and verandas overlooking the passage on both sides. Today’s journey will begin at this gate and end at the Mori at a time in the 1950s and early 60s that was undoubtedly the golden era of Lahore – free of traffic, pollution and commercial exploitation of heritage.

There are two routes that we can take to reach our destination. On entering the gate and a few dozen meters down ‘Bazaar Hakiman’, we could turn right into ‘Jandi Gali’, walk past the ‘chota maidan’ flanked on the left by houses and on the right a ‘bara’, populated by a number of buffaloes. Passing walls covered with dung cakes, we will emerge into a wide paved street close to ‘Maidan Bhaiyan’ and then negotiating the narrow ‘Majhi Gali’, walk down the Mori Bazaar and out onto the little strip that connects the Mori with Circular Road. Alternatively, we could adopt the more interesting and longer route down ‘Bazaar Hakiman’, turn right into the link street (failure to do which, would take us to the ‘forbidden area’ and ‘Taksali Gate’). Down the link street, a right turn along the wall of the Victoria Girls High School (my mother’s and my elder sister’s Alma-mater) and we will find ourselves in ‘Maidan Bhaiyan’. From this point onwards, we can follow the same route out of the Mori as in the case of our short cut through ‘Jandi Gali’.

We shall however choose to take the longer way because of some interesting landmarks situated along its length. The first of these is the old ‘Uchi Masjid’ or the High Mosque. Some writings say that Hazrat Shah Inayat Qadri, the spiritual mentor of Baba Bulleh Shah, led prayers here (this great Sufi Saint, is buried on Queens Road next to the house in which I spent my childhood). As far as ‘Bazaar Hakiman’ is concerned, it is said that the name was derived from a mosque built here by Hakeem Abdullah Ansari, during the early Sikh Era.

The link road connecting ‘Bazaar Hakiman’ to ‘Maidan Bhaiyan’ is where my maternal grandfather lived with his mother and siblings before moving into their alternate home in ‘Maidan Bhaiyan’. I remember being taken to ‘Bazaar Hakiman’ and looking up at the beautifully finished wooden balcony running along the first and second floor façade with awe.

‘Maidan Bhaiyan’ is a large open court yard paved with the characteristic small bricks popular in the Moghul and Sikh Era. It is flanked on one side by ‘Haveli Naunehal Singh’ (the grandson of ‘Ranjit Singh’). This structure was converted into Victoria Girls High School after the end of Sikh Rule. A large high walled compound with a Temple, known as the ‘Shwala’ lines the ‘maidan’ at right angles to the ‘Haveli’. Opposite the ‘Shwala’ and ‘Haveli Naunehal Singh’ covering the remaining two sides of the ‘maidan’ stand a row of houses (that once belonged to my grandfather and his brothers). Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabbasum, the celebrated poet and writer lived in one of these houses.

From ‘Maidan Bhaiyan’, a left turn takes us into a street resounding with the rhythmic staccato sound of wooden hammers striking small anvil like contraptions. This is the place where ‘waraqs’ or foils are made out of pure silver, for decorating desserts such as ‘Kheer’ and ‘Firni’ (both, forms of Rice Puddings, ‘Halwas’ and other sweet confections. I am told that the sound has not been heard for quite some time. Right from the street of silver foil makers and through the narrow ‘Majhi Gali’ complete with a foot wide open drain running through the middle of its entire length and we emerge into another open area with rows of trestles supporting horizontal bamboo poles festooned with freshly made vermicelli being dried for Lahore’s bustling bazaars (this spectacle too is apparently no more). Walking left and then right through the Mori Bazaar with its bullock oil extraction mill, known as the ‘kohloo’, we finally bid good bye to what can in the least be called an unforgettable experience.

There are numerous sights and sounds of old Lahore that have gone into oblivion as have festivals such as ‘Basant’. While the sons and daughters of this grand city spend their days in a headlong corporate race to make money, little do they realize that just a few minutes’ drive from their modern luxurious homes lies the real Lahore that is beseeching their attention. If they listen carefully enough (with their hearts) they will perhaps be able to hear the plea “save me, restore my former grandeur”.

 

The writer is a historian.