Old Lahore

Abdul Hameed



Abdul Hameed was born in 1928 in Amritsar. He migrated to Pakistan after the partition of India. After working at Radio Pakistan for several years, he joined the Voice of America. He wrote novels, short stories, columns for national newspapers, and programmes for radio and television. He passed away in Lahore in 2011.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared at http://www.apnaorg.com/

I have always been fascinated by cities, the way they once were and the people who lived in them.

Lahore's magic for me lies in many things, but above all, it lies in the Walled City. My earliest memories of Lahore are intertwined with inner city streets and bazaars and how they throbbed and pulsated with life and colour. 

One old Lahori whom I used to run into at the Radio Pakistan station off and on was Tahir Lahori, whose family had lived inside Bhaati Gate for many generations. He epitomised the old city's culture, its traditional gentleness and its spirit of generosity. He spoke the purest Lahori Punjabi with that lilting unmistakable accent.

I once asked him to tell me about the city as it once was. I wanted to know about the people who used to live inside Bhaati Gate, a neighbourhood Hakim Ahmed Shuja had called Lahore's Chelsea. When Tahir Lahori began to speak about those long-gone times, his eyes lit up, "Hamid sahib," he said, "Lahore is one of those fortunate cities of the world which providence showers with its blessings. And of all the localities of Lahore, Bhaati is unique. In its narrow streets have lived scholars, writers, poets, artists, musicians and intellectuals."

What follows is my recollection of what he told me that day many years ago.

"It was inside Bhaati Gate that I opened my eyes, a world that was quite different from what it is today. The streets, houses and bazaars that lay between Tehsil Bazaar and the Bhaati Gate had a charm of their own. The old neighbourhoods still exist but they have changed, naturally. Let me just name the mohallas that to us made up Lahore. Mohallas Samian, Sathaan, Jalotian, Niarian, Parangaan, Zaildaraan, Chomala, the Maidan Bhaiyaan, the Bazaar Hakimaan, the Oonchi Masjid, Noor Mohalla, Mohalla Jogian and the Thathi Mallahaan. Many of the old buildings still stand but they have been partly rebuilt or added on to. They bear a quite different look now. Bhaati Gate had a beauty of its own when viewed from across the street, which is now full of pell-mell traffic and crowds of people. When I was a child, a lovely flower garden lay outside Bhaati Gate. It no longer exists.

"There was only one cinema house outside Bhaati Gate, which was called Mela Ram da Mandwa. On the other side of the Bhaati Chowk lay the shrine of Data Ganj Bukhsh, which showers this city with the saint's blessings. Also in this area stood the cloth factory of Mela Ram, next to which was Lal Kothi in a plot measuring several kanals (Ed. Note: A kanal = 1/8 acre). In its place today, there are bookshops. The cloth factory has made way for several business centres. Part of land on which Lal Kothi stood has been claimed by the road that runs in front of it. Where we now have Pilot Hotel, there used to be a sales point for timber and coal, around which were many trees, a few stables for horses and several old structures. They eventually made way for two cinemas: Wellington Talkies and Paramount Talkies. On both sides of the Bhaati Gate, there were several tin-roofed shops that sold clay pots.

"Not far from Paramount Cinema, was Bakra Mandi where sheep were sold day and night. On the other side of the road lay Phijji Shah da Theatre, where dramas were staged the year round. The only time nothing was playing was when the company left the city to perform at some mela or festival. There was also a tonga and tum-tum stand here. The tum -tums could be hired to go to Sanda, Ichhra, Nawan Kot and other outlying areas, while the tongas plied between Bhaati and Circular Road right up to Delhi Gate and the Railway Station. Some of the villages in the vicinity of Lahore were Sultanpura, Chah Meeraan and Kot Khawaja Saeed. The Mela Chiraghan in Shalimar Bagh was the great festival of the year and people would come to enjoy it from as far as Amritsar, Jullandhar, Ludhiana and Delhi. The outer wall of the city was dotted by gardens, a canal and several water outlets.

"The population of Lahore at the time I speak of was no more than 250,000. Tongas were the main means of transport. Motorcars weren't many and their owners never brought them to the old city. Those who owned bicycles kept them spick and span like new brides. The Bhaati Gate park was large and a canal ran through its middle. Children used to jump in it and women would wash their clothes in its running water. When it was time for the women to do their wash, few men passed that way. They would use what was called the Chhoti Sarak. There were lush shady fruit trees in the park and all kinds of flowers whose aroma kept the air scented. This was our playground. 

"Old men would spend a good part of the day in the park. They would come quite early in the morning, spread cotton carpets on the grass and sit there to listen to professional storytellers narrate the tale of Gul Bakauli, Heer Ranjha, Yusuf Zulekha, Saiful Muluk or some other Punjabi epic. It took several days for the full story to be told. The storyteller would pick up from where he had left it the day before. When the story reached a poignant moment, there would be tears in the eyes of the listeners. I remember one occasion when so moving was the narrative that almost everyone had tears in his eyes. A passer-by on noticing so many people crying stopped to ask what had happened. An old man wiped his eyes and replied, ‘Bakauli has been put in chains and thrown into a cell by evil jinns.' In front of the park, lay the shrine of Baba Ghidoo Shah, next to which was the wrestling pit, the akhara of Rustam-e-Zaman Gama Pehlwan. In the morning, young men would come here to exercise.

"I grew up in Gali Kaghzian off Bazar Hakimaan. I must have been about three and half but I remember that day distinctly when a big procession passed through our bazaar in celebration of the great wrestler Imam Bakhsh's victory over Goonga Pehalwan. Goonga was a very handsome man and a folk hero of his time. There was no electric power yet in the inner city and homes used to be lit with lanterns and clay lamps. The streets had oil lamps, which would be lit up every evening by the municipal staff. No lamp was ever stolen, nor was ever any damage done to city property.

"Life was cheap. Small seashells or kauris were treated as a unit of currency and people used to place them as offerings at shrines. By the time I was old enough to notice, kauris had been phased out, but there was the dambri and the dhela, the latter being one half of a paisa. One paisa was worth two dhelas, four dambris, and three pies. Two paisas were worth one taka, and the dawanni, chawwani, athhanni and rupee (Ed. note: dawanni= 2 annas, chawwani = 4 annas, athhanni = 8 annas, 1 rupee = 16 annas) were made of solid silver. Some people would keep their money in the form of pounds, which were pure gold. You could buy up to 25 seers of flour for one rupee, and gold was only Rs 17 a tola. The tonga fare from Bhaati to the Railway Station was one paisa and only three were allowed to ride in a tongs, the fourth being the driver."

If someone from those times were to come back to Lahore as it is today, I wonder what he would make of it. I think that I would have loved to live in that and not this Lahore.


© Abdul Hameed 2006

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