Life and Times in the Walled City
The story of Lahore, the capital city of Punjab, commences with the advent of the Walled City. Around 1000 CE, people started living in the western part of the present day Walled City. Later, in the medieval era, a mud wall was raised around the city to secure it against invasions. It is assumed that Malik Ayaz, the first Muslim governor, ordered the fortification of the area with a mud wall.
During the Mughal Period, the Walled City became famous and was metamorphosed into an urban center for culture and commerce. Mughal emperors raised a few of the most prominent historical buildings of Lahore in the Walled City, such as Shahi Hammam, Badshahi Mosque, Lahore Fort, Sunehri Mosque, and Wazir Khan Mosque. Old Lahore owes its historical character to the Mughals as they embellished it with a number of monuments across centuries. Under the reign of Jahangir, the city served as the capital of Mughal Empire.
Apart from the monuments, during different eras, twelve gates were built around Walled City, of which Bhatti Gate, Lohari Gate, and Delhi Gate are still renowned. Later, during the Sikh Raj, the Walled City maintained its capital status. Additionally, the Sikhs erected exquisite buildings, such as Gurdwara Ram Das and Samadhi Ranjeet Singh within its premises. The Haveli of Nau Nihal Singh embodies the excellence of Sikh architecture and retains Kangra-style painting. Since the British era, the building has been used as a girl’s school. The British did not erect any specific monuments, but extended the premises of the Walled City in the eastern half and built new streets.
The Walled City is divided into a number of Mohallas and Bazaars, which are not clearly demarcated from each other. Some of the well-known Mohallas are Cho Mohalla, Kucha Faqir khana, Shahi Mohalla, Kucha Baili Ram, Mohalla Daran, Kucha Ramji Di Das, Mohalla Kakezian, Katri Bawa, Kucha Meher Ghaus, Heera Mandi, and Nawan Mohalla. Besides, Shah Almi Bazaar is the largest Bazaar in the area, although there are several small bazaars located in narrow streets, such as Tibbi Bazaar, Tehsil Bazaar, Gumti Bazaar, Sutr Mandi Bazaar, Lohari Mandi Bazaar.
The Walled City was once a testament to Mughal opulence. Today, historical avenues stand blemished by urban squalor. Our writer dove into the vicinity, exploring the winding alleyways, discovering the true grit and grime of this tourist attraction.
Given the iconic buildings raised by Mughals in the Walled City, its fame had reached England, even before the British colonized and plundered the subcontinent. Milton says in his epic poem Paradise Lost:
“His eyes might there command whatever stood
City of old or modern fame, the seat
Of mightiest empire, from the destined walls,
Of Cambalu, seat of Cathian Can,
And Samarcand by Oxus, Temir’s throne,
To Paquin of Sinaen Kings, and thence
To Agra and Lahore of Great Moghul…”
Early in the morning, I reached the Walled City and disembarked the car behind Badshahi Mosque on Fort Road. As it had rained the night before, the weather was pleasant. The wind had swept the atmosphere clean of the familiar dust in the old city. I could see that rainwater awaited lazily in puddles and potholes on the roadsides. I walked along Ali Park towards the Kali Beri Bazaar. Most of the small cafes, restaurants, and food stalls were open as early as 7 AM. In the old city, even mosques are closed at night but eateries and tea-stalls rarely indulge in any time off.
Around a corner, I saw a number of men standing and sitting on the roadside awaiting customers to hire them for manual work. Rickshaws zigzagged about like youngsters, brave only in their own street. Often, they passed by like a momentary storm, with loud music playing fiercely on the speakers with sick lungs. I noticed several intricate narrow alleys, which I wished to explore, but resisted lest I end up in somebody’s bedroom. I saw men selling ice on wooden planks in almost every big street that I traversed. In Maia Bazaar, a man was sleeping in his chair, while having nobody to attend to his shop.
In Mohalla Daran, a tractor was stuck in a street and could not go out given the narrow passage in front of it. From behind, several rickshaws stood with sullen faces waiting for the tractor. I stood there for ten minutes, and not because I was interested in how they would manage to clear the road. I did not see crops or fertile land anywhere within the old city. So why a tractor?
In a dark alley, where the upper stories of the adjacent buildings were leaning towards each other, I found several butcher’s shops. Freshly slaughtered animals, whatever species they may have been, hung outside said shops, with water was still dripping from the tripe. Two cats waited with innocent eyes and hungry stomachs for some raw pieces of discarded meat. In the streets, where shops were not opened yet, rats ran about making a Pakistani version of Ratatouille. The municipal committee needs to bring more cats into the Walled City as vermin ran around scot-free.
Urban planning might have failed in the Old City; however, the miracles of engineering cannot be ignored. They have built so many buildings above and across each other, a task that in theory would have been impossible. Several more buildings were under construction as I saw mounds of sand and stacks of red bricks. I could observe that the Walled City lives in its past. It was not raised to accommodate modern traffic.
In Said Mitha Bazaar, a man was playing aloud an Urdu translation of Quran in his shop. In another street, I came across a man, who had captured a number of black crows in elastic cages, which he held firmly. I have seen people carrying sparrows and other innocent looking birds before. These people capture birds and bring them to the Bazaar. Now and then, somebody comes along and pays them to free a few, out of pity’s sake. Then, the bird catchers go and bring back more birds. Why crows? And why would anyone pity them? Too many colonize the Lahore as it is.
Close to Bhatti Gate, I saw a young boy, about 7-8 years old, with soiled clothes sitting on a motorcycle and pretending as if he was driving it. As I got closer, I saw that a sack full of garbage was laying on the ground beside the motorcycle. I was certain that he was enjoying someone else’s ride, and was actually the ragpicker. Before I could approach him, take his picture and talk to him, he got off swiftly and ran away with the sack in opposite direction. Perhaps he assumed that I was the owner of the motorcycle. Later, I saw him yelling at a man who was selling a facial cream that could supposedly cure all known and unknown errors in the human face. The cream man turned around and threatened to beat the kid. The kid stopped. Another elderly man sitting in front of the tea stall gestured to him and urged him not to stop vexing the cream man.
Outside Lohari Gate, I noticed several poorly constructed shops in which flowers were sold for different purposes. Although smoke and dust permeate the air due to the closeby Ring Road, the awkward and ugly street smelled of fresh roses. One of the shopkeepers told me that these shops had been selling roses and marigolds for decades. Right after entering through the Bhatti Gate, there were several women, who sat on plastic rugs and begged the passing customers for money. All of the surrounding shops were run by men. Apart from begging women and school girls, I did not see many women in the Walled City. They seemed to breathe behind the walls.
While I was trying to walk in the shade of shops, a pigeon defecated straight over my left shoulder. I looked around to see if anybody noticed. Nobody saw the pigeon doing it and I was saved the embarrassment. At one point, I left the main street and walked into a slender alley, which I assumed would open into one of the other dozen bazaars. It stretched further and I went along looking for the way out until I reached a courtyard-like place. There was a young man sitting in a chair. Before I could approach him to show me the way, he asked me sternly: “Where are you going?” I took my card out immediately without allowing him any doubt and explained how I am a stranger and tourist. He remained sober in his demeanor and asked me to follow the same path back. As I turned back, he hurled a sentence at me, “You should be careful about where you go.”
In most of the streets and bazaars, which I visited, black water flew in the exposed trenches. I could feel its odor mixing with the smell of slaughtered poultry and dry fruits. Hundreds of posters thanking politicians for fixing sewers or laying bricks in a street were hung up as awards of gratitude. Some people still do not understand that the services rendered by politicians are not generous favors but their constitutional duty, for which they receive huge budgets. I also saw two old sisters with pale wrinkled faces begging for money. It was the resemblance in their features, which led me to think of them as sisters. One of them was blind and supported herself on the back of the one, who walked in the front.
Shah Almi Bazaar is a huge market, which lies on the margins of Shah Almi road. The market is famous for supplying a variety of goods to the rest of Pakistan. Before partition, Shah Almi Bazaar was a densely-populated Hindu quarter. During the riots of 1947, It was burnt down and demolished. Two years later, its reconstruction began in contemporary style. That is why it is the only area in the Walled City with wide streets, to facilitate commerce in the area.
Shah Almi Bazaar comprises a number of buildings and plazas, offering a long list of products. Although Shah Almi road is wide enough, motorcycles and vehicles parked alongside its periphery keep it blocked often. Some young people also sell old clothes and garments in carts on the roadside. The market supplies goods to other markets and bazaars throughout Pakistan, such as crockery, clothes and garments, blankets, carpets and rugs, bags, purses, watches, and sports goods. There are entire buildings in the market, which provide electrical appliances, such as fancy lights, fans, air coolers, washing machines, air conditioners and other electronic objects. While walking in Shah Almi, I could smell rubber.
From Shah Almi Bazaar, I passed along Mochi Bagh, which is small and the only garden in the area. As I was painfully tired after walking around for hours, I did not walk into the garden and took pictures from the boundary. Then, I saw the gardener yelling at two boys in school uniform walking towards the opposite corner of the garden. It seemed that the gardener wanted them to leave and not stay in the garden during school hours. The boys continued walking forth as if indifferent to the old man’s worries. Then, the gardener got up and started walking hastily towards them. The two boys ran in opposite directions within the garden to the evident displeasure of the gardener.
Close to Lohari Gate, I walked through a street, which was filled with shops selling dry fruits, such as almonds, peanuts, raisin, walnuts, pistachios, and dates. On the margins of the Walled City, there is a waterway for sewage. As I strode along these waterways, I could notice that dirt had stagnated these tributaries. The canal moves in a circular fashion around the Walled City and constitutes a massive health hazard for the inhabitants of the area. A large number of working shops are built here without any guilt. I could say that Walled City with its confused sewage system and awkward infrastructure would become uninhabitable in a decade.