An ancient world below the oldest ‘mohallah’

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Feb 2, 2014


It goes without saying that Lohari Gate and its bazaar is the oldest habitation of ancient Lahore. Experts believe that the bazaar is the original bazaar of the original Walled City. To say that its current state is shocking is an under-statement.

For this reason on Saturday afternoon (yesterday) I went there with Saifullah Khalid, an authority on the old Walled City, as well as of old books, which are stacked to the roof in his house, a priceless treasure trove.

My original purpose was to follow the path where the prostitutes of Lahore lived, and then moved on. As we entered the Lohari Gate we moved forward and to the left was the old ‘Bhaitak Katiban’. To its north a lane called Kucha Kababian exists, which is now named Allama Iqbal Street after the poet-sage.

The ‘baithak’, books and kebabs is what this ‘koocha’ was famed for. Partly demolished to build shops, the western portion is still visible in old small bricks. Saifullah remarked: “In my youth we got books on Ustad Pedro here”.

We moved ahead seeing crumbling old buildings on both sides. At the junction we reached Chowk Chakla - the Prostitutes Square. It has, in keeping with the pious times, been renamed Chowk Bukhari.

My interest was in going through Mohallah Maullian, probably the oldest dwelling of the old Walled City. Carbon testing has proved that the small pottery found there is well over 2,500 years old.

We moved in the direction of Sootar Mandi and stopped at the crossing where begins Mohallah Maullian. The sudden incline shows that this must have been a safe place to live given the curling River Ravi around it and safe from seasonal flooding.

But before we move on with our story of this ancient shattered old area of ancient Lahore, let me, briefly; take you on the trail of the prostitutes of Lahore. Mind you that while the flesh trade was certainly their mainstay, the best among them were experts of classical music, poetry and court etiquette.

Till the time of Maharajah Ranjit Singh they performed a sort of ‘finishing school’ role for the aristocrats. The ‘chakla’ first moved to Chowk Jhanda as the old city expanded, more so in the direction where power lay.

It then moved further to the north, settling eventually just next to the fort in Taxali Bazaar, popularly called Hira Mandi, even though Hira was the name of a local ‘seth’.

Now back to our main story. We stopped in the middle of the Bazaar Maullian to talk to a shopkeeper.

“I demolished my old crumbling house 15 years ago and was amazed to find six feet below the surface the upper ‘darts’ of a building below. So we built our new ‘haveli’ on the roof of the ancient ‘haveli’”.

What did you find when digging so deep, I asked. He replied: “Oh, some very old brass utensils, which we sold to buy sweets”. The man certainly had no idea what was at stake here.

Ironically just before entering this oldest ‘mohallah’ of Lahore, we were surprised that the new generation does not even know the name of the place. They just call it Mohallah Bukhari. “Who was Bukhari?” I asked. “Must be some very pious saint”, was the reply.

We moved on to meet a man who told us about his own house which he demolished almost 12 years.

“We found the roof of a very old house and built the new one on it. We also found a lot of brass utensils and some bones”, he said. Like the shopkeeper they also sold these amazing finds for a few rupees.

The bones probably point to the destruction that Lahore faced from invaders like Mahmud Ghazni, Babar, Changez and Abdali. The lack of excavation is so stark it muddles the mind.

But then he was kind enough to take us on a trip through the ‘mohallah’. We ended on the back of the main bazaar at a huge house known as ‘Mai Daru’s Haveli’, an exquisite crumbling small-brick mansion in which today live over 73 families and a few shoe workshops.

In it, so local legend goes, is a tunnel that goes to the Lahore Fort. The ‘chakla’ and the fort united in popular imagination, far-fetched as it surely would be.

We saw another three exquisite ‘havelis’ in one lane alone, all crumbling and in need of immediate rescue. The sheer scale of the neglect is staggering. Even greater is the lack of concern for our heritage. We are all to blame.




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