Lal Haveli and the courtesan of past

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Feb 9 , 2014


Last week we visited the oldest ‘mohallah’ of Lahore and talked of just one or two structures, historic without doubt, but crumbling and badly in need of conservation. The sheer scale of the challenge is beyond what our government can manage.

But I revisited Lohari Gate and its bazaars again last week and it is heart-breaking to see almost every old historic house crumbling.

The newly-formed Walled City of Lahore Authority, though empowered in every respect by the Punjab Assembly, is just too feeble given the immense coercive power of the trader class who, sadly, originally belonged to the Walled City but now live in the posh faraway housing colonies.

But what is upsetting is that the people of Lahore have given up hope in saving their finest heritage, which mind you goes back thousands of years. That is cribbing enough.

The three places that, based on carbon-dating, are among the oldest are the Lahore Fort, Mohallah Maulian and Langa Mandi. Mind you the original contours of both the fort and the Walled City changed almost 450 years ago, thanks to the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who rebuilt the fort and the walled City in solid brick masonry.

Before this took place the Walled City’s western mud walls ran to the east of Bazaar Hakeeman and the eastern wall ran to the west of what is now Shahalam Bazaar.

If you take a walk you will notice the ‘ghaatis’ all along. No effort has ever been undertaken to excavate them.

In those days the River Ravi, and this is based on scientific research, flowed by the north side of the fort, curled around the Walled City starting near Rang Mahal where it is today, after encasing the entire city move out at Mori Gate, where cremations took place over thousands of years.

It then moved towards the shrine of Ali Hajweri, took a curl, moved towards where today is Rivaz Garden and looped around Chauburji and joined its current trajectory well past where today is the motorway bridge.

The river determined the choicest places to form settlements, and it seems two parallel settlements, both in curving formations, came about.

The semi-circle formation of Gumti Bazaar is proof of this beautiful physical development.

But let us today focus on just one area of Lohari Bazaar, the oldest of Lahore, and the bazaars beyond Chowk Chakla, now known by the pious name of Chowk Bukhari.

The bazaar moving to the west goes to Chowk Jhanda, more known as the place where Hassu Taili lived, while the one moving to the east is Mohallah Maulian, curving northwards as Sootar Mandi.

This is where pre-Islamic Lahore existed. Mind you this area has been ravaged several times over the centuries, the last being the British who after 1857 knocked down major portions of the fort and the city walls so that sieges against them were not possible.

The finest ‘haveli’ of Lohari that the British razed to the ground was the exquisite ‘Haveli’ of Maharajah Kharrak Singh. Next to it was the finest garden inside Lohari, that being the garden of Nihal Chand, which no longer exists.

We mentioned ‘Baithak Katiban’ and a few others, but today my focus is on the famous ‘Lal Haveli’, which to my mind is among the finest ‘cut and chased brickwork’ haveli of the entire walled city.

Its exquisite wooden ‘jhorakas’, on all three storeys, stand out. The name Lal Haveli is of recent origin for the owner in 1930s painted it over with a coating of ‘hurmachi’, or red ochre paint.

But the fact is that this beautiful ‘haveli’ was built by the Maharajah of Kashmir for his favourite courtesan named Daru, hence its registered name ‘Mai Daru de Haveli’. Being so near Chowk Chakla it is understandable.

Mind you in those days courtesans, besides entertaining the rich, also educated the young in etiquettes, court manners and music appreciation. Even today in the old city a silly person is called “bay-surra” – out of tune.

The tall tales of the crumbling ‘Mai Daru de Haveli’ are astounding. There is a basement, and then there is a staircase that moves further down.

At the moment it is walled up. My guess is it led to a well. But local legend states that it is a secret tunnel that took courtesans to the Lahore Fort.

Thanks to a ‘patwari’ friend I checked up the ownership papers of the beautiful ‘haveli’ next to Lal Haveli, and it once belonged to Bibi Barkat of Hera Mandi. More research showed that almost all houses in the area were owned by women.




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