2,500 years of Lahore’s literary gatherings

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Feb 23, 2014


As the Lahore Literary Festival today moves to its closure, delightful as such a rare whiff of fresh air will be for Lahore, it would be interesting to go over time and see how literary gatherings have evolved in this great city.

Probably the very first such gathering would have been 2,500 years ago in the small village of Salatura as the ‘Mahabharata’ calls Lahore, nearby where the great ‘Battle of the Ten Kings’ took place on the banks of Parusui (Ravi). Much later in the 7th century the Chinese traveller Yuan Chwang calls it ‘Lahur’, where the great brothers Panini and Pingala were born and lived. The great Indus Valley researcher George Cardone places Salatura as 70 miles north of Harappa, exactly where Lahore is.

Panini wrote his great treatise ‘Ashtadhyaya’, the very first text on the rules of grammar. In Sanskrit the science of grammar is called ‘vyakarana’. Even today he is acknowledged as the father of the rules of grammar. His brother Pingala was a great mathematician and wrote the earliest great treatise on the binary numeral system, from where the concept of ‘zero’ was born, the very foundation of modern computers. His treatise is called ‘Chandahshatra’ and in it the concept of ‘shunya’ was introduced. Much later Arab referred to this as ‘sefr’ and acknowledged the origin.

We learn from Pingala’s student, the equally great Halayudha, also of Salatura and the man who introduced the concept of (n-1) to mathematics, that in the village these great brothers and their friends spent long hours in discussions on “everything from the stars, to the possibility that they do not exist, to the history of our people and to the possibility that women are superior to men”. The famous Lahore ‘bathaik’ had been firmly established. From then onwards its form changed, though slightly.

From the end of the Vedic Age the firm union of Lahore and literature had been established. Language and logic are the foundations of knowledge, a connection the sub-continent’s leading city of gardens, of colleges, of writers and painters and poets established in no small measure. Even a grim man like Winston Churchill while working as a correspondent for the ‘Civil & Military Gazette’ of Lahore, while covering the Malakand Campaign of 1897 was to say: “Lahore is a city that grows on you, for you can never get it out of yourself”.

Come the Muslims and the book that upset the Afghan invaders was a book of poetry by the poet Shah Saud Masud, who was taken prisoner in Lahore and taken to Afghanistan, never to return to the city of his forefathers. His poetry did not survive, but what is known is that a few versions were hand-written and leather-bound, most probably at Chowk Chakla inside Lohari Gate.

As we move down the ages we see the rise of the Sufi saints of Lahore, all opposed to the fundamentalist way of life that was to become the bane of the lives of the people of Lahore. As we take a look down the ages, we see that when left to its own, the city produced great poets, sages, writers and creative geniuses. It is no wonder that by one Indian estimate nearly 40 per cent of all ancient monuments of the sub-continent are located in or around Lahore.

The very first book shop opened up almost 700 years ago inside Lohari Gate near Chowk Chakla, the few remains of which can still be seen behind the new shops that are coming up after knocking down historic old building, an act no authority seems to have the power to stop.

In the days of Akbar the Great, who spent 11 years directing a military campaign against a Punjabi peasant uprising from Lahore, his ‘nau ratans’ (nine advisers) also moved to Lahore, and during those days a new vigour came to the city, for music and poetry were tolerated and rewarded. As the new Lahore was given a new baked brick outer wall, the book trade moved to Kashmiri Bazaar, where even today a few remaining old publishers exist.

What was more interesting was that these publishers encouraged housewives to buy paper pulp and earn money producing handmade paper, which then calligraphers decorated and wrote books that were leather bound and sold as precious products. The Lahori classic editions can today be seen in the museums of the world.

With this came the emerging new educated classes of the Punjab under British rule. The ‘baithak’ became institutionalised and Lahore produced several famous ‘baithaks’, including the one at Chuna Mandi where Allama Iqbal sat with his friends and colleagues in discussions that went late into the night.

By the time Pakistan came about, literary gatherings had shifted to cafes and eateries, the most famous among them being Coffee House and Pak Tea House. As Lahore expanded exponentially the poets and writers also got scattered. With the collapse of public transportation getting together became a problem. The ‘tea houses’ died their own commercial death.

But then literary gatherings had to take a new form, and though smaller gatherings do take place at private residences, or even at clubs, the major events are now more organised. It is in this context that the Lahore Literary Festival has to be seen, as part of a “great jaloos” - as my late father loved to say. From the days of Rishi Panini and his brother and friends sitting under a tree in the village that was to be Lahore, the city has changed. For better or for worse, that is for you to judge.




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