HARKING BACK: Sootar Mandi and the tale of Gungoo Shah

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Sep 14 , 2014


If you stand at any crossing in the old Walled City and wonder at the origin of the streets and lanes that shoot out from it, one is amazed at what there is to learn. Crossroads breed creativity for it is the meeting place of ideas.

If you enter Mori Gate and walk towards the very first crossing that comes your way on Bazaar Sootar Mandi, stand in front of the exquisite building at the corner.

This is the ‘haveli’ of Naunehal Singh, the firebrand son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, and who was killed in an as yet unresolved murder when he walked home under a gateway at Roshnai Gate, which mysteriously collapsed and deprived him of his life and kingdom.

Have you ever wondered what this exquisite, almost collapsing, building is all about? Open on three sides, this building leans almost three feet out on the eastern side. On the western side a huge crack has opened up, which in turn has led to the foundations loosening up. The result is that one edge has begun to sink.

Sootar Mandi was once called Mohallah Challay Wallah Hammam, or Machli Hatta Guzar. That named ceased once the fish market moved outside Mori Gate.

This bazaar forms the western edge of Mohallah Maullian, which leads to the edge of what was once called Lohari Mandi, or even Mohallah Kacha Kot. This, in all probability is the founding name of Lahore itself, for ‘kach’ or brick, was the defining name of the city.

My own guess is that the curving road that leads from Waachowali Bazaar towards Sootar Mandi, is where the original brick walls of the ancient Walled City were. This curving road is known as Pir Bhola Street, and if you spend some time observing the house structures you can find evidence of what I am saying.

Standing at Chowk Sootar Mandi – the cotton yarn market crossing – if you look to the north you see the main bazaar move ahead from the Pir Bhola Street, and just a few yards ahead is Gali Gungoo Shah.

To the north east shoots off Kucha Sundar Das, while to the east is Kucha Bulla Mal. To the east of the bazaar is Kucha Araian, while to the west is Kucha Kamboh.

This is history enough for six different columns. Who was Gungoo Shah? Who were Pir Bhola, Sundar Das and Bulla Mal. When did Kocha Kamboh, an ancient tribe of the sub-continent, lend its name to this place.

Let us in this piece tackle just two aspects of this crossing, they being the name ‘sootar mandi’ and the name Gungoo Shah.

Among the oldest markets in Lahore is the city’s cotton yarn market. It was at this place where in one ‘gali’ – Nilli Gali – that a western explorer found indigo being coated on cotton. Mind you there is a difference between dyeing and coating, and this formed the basis of indigo-dyed denim, which was shipped to Europe in large quantities.

If you visit the Christian cemetery behind the Ewing Hall at Nila Gumbad, you will see the graves of ‘indigo planters’ dating from the late 16th century who worked at this crossing.

There are scores of such stories that line the ‘chowk’, and there is a need to explore these to build a better picture of what life was at this crossing. Now on to Gali Gungoo Shah.

The story behind Gali Gungoo Shah is an amazing one. Gungoo was a rich merchant of Lahore who lived in this street.

He was, as can be expected, a yarn trader who had made a fortune in this ‘mandi’. But then he had a mean streak and never gave the poor any help.

One day a poor man cursed him and said: “May the Almighty see you as poor as I am, so you will understand my pain”. Gungoo, probably, laughed it off. But very soon he started losing money and within a few months became a pauper. He lost all his friends, for that was to be expected. People made fun of him, and very soon even earning enough to eat became difficult.

At this stage he decided to leave Lahore, and as he was leaving an old Sikh man met him and took him to meet the third Sikh Guru Amar Das.

The guru gave him money and told him to go to Delhi, never cheat anyone, always tell the truth and help the poor as much as was possible. This Gungoo did and within a year he was rich again, but only to return to his old miserable ways.

A second-time pauper Gungoo returned to the ‘langar’ of Guru Amar Das at Goindwal, where he begged to be forgiven. The guru asked him to return to Lahore and never to lie or insult the poor. This Gungoo Shah did and regained his fortune.

Which was his house? Legend has it that it is the third on the left, a beautiful old ‘haveli’ in Gali Gungoo Shah. Today that is falling to bits and six families live in it where once the erring merchant lived.

There are hundreds of small and large crossings – ‘chowks’ - in the old Walled City, and each one has its own set of stories, woven across time.

There is a need to research, to undertake archaeological digs, to conserve what is left, to rebuild as near the original as is possible. Every ‘gali’ has its own Gungoo Shah.

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2014




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