Harking Back: History of Lahore’s people and their amazing creations

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Jan 03, 2016

If you enter any gateway of the old walled city of Lahore, within a five-minute walk you will be at the old workplace of some remarkable artisans long forgotten. This ancient city lives more so because of the heritage of its people.

As the year 2016 takes off in earnest, we will in this year probably see a series of ancient monuments defaced, partially damaged, and a few even face elimination, and all in the name of development.

The colour orange stands for ‘caution’, and our heritage experts claim the train scheme promises to make Lahore ‘soulless’. Dramatic words, and probably true. But then the last time the orange-yellow hordes hit Lahore in 1398, not a soul was left.

Hopefully that will not be the case if our thick-skinned bureaucrats, invariably more loyal than the king and claimants to all knowledge on earth, make small changes to the scheme. Inflexibility tends to damage the best of plans.

But also in 2016 we will, hopefully, see the launch of a ‘Peoples History’ project. As the sub-continent is a largely undocumented landscape, more so the entire pre-British era, there is a need to document what remains. This project will, hopefully, run in perpetuity, and promises to be a low-finance undertaking spear-headed by a Lahore NGO, using historians and students of local universities, colleges and schools in connivance with local people, who will document their own ‘mohallahs’ in great detail.

Finally, a “people’s history” will be in place. The best thing is that the government will not have a hand in it. Instead of kings and queens the lives of the common people and their ancestors will be recorded. This will lend substance and colour to our past, so that the future is also full of substance and colour.

Let me explain a few possibilities with the help of three brief examples. If you enter Mochi Gate and at the first T-junction with a mosque in the middle on the road, take the road to the left. Just ask for ‘Mohallah Teerandazan’ (the archers’ precinct) and from it juts out ‘Kammangaran Gali’ (The Bowmakers Lane). These Akbar-era precincts are where the finest bows and arrows in the then known world were made.

If you happen to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, you will see an impressive display of these exquisite Lahori Bows and Arrows. These were made in these two ‘mohallahs’. Ironically, the Lahore Museum does not know about them, and this is not surprising.

What is so special about the Lahori Bow? After the orange-yellow hordes of Taimurlane hit Lahore in 1398, a historian tells of people running for their lives as the Mongols riding on horses chased people into field killing them with their small bows.

These hordes are estimated to have killed 17 million people, which comes to 5% of the world’s population then.

The effectiveness of the short bow ultimately led the bow-makers of Lahore to come up with a better bow with a longer range to keep these hordes at bay.

Its construction uses three different types of local wood strapped together with Lahori leather in a sort of flexible unglued three-ply mainframe. The string is a leather gut and the arrow is the famous irretraceable metal arrow-head.

Today the Lahori Bow is a collector’s item and difficult to find, except in the best museums of the world. If you walk through these two precincts it is quite likely that you will manage to trace the ancestors of bow and arrow-makers of old.

There is just one small bow-maker left who caters to the needs of bow and arrow sports enthusiasts in foreign countries. His small business makes his ends meet and he enjoys his monopoly position. The history of this man and his profession and the precincts need to be recorded.

Let us move to another gateway, this time Lohari Gate. Just walk and turn to the right and ask for ‘Nilgaran de Gali’. This is the place where once an important blue indigo dye market of the sub-continent existed. Let me digress and take you to the Christian graveyard at Nila Gumbad, which is behind the Sacred Heart School facing the Nurses Hostel of Mayo Hospital just next to the King Edwards Medical College.

If you roam around in this graveyard you will see the graves of a lot of Indigo Planters who died while working in Lahore even before the British came. Such was the importance of Lahore in the world of indigo.

In columns of past I have traced the origins of the indigo-dyed jeans to the French generals of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who exported the dye to France.

The first such coarse drill and twill constructed fabric was used by Punjabi soldiers in the Fauj-e-Khas, more so the artillery gunners, most of whom were Muslims of Lahore. The French further developed this fabric into coarse and dyed weft and warp design in their textile city of Nimes, hence the name De Nimes - of Nimes – leading to the corrupt spelling of ‘denim’. From Nimes to the Lahore indigo planters of Nila Gumbad to ‘Nilgaran de Gali’. One example of the strength of indigo in a Moghal-era description was of the filtered dye managing to penetrate an egg within 24 hours. A lot of research on this ‘gali’ and who now lives there is needed.

Let us move on to yet another example, and one I have given before in a separate piece. If you enter Delhi Gate and walk towards the Mosque of Wazir Khan, thankfully now being conserved by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, you will notice that before the main mosque entrance, there is a series of shops which were built for rare book calligraphy, book miniature painting and Lahori leather binding.

In the courtyard outside the mosque caravan traders came from India and Central Asia and beyond, and book-readers recited from these amazing books. In the shops the calligraphers, miniature painters and leather book binders worked. The paper, the famous Lahori paper, was manufactured by housewives of Lahore. The pulp for the paper was sold in Kashmiri Bazaar and manufactured on the banks of the River Ravi from ‘kye grass’.

These amazing books came to be known as Lahori leather-bound books, and can be seen in the well-known museums and collections of Europe.

If you read Christiane Gruber’s ‘Islamic Manuscript Tradition’, you will see that she rates the Lahori leather-bound manuscript, with its exquisite calligraphy and famous Lahori miniature paintings, as the finest in the Islamic tradition. All the elements in the creation of these masterpieces were Lahore-grown and produced. This tradition needs to be researched.

So no matter which gateway you enter you will come across a history of the people that needs to be recorded. Hopefully the ‘Peoples History’ project will record each and every street, ‘mohallah’, ‘gali’, ‘katra’ and ‘kucha’ and who lived there, what they did, what they achieved, and how they excelled. We owe this to them, if not to ourselves, and more so to our children and the future generation.


Back To Majid Sheikh's Columns

Back To APNA Home Page