HARKING BACK: Walk around the ‘once walled’ city in slow painful decay

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn March 13, 2016

It is ironic that the walled city of Lahore faces slow painful decay. But then almost all the “great” invaders of past have flattened our great city only for it to experience a rebirth. Only this time our rulers seem, almost deliberately, to let it decay, let it die slowly, and painfully. Death is a powerful word, and when used for a city as ancient and magnificent as Lahore, it tends to make any human with a conscience wake up. One assumes that if you are a ‘blind moneymaker’ only, then humans and heritage matter little. On Wednesday last I parked my car outside Delhi Gate and started on a long three-hour trek around the city. Pen-pushers are known to do crazier things. What I saw needs to be described. But before that a wee lesson in a ‘peoples history’.

During a research on ancient history it came to my mind that learning Sanskrit and managing to read the important books that we in the Punjab have created, was critical. While going through the Guru Granth, the holy book of the Sikhs and lovingly called the 11th Guru, a sort of ‘final guru’, I came across a vivid description of Lahore being put to death by the first Moghal – Mongol -- invader Babar. The description was given by Guru Nanak (1469-1539) himself, who witnessed the carnage.

The year was 1524 and Babar ordered that Lahore be flattened. He, and much later Sher Shah Suri, both had a special hatred for Lahore. The reason was simple that its huge granaries fed the armies of their opposition. Both have written about this hatred. In the Guru Granth (Chapter 1412) it is written: “For a pehr and a quarter the city of Lahore was given up to total death and destruction”. Raping women and killing the elderly was a Mongol tradition. The remaining young, including children, were taken to Kabul as slaves. Young boys, sadly, fetched a high price, and more the prettier the more the owner earned. It is now a well-known sentence among the wise in Punjabi villages: “Lahore Sher, Sava Pehr, Kher hee Kher”. I need not translate.

But then almost a thousand years ago Mahmud from Ghazni, primarily a Turkic invader, surrounded Lahore in 1021 and completely destroyed the city. In action that stretched over six days and six nights each and every building, starting with the walls, was flattened and in line with the tradition rape and killing took place. Lahore was emptied. The women and children and the able-bodied were taken as slaves to Ghazni. Al-Beruni writes: “They say Ghazni has more slaves from Lahore than the local population, and there are a lot of beautiful boys fetching high prices”.

After him the Mongol Taimur the Lame (Taimur Lung) in 1398 put Lahore to the sword. “I want to sit on my horse and see my commander on his horse at the opposite side of this wretched city” is how Ferishta described the rage of Taimur. His grudge was that Lahore supplied his enemies with grains to feed their horses and armies. Taimur was following a Mongol tradition, for earlier in 1241 it was completely destroyed by forces of Genghis Khan, and a battalion of 20,000 men led by Dorbei the Fierce and Bala the Terrible was given the special task of flattening major Punjab cities. So what Babar did was merely follow a tradition to profit from the blood of the poor. For our rulers the poor do not matter. Blood and profits go hand in hand.

With these thoughts in mind I set off on my trek. As I reached Yakki Gate on the north-eastern edge, it was amazing how people have built houses where once stood the wall. The residents were very forthcoming in that they said that the walled city is ruled by a political trio of politicians who have managed to get them a sort of ‘registry’. This is the version almost everyone I met had. Even inside the walled city this trio rules in that no property can be sold or purchased without a ‘cut’ to these politicos.

When I reach Kashmiri Gate it is amazing that one person has built his house using the old wall as his southern support, with windows now jutting out. I must confess it is tastefully built, but then all the bricks of his house are old bricks from the old wall from Akbar the Great’s days. Along the entire route till Masti Gate the same situation prevails. Just east of Masti is an opening that can be termed as yet another gateway, for cars and small commercial vehicles use it to get in and out of the hundreds of illegal bazaars that have sprung up.

This brings us to yet another amazing fact, and that being that almost 85 per cent of commercial shops set up have been done so illegally. Whole ‘mohallahs’ have been taken over, and now almost the entire middle, eastern and north-eastern portions of the walled city have become commercialised. No politician has the power to even try to dislodge them.

After walking along Fort Road and reaching Taxali Gate, which has disappeared, my path was along the western wall of the old city. This was a straight wall which existed till 15 years ago. But then this political trio got it knocked down entirely and bang on the walls they allotted plots to the current residents. All of them have a sort of ‘allotment letter’. Just imagine! How can anyone allot land where once stood the walls of the old city of Lahore?

Along this dismantled wall are another three roads into the city to assist traders in their work. On paper there is no gateway from Taxali Gate to Bhati Gate. But then who really bothers. My walk along the southern portion was the saddest for hundreds of shops and entire markets and bazaars on the foundations of the walls have come up. They have spilled into the ‘circular garden’. It is one mass illegal affair that cuts through the very heart of old Lahore, defacing it beyond belief.

As I reached my car parked outside Delhi Gate, I thought of the new Mongols that have hit the old ‘once walled’ city of Lahore. Ironically, today Afghans have trickled in and displaced the original inhabitants to the extent that they form a majority. In the evening the traders leave for their posh houses in the colonies outside Lahore.

The city is left to the Afghans. The slow painful death of old Lahore continues. The place is dirtier than in the past, especially on Sundays. It is slow and painful the feeling when one walks in the lanes where my forefathers once proudly walked.


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