Harking Back: Shifting sands in the Walled City’s sociological mix

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Oct 30, 2016

To truly understand Lahore, in all its aspects, some knowledge of the social, linguistic and cultural mix of the old Walled City is essential. More critically we must also understand how it has changed over the last one century.

This could point to a future, to hope, maybe even disaster.

Today the picture is, by any account, unbelievably different from what it originally was a hundred years ago. In the year 1916 the district of Lahore had a Muslim majority of 62 percent, with Hindus constituting 23pc, Sikhs another 13pc with a classification of Christian, Parsi and others at just three percent. Quite in contrast, the Walled City of Lahore had a very different mix. Muslims made up 44pc of the population, Hindus 36pc, Sikhs 18pc and the remaining two percent were Christian, Parsi and others. So we see the walled city as being very different from the surrounding countryside.

Within the Walled City, it seems, a lot of neighbourhoods were fairly polarised. The business sectors were heavily dominated by Hindu ‘khatri’ merchants, while the few Muslim merchants were primarily also from the Khatri clan. Amazingly ‘khatris’ classified themselves as Kshatriya, the warrior clan, and considered themselves superior, caste wise, to Rajputs, who remain in a majority in the entire northern India.

Within the Walled City the main business centres were almost entirely non-Muslim. For example the Gumti Bazaar area was completely a Hindu neighbourhood as was the entire Shahalami Bazaar area which continued outside to the Ram Galis alongside Brandreth Road. The streets that shot out of the main Shahalam Bazaar were inhabited by rich Hindu merchants.

But then even in those days as the merchant classes prospered, they preferred to live outside the Walled City. So it was that in the late 20th century came up purely Hindu residential areas like Krishannagar, Santnagar, Rajgarh and Nisbet Road. A little further they built beautiful houses in Qila Gujjar Singh, and Gowalmandi.

As the new cosmopolitan areas grew a mix of every community came up on Nicholson Road, Beadon Road and Ichhra. Before 1947 the last of the posh colonies to come up was Model Town, which had an almost even mix of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

But within the walled city most of the grand ‘havelis’ belonged to Hindu and Sikh aristocrats, with a few Muslim exceptions being Judge Latif’s ‘haveli’ in ‘Mohallah Sammian’, Mian Amiruddin’s Sikh-era acquired ‘Haveli Baroodkhana’ between Paniwalla Talab and Langa Mandi, the ‘Fakirkhana haveli’ in Bazaar Hakeeman, probably built on Akbar-era foundations, as also the Bazaar Hakeeman house of Syed Maratab Ali called ‘Haveli Mubarak Begum’. The best known Muslim-owned house was Haveli Mian Khan near Rang Mahal, as was the famous Haveli Ayub Shah near Kashmiri Gate. Legend has it that this ‘haveli’, now in utter ruins, was built on the foundations of the original ‘haveli’ of Empress Nur Jehan. At least the topographical evidence points towards this.

Most Hindu businessmen traded in gold, food grains and textiles. Their monetary strength gave them the ability to become moneylenders. From this emerged Lahore’s first major bank at Rang Mahal, which was Gobind Ram and Kahan Chand’s Hindustan Commercial Bank, established in 1805. The building is still there, though they started off as goldsmiths in Sikh days and expanded to a full-fledged bank in British days. This has a striking similarity to European Jews who were known as master goldsmiths, going on to become money-lenders and, ultimately, setting up the world’s largest banks.

Almost all the shops in Suha Bazaar, Maachi Hatta, Gumti Bazaar, Bazaar Hatta and Shahalami were owned by Hindus. In a curious mix in Dabbi Bazaar, the numerous book shops were mostly owned by Muslims, while the fine Kashmiri shawls and fine textile shops were owned by Hindu pandits, most of whom had escaped Sikh tyranny in their homeland to end up in Lahore.

According to one colourful account, the morning started early for everyone, with the call for prayers from the numerous mosques followed by the bells from Hindu temples, and, lastly, were the sirens sounding out from the railway workshop, from a textile mills next to Data Darbar as well as from Makandari Lal’s factory at Badami Bagh. In a way life for all communities was almost seamlessly integrated and respectful. Sounds idyllic, but then this is how most folk from that era describe it.

Come 1947 and suddenly it was as if a communal time bomb had ripped through the calm. Neighbour attacked neighbour and difference that once mattered little erupted to the top. The power of communal hatred overpowered centuries of toleration. A tragedy of indescribable proportions occurred and the largest exodus in human history resulted. In a way the political preferences of communal leaders on both sides won the day. The poor suffered indescribably. To be fair the poor still suffer because those communal preferences are always kept on the boil, on both sides of the line of hate. Then came the migrants. The locked shops were prized open and a new breed of looter-traders settled in.

From nearby Amritsar mostly Kashmiri Muslims found a bonanza in the mayhem. They settled in Gowalmandi and all over the walled city. These new looter-traders remain still without ethics, let alone care for Lahore’s ancient heritage. Soon they set about pulling down old houses. History was kicked out. In the end the old walls disappeared as it hindered the flow of goods to hundreds of illegal markets.

By then the original inhabitants found the wholesale economy unable to provide them a decent livelihood. They started, at the first opportunity, to move to faraway colonies, nearer to where jobs existed. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan hit the old city hardest. As original inhabitants moved out new Afghan migrants ganged up and purchased old houses on the cheap. In overcrowded houses they worked for half the going wage. Migrants are, invariably, very hard workers. Slowly they moving up the social ladder and into wholesaling. These Afghans, with their strict inward culture and way of life, are today in the majority. Every evening as the traders move out to their houses in DHA, Johar Town and other colonies, the walled city empties. The major language then spoken in the walled city of Lahore is Pushto, with Lahori Punjabi a strong second. Just how the old walled city will unfold in the days to come is not difficult to imagine.

Let’s examine a few official figures, and leave it to the reader’s imagination. The circular garden today (2015) has 1,712 encroached shops, the number annually grows by over eight per cent. The population of people living overnight over the last 30 years has decreased from over 206,000 in 1971 to today stand at less than 137,000. In the days of Emperor Akbar, probably the year 1595, the population of the walled city was 255,000 (Abul’ Fazl).

Two statistics are alarming. Today nearly five per cent of the population is either divorced, separated or widowed. What an amazing social picture. One survey claims that 53pc of the houses have major roof leak problems. The tentacles of the trader’s grip increases. Government interest is minimum and the little work done is well publicised. The cracks are skilfully papered over. As we dream away the social, linguistic and heritage condition slips into a dream gone bad. Do we care? You know the answer.

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