HARKING BACK: Mochi Gate and the lost heritage of a ‘Speakers Corner’

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Feb 12, 2017

If you face the Mochi Gateway (Darwaza), to the right is a massive car and truck parking lot. The sight is exceedingly ugly to say the least, yet this very space was once Lahore’s famous and beautiful ‘Speakers Corner’ where Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru all moved the people towards a movement to end colonial rule.

Our ability to destroy cultural, educational and political institutions is amazing. Nothing seems to stand in the way of our trader-politicians. To be honest our bureaucrats serve them relentlessly and do the real damage. I suppose money speaks. Let us try to understand what has happened, and, more importantly, what now needs to be done.

First the name ‘Mochi’. There are three versions as to the name’s origin. Firstly, after Akbar built this ‘darwaza’ (gateway) in the period 1575-1581 as he expanded the walled city outwardly, this was the south-eastern fortification. Hence the very first name, in Mughal records, was ‘Morcha Darwaza’. But then as co-incidents go, or are made to happen, allegedly one of the guards at this ‘morcha’ was a soldier named Moti Ram. Hence the legend goes that people started to refer to the gateway as ‘Moti-da-darwaza’- or Moti’s Gate.

With time the empty space behind the gateway of the expanded walled city housed the Mughal cavalry units, mostly of Turkish origin. The Qizilbash horsemen were among the many that came there as did the aggressive Kakazai horse dealers. The name ‘kucha chabakswaran’ is just one example of many ‘mohallahs’ that represented such cavalrymen. Hence inside the gateway trades relating to the cavalry, hence leather work, started to grow. Thus people started calling it ‘Mochian da Darwaza’, or Mochi’s Gate, or the ‘cobbler’s gateway’. So it is that this last name sticks as Mochi Darwaza, or Mochi Gate.


Originally outside the city walls a large empty space existed to allow soldiers to see approaching danger. When Maharajah Ranjit Singh took over in 1799, he realised that the age of the huge cannon ball crashing into walls had ended. In its place explosive shells with wall-smashing ability was the new norm. Stopping soldiers from entering the fort was the priority. Cannon-ball throwing contraptions like the massive Zamzama Cannon, now parked outside the Lahore Museum, had become obsolete. This threat had to be catered for. An empty space was dangerous. So he built a moat around the walled city to keep enemies away from the wall.

This magnificent moat can be seen today in the form of a smelly and narrow ill-maintained ‘nullah’. The moat originated from the River Ravi just outside the western portion of the Lahore Fort as it curled round the city and emptied into the river outside Mori Gate, which was once the south-western gateway. Its flow was along today’s Urdu Bazaar. All along at different places of the river/moat waste water from the city fell into it. These flows even today emanate from an amazing network of narrow open waterways which flow outwards from the various mound tops, naturally because of gravity, through every street and lane. The walled city never has, still, standing rain water. The maharajah’s moat stood him in good stead.

But come the British in 1849 which was followed by the events of 1857, the new rulers realised that a moat could help in an effective siege against the British, like the one that had taken place at Delhi. The British reached the conclusion that sieges had to be avoided at any cost, for any battle of attrition worked in favour of the local population. So they filled up the moat, knocked down the southern portions of the city wall, as well as the southern portion of the Lahore Fort’s protective wall, and converted this few-found flatland into a beautiful garden around the city. From the Circular Road to the walls became an exquisite garden.

That garden became one of the features of colonial Lahore and a place where people went for their morning walks. The portion outside Mochi Gate, known locally as ‘Bagh baroon Mochi Darwaza’ became famous as a ‘Speakers Corner’. It was from here that the first cries for freedom started, and men like Gandhi, Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad, Patel, Jinnah, and Liaquat Ali Khan fired the imagination of the people. But more often fiery religious speakers like Ataullah Shah Bokhari and Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, as well as secular revolutionary poets like Ustad Daman, moved crowds for freedom.

The movement for freedom from colonial rule brought almost every known political leader of every hue and shade to the ‘Speakers Corner’. On January 29, 1930, when the Declaration for India’s Independence was passed at the famous Bradlaugh Hall on Rattigan Road, it was at Mochi Gate that the resolution was read out with Nehru presiding. The ‘Purna Swaraj Diwas’ (Independence Day) was declared and, in a most amazingly bizarre twist, Srinivas Iyenger was expelled from the party for calling out for “full independence” and not strictly ‘home rule’. To be honest even the Pakistan Resolution had a similar tone. Such niceties were never the flavour of the crowd at Mochi Gate’s ‘Speakers Corner’.

On a more sedate level, but equally fiery, were speakers like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy and Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan. As the military dictatorships of Pakistan began to be challenged the most outstanding speaker was Z.A. Bhutto. He certainly knew the pulse of the Mochi Gate crowd, and whenever he came to Lahore before he took power after the 1971 Bangladesh happenings, the city invariably rang with the cry “chalo Mochi Gate chalo” (Let everyone go to Mochi Gate).

Probably the last speaker of some note at this place was the current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif when he was in the opposition. As he settled into power the famous ‘Speakers Corner’ of Lahore was soon taken over by his strongest constituents -the inner city traders - wanting to park their cars and trucks. The end of a tradition had come about.

It must also be said that long periods of military dictatorships drained the revolutionary liberal tradition of the walled city. This harmed the people more than any other event in our chequered history. Even today as liberal thinkers are made to physically disappear, very much in the Argentinean ‘Dirty War’ tradition, the urge to fight to win back Lahore’s ‘Speakers Corner’ is dim. Even the banning of Basant is yet another step in the crushing of the Lahori spirit.

But then what can be done? For starters it must be understood that by allowing a space for ‘hot-heads’ to speak their mind has always acted as a safety valve for the frustration of a people, especially a population devastated by extreme income disparity and rigged elections. Supra-nationalism drummed up by our ‘real rulers’ with a disguised and dangerously-dyed religious patriotism, has effectively ended debate. To vent the population’s inner feelings a space free of fear is urgently needed. Also needed at this ‘Speakers Corner’ is a museum of the various freedom struggles.

Surely there is a need to reclaim this hallowed space, return its greenery and lawns for the people of the walled city, and to plant beautiful local trees (not hideous palm dates). There is a need to reclaim our true political and cultural heritage by allowing citizens to listen to numerous shades of opinion. Surely this is why this country was made in the first place … that is if it was meant that all citizens would be equal, not some more equal than others.


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