HARKING BACK : Names have a history whether we like it or not

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, June 7, 2015

There is much more to names than meets the eye. In our attempt to sound proper, pious and correct, let me say deliberately, we tend to black out the history of a few important areas of our old walled city. In this piece let me dwell on one important mohallah and bazaar.

No matter what you call it, be it ‘Shahi Mohallah’ or ‘Hira Mandi’ or be it ‘Kanjran da Mohallah’ or even the ‘Red Light Area’, all of us have a secret desire to see this area that is as old as the walled city itself. My view is that all of us wish to visit this place at least once in our lifetime, and, hypocritically, not be seen by others in the process. The names have changed given its place in time, and this piece attempts to explain this process.

Names have a history to them. They evoke different responses from different people. The first time I visited the place inside the walled city, it was with my late father while visiting the ‘haveli’ of the great Patiala classical musician Ustad Akhtar Hussain. His sons, Amanat Ali, Fateh Ali and Hamid Ali, have since sold their beautiful ‘haveli’ and moved to the relatively ‘more respectful’ Mohni Road. That ‘haveli’ is now part a gaudy food courtyard opposite the Lahore Fort.

Talking of responses I cannot continue this piece without mentioning my younger brother Matin, who on our return home after Eid prayers at Badshahi Mosque, asked my father: “Daddy, which place is this where all the women stand in the balcony watching people pass by?” My father casually remarked: “Sonny, this is Hira Mandi”. Matin frozen, and in shock ran at full speed all the way home. It is now a family joke. But then journalists, without fail, when they start their careers love to do a piece or two on this famous bazaar, which starts from Taxali Gate ending at Tibbi Chowk.

Hira Mandi always did have two clear-cut portions, strictly divided by the road that comes from Bazaar Hakeeman and reaches Fort Road. To the east of this dividing line was where all the musicians and dancers lived and worked, and they never visited the western portion, which is still famous as the ‘red light’ area, a military description given by the British. As a cub reporter I managed to do a few stories, especially crime stories, but with age mellowed to accept this ‘injustice’ as the way nature intended this ‘oldest profession’ to be. To regulate it was to control it. The pious declared it sinful and banned prostitution, resulting in ‘dens’ (what a horrible description) spreading all over our horizontally-expanding city.

But let us not get bogged down by this moral argument. Our interest is the history of this place. The origins of the place dates back to Moghal Emperor Akbar, who expanded the city with burnt-brick walls in 1585, to the west he housed his new allies, the proud Rajputs, mostly of the fierce Bhats, who originally belonged to Rajputana. For this reason the south-western gate is called Bhati Gate, and it was there that their nobility were housed.

But then the entire Bhat tribe, the good, the bad and the ugly, moved here, including to the north-west of the expanded walled city the Marwari Kanjar, who were the bards (singers and dancers) of the tribe. Even till British days the inhabitants spoke a Marwari dialect of Punjabi. Hence this portion was named Kangar Mohallah.

As the Moghals entrenched and their courts became sophisticated, this part of old Lahore was nearest the fort and power. Royalty and the elite needed the highly-cultured and educated courtesans (tawaifs), who lived in beautiful houses that royalty financed, to educate their children. It was henceforth called ‘Shahi Mohallah’. This is where the tutors of the royal family and of aristocrats, especially of the females, lived. In those days to understand the finer arts, like music, dance, poetry, the languages, mathematics and history, was supposed to be an essential attribute of a sophisticated person. In the developed world this function is carried out by formal schools, finishing schools, colleges and universities.

Once the Moghal Empire collapsed, more so when Aurangzeb died in 1707, the numerous Afghan raiders reduced this place to an empty shell. In one raid, so claims one source, over 150 courtesans of the Shahi Mohallah were made slaves and taken to Kabul. Comes the Sikhs in 1799 and it was brought back to life. The original red light area in those days was at Chowk Chakla, inside Lohari Gate, which then moved to the empty Shahi Mohallah.

In those days a third name change came about, for it was renamed Hira Mandi by Maharajah Ranjit Singh in 1828 after his favourite courtier Hira Singh Dogra, the son of Raja Dhyan Singh. The Sikh ruler always called Hira Singh a ‘Farzand-e-Khaas’, more so, experts believe, because his own sons were not as sharp as he was, or wished them to be. Hira Singh’s father was the Sikh ruler’s Prime Minister and had built a beautiful house nearby, known still as ‘Dhyan Singh de Haveli’. The belief that the word ‘hira’ was derived from the word ‘diamond’, a popular description of the beautiful females who lived there, is a misnomer.

Here we must put in a few words about Hira Singh Dogra (1816-1844). In the midst of the bloody rush for power that followed the death of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, and more so following the murder of his own father in 1842, he managed to become Prime Minister of the Punjab from September 17, 1842, to December 21, 1844. On that fateful day his intrigues met their match when his head was brought by his enemies to Hira Mandi atop a lance, as was that of his chief adviser Pandit Jalla (after whom is named Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar).

His end came when he confiscated the property of two sons of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, and through Jalla tried to poison Maharani Jindan Kaur and his son Maharajah Dilip Singh. It was ambition gone wild. This led the Khalsa troops to turn against him and he fled Lahore after stealing gold and jewels from the Lahore Fort. He was hunted down after he crossed the River Ravi at Shahdara, caught and beheaded along with Pandit Jalla. At the crossing opposite the Tibbi Police Station on Bazaar Hakeeman, the two heads on spears remained for two days, an apt lesson for the misguided.

When the British came in 1849 they decided to control the ‘unavoidable evil’ of prostitution through special laws in which the prostitutes needed licences to ‘operate’. It was a declared a ‘Red Light’ area, a warning to soldiers of the East India Company not to visit the place without permission. Armed military police still, 165 years later, patrol the area.

After 1947 this area saw a decline, with religious edicts forcing the musicians to leave the area. Prostitutes moved to other more ‘lucrative’ areas. The ‘taxal’ (mint) of Moghal and Sikh days was moved out by the British. With time the old name associated with Hira Singh Dogra returned. Only we now do not know what a Dogra looks like. Instead we search for elusive diamonds. Imagine.



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