HARKING BACK: Abiding dispute over antiquity of Lahore and Ichara

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Aug 9, 2015

One of the abiding controversies of Lahore is that which is older, Lahore or Ichara. The inhabitants of each virtually pour scorn on the claims of the other, and come up with arguments to support their antiquity.

Last week during a discussion on the origins of Lahore at a famous university in England, I was caught up in this ‘ancient disagreement’ between two students, both highly educated and from well-known families of old Lahore, or to be fair, old ‘Lahore’ and old ‘Ichara’. It is only fair that we understand this controversy so that we can have a fair assessment of the facts as they present themselves.

Let us start by trying to trace the origins of the two names, then move on to find mention of both in history, and then try to use facts on the ground as they exist today to support, or rebut, arguments. It should make for some stimulating reading, because no matter how neutral we claim to be, we end up supporting one side or the other. Mind you I am pretending to be neutral.

For starters both ‘Ichara’ and ‘Lahore’ took form centuries ago, surely as a few dwellings of a family, or a few families related to one another, and as is to be expected the names of these small dwelling were invariably based on their beliefs, or deities, or avatars. The Hindu religion, to which these dwellers belonged, believes in a central ‘Om’, the creator, and as with all religions their scriptures address the good and the evil that humans are considered to have within them. Their outward manifestation, as put forward by humans, prefers one aspect to the other.

The Hindu deity Shiva and Vishnu are the two major traditions of Hindu belief, and all other deities emanate from them. The third aspect of the Hindu ‘trimurti’ is Brahma. All other deities are reincarnations of these ‘mahadevs’ – the major deities - in the shape of ‘ishvaras’ or personal gods, or attributes, which take the shape of idols, or ‘murtis’. Ironically, the names ‘Lahore’ and ‘Ichara’ are opposite attributes, and even that of two different traditions. It is no surprise that in this age of reason, if that can be said to be true, even the matter of age of these two ‘habitations’ has their inhabitants disagree. It is almost a matter of honour. For a historian this is a delightful challenge.

We all know that Ichara has a famous temple called ‘Bhairoo ka Sthan’ and then there is the temple of ‘Chandrat’, now both the names of ‘mohallahs’ there. The deity ‘Ichra’ is an avatar of Shiva, and Bhairoo represents one aspect of the avatar, a major contributor to the ‘trimurti’. In the Bhagavata-Purana the word ‘Icha-Ra’ in Sanskrit means not the ‘edge of evil’. This can be misinterpreted, for in Jewish scripture it means ‘the edge where goodness starts’. There was an Aryan Hun god by the name of ‘Ra’, hence it could also mean the ‘dwelling of Ra’. I do not want to dwell too much on this word, lest we forget the central proposition of this piece.

When Hindus were a majority in this habitation before 1947, they always did consider themselves superior to the followers of ‘Loh’, the deity son of Rama, a ‘purna avatar’ of Vishnu, and hence a complete avatar that existed in ancient times and a major character in the ‘Mahabharata’ epic. He represents the good as against the evil of Shiva and his avatars. The Brahmans of the walled city claimed superiority in terms of caste and the positive aspects of belief. In a way that discourse still continues.

This was a very short discourse on the names, both avatars of ‘mahadevs’, one representing one aspect of life, the other its opposite. It is an amazing setting for its current inhabitants to discuss antiquity. The ‘avatars’ of both go back in time, and hence it is impossible to determine age based on Hindu myths, recorded or otherwise. So the argument of which came first, the good or the evil, is a non-starter. The point is when was the first time these two places were inhabited?

For this let us move on to history. From the very few archaeological samples available we do know that 4,200 years ago people did live on the mound where the walled city of Lahore exists today. We do not have any such samples, at least not so far, from the small mound where Ichara is located. For that matter from a purely geological point of view, the Lahore Fort and the walled city of Lahore have many more mounds than does Ichara, which has a total of three. Why are mounds important? This needs a brief explanation.

For hundreds of years ago the River Ravi flowed around the city of Lahore and passed by its fort where the highest mound still exists. During the monsoon the entire area was flooded and people and their animals were brought to higher ground as is seen even today when floods hit different parts of the Punjab. In the case of Ichara this was never the case, save for two very small mounds, the rest was covered with water. Hence as a natural selection of a safe place to live, Lahore definitely must have got preference.

From this point of view we see that Lahore was surely a safer place to move to. Then we have the matter of the name itself. If we search old books on Punjab we see that Ichara is named ‘Ichara Lahore’. This name has given rise to three different interpretations, each as delightful as the other, and each with completely different implications.

The first claim is that Lahore was originally at Ichara, and the Lahore that we know today came much afterwards. To this end they make use of old ‘hundi’ documents (on display in the Lahore Museum) sent from Surat port traders in India using the term ‘Lahore near Ichara’. If this was the way Lahore was described by traders then, it is a strange use of location description. But surely there must be some reason for this.

What baffles me is that the ‘hundi’ document is from the period Lahore was Akbar the Great’s capital and Ichara was a very small village. My research tells me that even today there is a small town near Surat called ‘Lahor’, which was a major indigo market, and that for clarity they, most probably, used this description. But this begs the point that why mention Ichara? What was its importance? The only clue that we have is that it had a well-known jewellers market, and Ichara-made jewellery was much sort after. For a trader this could count as a good enough marker.

Our next historical marker is that we know that Guru Nanak sent his friend Mardana the ‘rubaab’ player to Lahore and decided to rest in the “forest between Mozang and Ichara villages”, which makes it at least over 500 years old. We know that the southern-most gateway of Lahore, and surely its oldest save for Roshnai Gate next to the fort, is named Lohari Gate. This has given rise to the argument that this gateway was named because it faced Lahore, or ‘Ichara-Lahore’ as the ‘hundi’ stated, which has given rise to the notion that the original name of Ichara was Lahore. This is incorrect. Let me explain.

The ‘hundi’ said ‘Lahore near Icchara’, and this was written as a marker, not as a name. About the gateway’s name being ‘Lahori Darwaza’, the correct name is ‘Lohari Darwaza’, the gateway of the ‘lohars’, the ironmongers. Inside this gateway existed till very recently a lot of iron furnaces which supplied iron and special metals for military and other uses. Mind you the metals for the famous Zamzama cannon came from this very place.

The arguments are many, and one as delightful as the other. We cannot dispute the fact that Ichara is an ancient Hindu village (mind you only Hindus lived in the sub-continent before Islam came about) as is Lahore a very ancient city. We will settle this dispute in another piece. Till then let us try to make the authorities carry out archaeological digs at both places.


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