The rise and fall of courtesans

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn June 17, 2006

THE 50 years of Sikh rule in Punjab (1799-1849), with Lahore as its capital was basically confined to the areas, minus Amritsar, that came to be known as Pakistani Punjab.The seat of power was called the ‘Lahore Darbar’.

During this time, like never before in the history of this land, the role of courtesans rivalled those of Florence and Venice in the Renaissance period. Men in power loved beautiful women. It is a universal, natural and timeless happening just as beautiful women know how to exploit men in power. In Elizabeth the First’s England, handsome men weaved their charm around the queen, giving rise to the best of Shakespeare’s works. It has always worked both ways, for “mutual benefit” as a bankerfriend of mine so aptly puts it.

The all-powerful Maharaja Ranjit Singh loved beautiful women, and soon after he came to power in 1799, he loved to spend his time among such beauties. But he was a man with a sensible head on his shoulders, for he was to describe to a British visitor.

“Remember, every man must pay his full attention first to his work, then to his horses, and then to his women, and strictly in that order.” He ruled for 40 years and his grip on power never once waned. No one dared to conspire against him, for it was well known that it would be the end of even the most influential.

We also know that he loved his horses, and had a massive stable housing 1,000 of the finest horses. He even went to war with Afghanistan over his desire to purchase a horse, getting over 5,000 of his best soldiers killed in the process. It was with the same passion that he pursued his women, most of whom from the courtesan houses of Lahore.

His first love was a courtesan called Mooran, the proud-peacock of a woman whose beauty beguiled everyone who came into contact with her. Once the finance minister, a scion of the religious Fakir family of Bazaar Hakeeman inside Bhati Gate, was so overcome by the beauty of the woman that he jumped into a fountain pool inside the Lahore Fort to “cool off”. The witty Maharaja laughed off the matter with the famous remark: “It seems he likes my choice.” This famous courtesan lived in a beautiful ‘haveli’ next to the mosque of Mooran inside Shahalam in Pappar Mandi. The Maharaja would ride on his elephant, or horse, as the mood dictated, and would spend long hours with her. The rich and famous, the elite and the interested would all approach not the Maharaja, but Mooran, for any work that they wanted done. It is a well-documented fact that even the British agents operating in Lahore in those days chose to operate through Mooran. She had a harem of beauties from Kashmir and the northern states, and often presented the VIPs of Lahore with a courtesan to keep and look after. Most probably it was through these courtesan that the maharaja kept an eye on his potential rivals.

The maharaja was no fool, and neither was Mooran, for she would inform him of every move the British, or others, made. It was a puzzle for the British, for their spy network was not as effective in Punjab as it was in the rest of India.To such a degree did the maharaja trust her, that he took few important decisions without first consulting her. He even got gold coins struck in her name, samples of which can be seen even today in the Lahore Museum, or with collectors.

When Mooran died, the maharaja decided to favour another courtesan by the name of Jugnoo Begum. She was a very beautiful woman, but did not have the wit of Mooran, and soon the maharaja found this ‘overbearing woman’ a strain. The maharaja craved for intelligent persons, and he managed to find yet another beauty from Amritsar, a woman Mooran had once predicted would win his heart one day. Her name was Gul Begum, and the proud Gul demanded that he not touch her before he walked bare-foot from Lahore to Amritsar to wed her. The maharaja knew well that she would not bend, and so he did as Gul Begum had demanded.

It was Gul Begum who looked after the maharaja when he fell ill, and it was she who first stepped forward, a smile on her face, to lie next to her husband when he was being cremated.

One may think of the courtesans of Lahore in narrow sensual terms, but that would be far from the social picture that they represented. The elite of the ‘Lahore Darbar’ all were measured by the quality of their harem, for it depicted their power and prestige.

The sheer number of courtesans in Lahore in the Sikh era has never been rivalled. They were interested in the arts, in music, in the finest things in life. They even educated the children of their masters, and they played a major role in the social networking that made Lahore one of the great cities of the world.

With the coming of the British, bringing women to sell in Lahore was banned and all women living outside the wedlock as courtesans and keeps were asked to leave the city. Many then decided to marry their masters. A new feudal arrangement came about, the remnants of which exist even today. The courtesan culture of Lahore, like that of Lucknow, was ended by the strict Victorian values that the British brought with them. It is interesting that when empires, or cultures, are on the rise, with them also come beautiful women — women who live off their wits, not their beauty alone.

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