The ‘tasweerwala bava’ of Lahore

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn July 22, 2006

T HE partition of the Punjab in 1947 saw the loss of hun dreds of buildings that over time had been part of Lahore and its history. Each premises, each institution, each tree had a story to go with it. We have lost all those stories, and with that loss our culture gets poorer.

In this piece it would be interesting to narrate a couple of these stories, for with the buildings the stories have also been lost. The road that leads from the railway station to the Shalimar Gardens was in days past one of the most important highways, for it joined Amritsar to Lahore. Just near the canal, there was once a huge house that was acknowledged as a ‘dharamsala’ and was known as the Bhai Goma Singh Dharamsala. The massive house was built in the days of Maharajah Ranjit Singh and its owner, Bhai Goma Singh, was a good right scoundrel who informed the maharajah that the real purpose of the dharamsala was to provide travellers and ‘others’ with good food and ‘bhang’, a favourite intoxicant even today among most villagers.

The huge house had a massive gateway that allowed the elite to enter the massive house sitting on an elephant. There were rooms on two storeys around the courtyard, where people were entertained. To one side was a hall where all day servants would beat ‘bhang’ into a delicious drink full of almonds and dates and the ‘bhang’ shrub and laced with milk. This drink is still to be found all over the subcontinent at religious and social gatherings.

During the hey days of Sikh rule, this house was considered as the best meeting place of the elite, just as today a couple of well-known clubs serve the same purpose. If anyone in those days said that he was ‘going to Goma Singh’s dharamsala’, it meant he was among the elite of the city. The maharajah himself was known to frequent the place in surprise visits, and the purpose was to pick up all the gossip of the city.

After Goma Singh died, the place was run by Diya Singh, and then came the British and they immediately shut the place down. But by then the son of Diya Singh, a well-known Lahore character by the name of Nihang Singh, took over and on the sly restored the ‘bhang’ business.

He informed the British that he had set up a dairy farm, for in the courtyard he kept hundreds of buffaloes. This character was known in Lahore as “Tasweerwala Bava” – the old man with the picture. The trick was that Nihang Singh had managed to get his photograph taken with the Lt. Governor of the Punjab, who had written at the back that the man had helped the British in the capture of the Punjab and all assistance should be given to him. This picture he used to good effect.

The `Tasweerwala Bava’ managed to get an opium license and he reopened his grandfather’s house and started what he claimed was a traveller’s lodge. The whole of Lahore knew that it was the centre of almost every pleasure known to man, including the drinking of ‘bhang’. Very soon the British got wise to the tricks of the ‘tasweerwala bava’ and the house was sealed. It lay in ruins and people started stealing the bricks of the place. In 1947 the entire house simply disappeared as if locust had eaten a green tree. Today it is part of a housing colony after it was taken over as evacuee property.

The second house lost during the mad rush of 1947 was the house known as “Chati Badhshahi” – the Sixth Ruler. This was a beautiful house on the Ferozepur Road just as it turns from Mozang towards the Lahore Central Jail. Originally it was a house belonging to a Sikh farmer of Mozang, and it was claimed that the Sixth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, during his trips to Lahore used to stay at this simple house. For this reason it was much revered by the Sikhs. During the days of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, it was worked on and much marble was used to convert it into a gurdwara. In Lahore this was also known as ‘Darbar Sahib’.

In British days, it was still a much respected place and on the fifth of every lunar month Sikhs used to come here to pray and offer ‘prashad’. In the 1947 riots this modest house was razed to the ground as the Sikh fled Lahore. The new generation had no idea of its history and very soon all the stories associated with it died away. Today the place has several small houses built on the premises and no trace exists.

The stories associated with buildings last as long as the buildings last. Faiz, the poet, very correctly described culture as what you have. That is why all over the world people take special care to conserve the places that went with their past. As we knock down old buildings and even old trees, it seems the past is another country.

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