My maternal grandmother, Amrit Bery, was a Lahori; her family hailed from Shah Almi Gate, the beating heart of the old Walled City — androon shehr. Her father, Narain Das Bery, was a lawyer and she and her sisters had been educated at the Sacred Heart Convent School, until the family was forced to migrate to India in 1947. I never met my grandmother, but it was from her sister, Jiwan, that I learnt of the enchanting city of their birth. Being a scholar of the 1947 Partition, this knowledge has since been enhanced through oral histories of others who once lived there. In an interview with professor Sat Pal Kohli of the Delhi College of Art, I was told that “situated on the banks of the river Ravi, Lahore was founded by Luv or Loh, one of the twin sons of Lord Rama. The very word ‘Lahore’ means the fort of Loh. It is the city of gardens, of sin and splendour, of Rudyard Kipling and Amrita Pritam. The city of my birth, separated from me now by a border, by wars, by religion and by time. That is Lahore.”
I have since had the chance to travel across the border several times, and, on each visit, my endeavour has been to unearth yet another layer to the life Amrit Bery might have lived as a young girl, and, in the course of doing so, it seems that Lahore has unsurprisingly embedded itself deep into my heart. For a Dilliwali, Lahore seems a splitting image of home — the warmth and Punjabiyat of the people, the Mughal forts, the colonial monuments, the bustling bazaars and broad, tree-lined roads boast of the similarity between the two cities. And, despite the fact that Lahore is Pakistani and Delhi is Indian, there are moments when one does, as I have several times, felt as though it was possible to slip into the crevasses of shared history and culture of the once undivided India.
“The area we lived in was called Machhi Hatta, but I don’t remember the lane any more,” my grandaunt told me. She went on to describe the imposing Shah Almi Gate, which she remembered to be nearby, one of the 13 darwazas — Roshnai, Kashmiri, Masti, Khizri or Sheranwala, Yakki, Delhi, Akbari, Mochi, Shah Almi, Lohari, Mori, Bhatti, Taxali — of which now only six remain. Though she described their house in great detail (four-storey, five-six steps leading to the entrance, the middle house in a row of three, overlooking a large stepwell-cum-bathing spot), the actual location was hazy. It would be difficult to find, but on my most recent visit in February, I set off with these details nonetheless.
It turned out that history had not been kind to my grandmother’s neighbourhood. Shah Almi darwaza existed no more; it had been consumed in a terrible fire during the riots of 1947, along with the Hindu and Sikh residents of the area. Smoke had risen from the ashen mohallah for day after. Today, in lieu of the once-dominating Mughal Gate, hang lengths of electrical wires, mirroring the aerial landscape one can find in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk.
Walking deeper into the Walled City made me notice other things, nuances that situate Lahore within a curiously syncretic antiquity. Across Circular Road at Chowk Shah Alam, there stands the famed One Night Mosque (Aik Raat Ki Masjid), a white, double-storey structure with small minarets and latticework balconies, erected apparently in one night in 1922, after a tussle between the Hindi and Muslim communities to construct a place of worship in the same location. It is celebrated today due to a couplet on the incident by the poet Iqbal, “Masjid toh bana di shab bhar mein iman ki hararat walon ne/ Mann apna purana papi hai, barson mein namazi ban na saka (Though the mosque was built overnight by the believers/ Our hearts are old sinners, they could not become devout over the years).
Walking further along, in awe of the history in every brick around me, manoeuvering my way through intricately carved, now dusty, wooden jharokhas and doors, unable to read Urdu signs well enough, asking people for directions and nodding time and again at the “Aap India se hain?” questions, I peered carefully at the names of lanes and streets, looking for clues and a sense of belonging.
Until 1947, the Walled City had well-defined domestic territories for ethnic groups, represented by the physical structure of the city itself. The outlying spine (guzars) gave way to the neighbourhoods (mohallas, kuchas), and, finally, the streets and bylanes (gallis). To understand the web of community history, one need only pay attention to the names of these winding, vein-like pathways— Kucha Telian, Kucha Kababian, Galli Dhobian, Galli Ghunghroo Sazaan, Galli Bandooq Sazaan; some are named after well-known personalities like Galli Billa Kabootar Baaz, Sheeda Halwai Wali Galli, Kucha Faqir Khana, Kucha Aurangzeb; and, finally, they are named after the notable havelis in the area, like Pathhar Wali Haveli Galli.
But not all of Lahore boasts of this kind of alchemy; some parts speak directly to the disastrous traces that still remain of the communal riots of 1947. At the corner of Shah Almi Road and Rang Mahal Chowk, a sole building, half-burnt, still stands bearing the words, ‘Gobind Ram Kahan Chand, Estd. 1805, Hindustan Commercial Bank’. The story goes that Gobind Ram, trader of achar, chutneys and sherbets, owned a shop on the ground floor of this building, and was also amongst the partners of this branch of the bank, which had been newly constructed at the time. Over the years, a myth has also been spun around the existence of a trench in the basement leading directly to the Lahore Fort.
Another gem I have returned to time and again, near Delhi Gate, is the historic Wazir Khan Mosque, built between 1635 and 1640 AD by Hakim Ilm ud Din, the prime minister of Emperor Shah Jahan. Fitted with the most beautiful fire-red brick and kasha tiles, frescos painted in hues of yellow, orange and green, the mosque is an oasis within an otherwise chaotic, bustling city. In an October 1, 1887 dispatch in the Civil and Military Gazette, Kipling, ever the Lahori, wrote that the area of the mosque was “full of beauty even when the noonday heat silences the voices of men and puts the pigeons of the mosque to sleep.”
Inside the mosque, on either side of its octagonal entrance chamber, lies the Calligrapher’s Bazaar — 16 cloisters or hujras, eight on either side. These were originally earmarked as the studios of select master calligraphers, who worked on Quranic inscriptions and Persian verses that embellish the interior and exterior of the mosque. After the construction of the mosque was over, successive generations of these master calligraphers continued their trade and teachings from their hujras till the advent of the printing press in the city.
And, if we have mentioned Kipling — a difficult thing not to do while speaking about Lahore — it is only fair to mention Kim’s Gun, the bore canon Zam-Zamah, that today rests in front of the Lahore Museum of the Mall, cast in 1762 under the Durrani Empire. Folklore states that once known to be the biggest cannon of the subcontinent at 14 ft 4.5 inches, its construction was funded by the people of Lahore, who donated their copper and brass kitchen utensils for the cause.
Stories, legends, and myths encircle the city of Lahore like close companions; its tales are endless, as are the evidences of the many rulers it has seen. Like any city of its age, it is a place where the past and present often meet in a disjointed but seemingly harmonious way. Its legacy and architecture is — all at once — Hindu, Mughal, Persian, Sikh and British.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline: In Search of Lost Time