Iris

Inside Lahore's royal quarter

Updated Aug 19, 2016 01:09am

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“Very few real foreigners come here since nynalev (9/11),” complains Abdul Qayum, a guide at the Lahore Fort. “Only these Chinese, Japanese, Korean types,” he adds with slight disdain. On being probed further, he explains that the East Asians are unlike ‘real’ foreigners (Americans and Europeans), who have greater attention spans and deeper pockets. I suspect that the latter is what commends their authenticity to him. Qayum has been working as a guide at the Lahore Fort since he retired from his job as a security guard at the Armoury Gallery of the fort in 2010. His father, before him, also worked at the fort and his daughter is learning fresco painting from the artisans working on the fort’s restoration.

Qayum has been here so long that the present is thickly encrusted by the past for him. In the span of a sentence, he moves seamlessly from describing the time when there were torture cells in the dungeons of the fort in the 1980s, to reminiscing the colonial era when graffiti would elicit a three-month jail sentence plus a five thousand rupee fine, to contemptuously pointing at the Rangers guarding the recently closed Alamgiri Gate – the main entrance to the fort – in the name of security.

It is an early Sunday morning. The sun blazes brightly and the intensity of the heat pronounces the arrival of summer in no uncertain terms. None of this seems to greatly deter the visitors to the fort. All around, there are men in colourful shalwar kameez with women and children dressed brightly in their Sunday best; many of them are absorbed in striking poses and taking selfies. Qayum tells me that they are mostly dehaati (rural) people who have come to visit Lahore. I overhear snippets of conversation in Punjabi between a father and his child about the decadence of the Mughals; he explains to the child that the downfall of the dynasty came due to the rulers’ excessive consumption of wine.

Qayum leads me to Moti Masjid, a small marble mosque tucked in the western side of the fort near the Alamgiri Gate. For years, no one paid much attention to it, I learn, until two years ago when a hakim from Mozang wrote a small book on the favourable jinns which inhabit it. The bookseller in the quadrangle outside the mosque explains that the book sells so fast that he has to keep restocking it. Some other guides join Qayum and animatedly explain how people have started arriving in flocks at the mosque to light candles and oil lamps. Two small cloisters inside the mosque are gaudily carpeted and colourful plastic pegs for hanging rosaries dot the walls.

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Visitors have covered these walls with messages addressed to the jinns of Moti Masjid; each visitor asking the jinns to petition to God on their behalf. Each wall also bears a sign proclaiming that graffiti in the mosque is sakht gunah (a grave sin). A group of women sit fanning themselves and discuss theological matters and local gossip. One of them praises the fort for housing three shrines of holy men. I learn that all of these women live nearby and walk over to the mosque every day. Qayum tells me that the crowd at the mosque is much greater on Thursdays, which is considered an auspicious day.

A shoe seller outside the Lahore Fort | Arif Mahmood, White Star
A shoe seller outside the Lahore Fort | Arif Mahmood, White Star

Outside, I run into the bookseller, again, who laments the dwindling of his business over the years. He tells me that the only people who come to the fort now are either visitors from other small cities and rural areas, young couples who find the fort a convenient dating spot, or people living nearby in the Walled City who walk over for recreation or to visit the mosque and the three shrines of dubious religious men which have cropped up over the years. “Educated people no longer visit,” he says and tells me that religious books sell best now alongside some popular-history titles.

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Husain, another guide who has been working at the fort for a decade, tells me that the volume of visitors has fallen considerably over the last year for two reasons. The first being the construction of the nearby Azadi Chowk complex, which leaves only one closed-off, half-metalled road as direct access to the fort (both nearby parking areas are a good 500-metre walk away). The second reason is the permanent closure of the Alamgiri Gate which opens into Hazuri Bagh, as well as the gate which connects the food street to the Hazuri Bagh complex — for security, he explains with a sigh. Qayum again narrows his eyes at the Rangers lazily propped on top of Alamgiri Gate.

Chalking on the walls of the Lahore Fort | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Chalking on the walls of the Lahore Fort | Arif Mahmood, White Star
A view of a side wall of the Lahore Fort through its archway| Arif Mahmood, White  Star
A view of a side wall of the Lahore Fort through its archway| Arif Mahmood, White Star

A smartly dressed young man comes over to inquire why I’m walking around with a notebook; it turns out that he is part of the official management of the fort, which has recently come under the Walled City of Lahore Authority. I ask him about the jinns of Moti Masjid and he shakes his head in exasperation. It has been difficult to stop people from trying to spend the night at the mosque, he tells me. “They’re all just illiterate, ignorant people,” he says, before going on to relate his own supernatural experiences of hearing the voices of dead Sikhs at the fort in the evening.

I walk out into the Hazuri Bagh complex. A few policemen guard the entrance and make lazy attempts to check my bag. “Laddiss log [ladies],” says one to another by way of explanation as he lets me pass, while stopping a man at random to frisk him. Hazuri Bagh is completely empty except for two Rangers and a plain-clothes man sitting around a table. Barbed wire surrounds the garden and crows gather in the empty marble baradari in the centre. A long coil of concertina wire snakes down disconcertingly from the middle of the entrance staircase of the Badshahi Mosque to Hazuri Bagh preventing access to Allama Iqbal’s mausoleum. I walk over and try to cross it.

A view of the old city from a minaret of the Badshahi Mosque| M Arif, White Star
A view of the old city from a minaret of the Badshahi Mosque| M Arif, White Star

The popular Andaaz Restaurant , located across the street from the Badshahi Mosque | M Arif, White Star
The popular Andaaz Restaurant , located across the street from the Badshahi Mosque | M Arif, White Star

An angry policeman comes up to stop me. I ask him why the area has been cordoned off and he looks at me incredulously. “Suckorty [security],” he says, pronouncing the word slowly to let its full weight fall on my ignorant ears. I ask him why the most visible security measures are for the tomb of a dead man and he shakes his head at my naiveté. “The tomb of the Poet of the East has received three threats from terrorists,” he explains in a kindly patronising tone. “After the Ziarat Residency attack, we cannot be careless in protecting it”.

All around me visitors are happily taking pictures with their phones and tablets. Hawkers are selling everything from food, glass bongs and gimmicky Chinese toys to neon-coloured sunglasses; hats attached with dreadlocks are doing good business, too. Everyone stays away from the fenced-off areas. Children run up and down the stairs next to the concertina wire. Suckorty has come to stay.


This was originally published in Herald's July 2015 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer works in the public sector on a project to digitally preserve the Punjab Archives

Opening photo: A view of the Badshahi Mosque from the Sheesh Mahal by Arif Mahmood, White Star