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Pakistan Diary: Day 2–In Lahore

By Yoginder Sikand

26 December, 2006

Lahore is an ancient city, and legend has it that it was founded by Lav, son of Rama. My tourist guide lists hundreds of historical monuments in the city, but I have just three days and I have to be mselective. Diep, my host, drives me to Anarkali Bazaar, in the heart of the Old City. We pass by impressive colonial buildings, dating to the period when Lahore was the capital of British Punjab. The bazaar is meant to be a major tourist attraction, but I find it chaotic and hardly spectacular. It is like any busy, crowded and unplanned market in any lower-middle class locality in Delhi, with hundreds of shops lining narrow, winding lanes.

Diep leaves me here and I decided to explore the area on my own. I change money at a booth in a lane that specializes in Indian goods, with stalls selling paan leaves, hair oil and other cosmetics and video cassettes brought in from across the border. I have tea and a pastry-like naan in a shop run by a burly Pakhtun. Stuck on the walls are pictures of Bollywood heroines and slogans that announce 'Wasting Time Here is Forbidden' and 'No Discussing Politics'.

I hail an auto and head further down the Old City. Pakistani autos are smaller than their Indian counterparts. They are built at least a foot higher, which makes getting in and out an ordeal. I first stop at the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh, a renowned Sufi, whose magnum opus, Kashf al-Mahjub ('The unveiling of the Veils') is said to be one of the first Persian treatises on Sufism. The shrine complex is massive and appears to be recently expanded and renovated. At one end of the shrine is what seems to be a newly constructed mosque, with garish, dark glass windows and rocket-like minarets, a glaring contrast to the graceful Mughal-style architecture of the rest of the shrine complex.

In the sprawling courtyard are literally thousands of people, praying, mediating or simply lounging about, drinking in the sun. A large crowd encircles a man in an awesome turban, who seems to be considered some sort of dervish. Hundreds of people stand before the grave of Data Ganj Bakhsh and that of a Hindu man who converted to Islam at his hands, seeking the blessings of God and offering flowers.

Outside the shrine mendicants sit in rows with their bowls on sheets and in the narrow lanes behind that are lined with filth-clogged open drains and half-built or crumbling houses, shops sell biryani and sweet, orange-tinged rice in massive degh or cauldrons. A corpulent man aggressively hails out to me, insisting I should buy an entire degh to distribute to the poor. When he learns I am from India, he says sternly, 'You've come all the way from India, so that's even more reason why you should buy a degh'. I hurriedly make my way and head down to the Urdu bazaar, the centre of Lahore's publishing industry. The bazaar boasts literally hundreds of small bookshops, that specialize mainly in Urdu literature and Islamic and Pakistani history. I spot Urdu translations of the Ramayana, Geeta and the works of Osho, and am informed that these sell very well. In contrast, there are few bookshops that deal in English books, and most of these are imported from abroad, including India. I pick up some interesting Urdu titles—on Sufism, the Partition and several published by the Markaz Dawat ul Irshad, parent body of the dreaded terrorist outfit Lashkar-i Tayyeba. (The latter were confiscated when I crossed back into India, despite my insistence that I bought them to only to critique them).

The Shahi Qila or Royal Fort is a sprawling Mughal complex, a major Lahore landmark. Compared to the Mughal Fort in Delhi, it is disappointing and shabbily maintained. Faintly visible on some walls are pictures of Hindu deities and of the ruler of Punjab, Ranjit Singh, who captured Lahore from the Mughals. I am famished, but the only eatery in the vast complex is too forbiddingly filthy to consider eating in. Its walls are soot-stained and it reeks of kerosense oil and so I settle for roasted peanuts and a cold drink outside.

I stroll past the marble tomb of the poet Iqbal and enter the spectacular Badshahi Mosque, another Mughal monument. It looks similar to the Jamia Masjid in Delhi, and is one of the biggest mosques in Pakistan. A separate chamber in the mosque complex houses what are said to be relics of the Prophet Muhammad, including a hair, cap, a pair of sandals and a blanket. From the mosque I walk down, barely fifty metres away, to the neatly white-washed gurudwara that is topped with gilded domes. This is a massive structure, which stands on the spot where the Sikh guru, Arjan Dev, was martyred. It also contains the samadhi of Ranjit Singh. There are said to be just three Sikh families left in Lahore, and they tend to the three functioning gurudwaras in the city.

At the entrance I am stopped by a guard. Only Sikhs and Hindus can enter, I am told. The reason, I suppose, is fear that some militant Islamist group might attack the shrine. I take out my passport and show the guard my name and he lets me in. I am taken around the shrine by a Hindu man from Baluchistan, whose language I can barely understand. He's from a Dalit community, whose ancestral profession is sweeping. I see numerous Hindus, and a few Sikhs, sitting in the garden and in the langar room partaking of the guru ka prashad. Most of the Hinus, I am told, are from Sindh, where there is still a sizeable Hindu population. Smaller numbers of Hindus and Sikhs still live in the other provinces of Pakistan—Baluchistan, Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province.

It's evening now and I head for the Alhambra theatre, Lahore's main centre for the performing arts. There's a play on by the well-known Ajokha group about the Punjabi Sufi Bulleh Shah. It proves to be the most well-directed and moving play I've ever seen. It mocks exploitation of institutionalized religion in the most powerful way, sending the audience to tears. And I say to myself that the average Pakistani is certainly not the wild fanatic that the average Indian thinks he is.

Also Read

Pakistan Diary-Day 1
In Lahore: Of Nomadic Odhs And Parathas
By Yoginder Sikand

Crossing The Border- Pakistan Dairy: II
By Yoginder Sikand

Pakistan Diary- Part I
Heading for the Border

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