Up till now you’ve only seen one side of the Walled City of Lahore. But now, we’re about to show you the other side.
It has been well documented in the media of how the country “Pakistan” has recently faced a horde of issues sprouting back to its separation from India in 1947.
Predicaments regarding the rise in population, political instability, widespread pollution and an overall wayward system of government are some of the concerns that are usually discussed.
In the midst of all these overarching concerns, we sought to retrace the roots that once bloomed the flowers of this great nation.
What remains now is only an ode to the bygone days.
What remains now are only 13 gates – portals to an ancient realm through which we entered to explore the inner workings of the hub of Lahore – the Walled City.
We set forth on this journey in the energy-sapping heat, fueled by the desire for adventure and bubbling with excitement at the prospect of visiting the uncharted territories of this place.
Upon our entry into Bhati Gate, from the early signs of the blinding sunrise, the area did give off some traditional vibes. It appeared as an ode to simpler times. It seemed to exude an edge of nostalgia. It was as if the place had a life of its own, distinct from the modern city.
It was throbbing with activity, and the residents there were mainly belonged to the working class. Their drab, disheveled dresses marked a notable difference from the days of the festive culture. Most of them walked around in torn, ragged and dirty pieces of clothing that concealed the stocky physiques beneath. Others sported the more traditional look of a turban, or had a dhoti wound round their waist, supplementing their thick twirling moustaches.
We then made our way through the cluster of bazaars to a certain Halwaii vendor who gave us our first interview.
In a very crisp Punjabi accent, he described the individuals of Old Lahore to be “joyous loving people”, but as time progressed and we ventured deeper into the Walled City, we found his words to be laden with irony.
The well-built 13 gates, while still standing as a testament to the undeniable proficiency in craftsmanship of the Mughals, did however seem to play with our expectations. The uniquely designed arches were a stark contrast to the worn-out insides.
As we went further into the Walled City, we were greeted with the acrid stench of a stream of sewage passing beneath the shops and houses. Unfortunately, this continued on throughout the entirety of the area. One whiff of it tied us in a noose of regret. In addition to this, the muddy floor was polluted with a whole host of plastic litter, paan stains, and the decomposing remains of dead rats.
The dark bylanes stretched on for miles and miles, with a majority being cramped with an extension of shops where we also came across young, shirtless children forced into a life of hard labour. They were overwhelmed with expressions of unending pain and deep regret.
The streets were flooded with an array of hawkers, beggars and street vendors who came hurtling towards us once their gaze fell upon our camera and our distinctive attires. It was now evident that the novelties of the 1900s were long gone – and nowhere in sight.
Amidst all this, one cultural aspect that was a mainstay was the food. Whether it be the hot sizzling sound of the chapati colliding against bright yellow droplets of desi ghee. The seething hot poori fried to crispy perfection, or the bowls of gently cooked soothingly sweet halwa with a luxurious fluffy texture that just melts in your mouth – the delicious delicacies of the Walled City did not disappoint.
There was a whole different mechanism as to how the food was prepared. The visual presentation was on another level – with the aesthetic flair with which the tandoori whipped the piece of baked bread before hoisting it onto the stove. With how the steaming hot cup of chai was artistically peppered with grains of brown sugar. Customers flocked to these food vendors, relishing in the taste of a cold glass of lassi as they attempted to wash away the throbbing heat. One point to be made however, is how the locals seemed totally unmindful to the risks and dangers of cholesterol-producing foods, rather they laughed it off and left their fate in the hands of God.
Delving deeper into the city proved to be slightly confusing. The congestion of the walled city was palpable, and given the large-scale expansion of Lahore. Many of the landmarks of the area have undergone a great deal of change, and instead of relying on our instinct to guide our way through to the next gate, we opted to hitch a Chingi rickshaw.
As we made our way there, we couldn’t help notice how the air was dense with a thick, clouded layer of pollution. Unsurprising, given that Lahore is one of the most heavily polluted cities in the world. We were locked in the din of the daily traffic jams, and as we looked at the civilians around us, many of them seemed tired if not exasperated with the standards of living in the area. The murky-looking faces, drooped eyebrows and overall aura of sadness was difficult sight to witness. On the footpaths, we saw impoverished citizens, emaciated from every angle that the eye can see.
Moreover, our rickshaw driver was stopped by traffic police wardens around 4 minutes into the journey since he hadn’t bothered to put up a license plate on his vehicle. It has often been alleged that the stronghold of the law isn’t very tight in that area, with allegations of corruption often being launched at the police given how well known the issues of crime and prostitution are in the area, yet with nothing being done to end it.
Subsequently, efforts by the traffic police have been made in an attempt to reduce the feelings of disorder amongst the people, and to rise above the grim confines of corruption.
Before we made our way to Dehli Gate, we had to cross the overhead pedestrian bridge known that ran alongside the “Metro Bus”. Although we had not initially intended to include that area within this project, what we found there could not be left undocumented.
What we saw there was nothing any of us could have imagined. It was as if we had entered into an excerpt from a Gothic novel. There was a whole line of people who were living on the fringes of society. People who had made personal tenements out of a public bridge. People who had been so severely struck by poverty that their permanent residence was beneath thin rags of torn cloth that would shake with great intensity every time a bus would pass from underneath.
The place was infested with drug addicts. Hypodermic needles would go around in circles, and we spotted a man injecting a syringe into his vein, before the blood began to slowly drip out and leave small splatter stains of blood on the dusty floor beneath.
We came across a tattoo artist there as well. His equipment undeniably tainted with a degree of uncurable diseases such as AIDS and HIV. He was immune to the pangs of emotion. He was oblivious to the multiple health hazards. He then began to slowly stare at us – with his bulging, beady eyes, eventually inciting us to leave.
The Metro bridge was housing the wretched of society – all those living in a world of their own imagination.
And upon descending the bridge, the plot thickened.
We were stormed by several pedestrians who, upon noticing our camera equipment, rushed at the chance of venting their deep-seated sorrows and frustrations. Although we questioned them about Old Lahore; they could not stop mentioning the pathetic state of affairs in relation to the inflation and taxes. This was the dilemma of the common man.
Just behind that, our eyes fell upon a small gambling ring – perhaps one of the few means left for the poor to gain an extra rupee to feed themselves with. Old men squatted on the floor, joyfully juggling abuses at each other, with a pebble clasped tightly into their hands, before releasing it onto a small grid chalked onto the pavement.
The Metro Bus bridges truly had an atmosphere of their own.
On entry into the Dehli Gate, we then met a hookah salesman who also shared his thoughts on the way of life of Old Lahore. The man nested down into his bamboo chair after a hard day’s work with a hookah in hand, surrounded by heaps of tobacco and shared his thoughts.
Walking further down the incredibly narrow lanes, the market was thronged with people as the rich cackles of little children became mixed with the chants of clothing vendors who attempted to attract customers towards their products. Others could be seen retiring to their privacy and solitude of their own abodes; however, it was questionable as to how private or peaceful it would be – given how closely structured buildings in the Walled City were.
The five of us ventured even deeper into the city. The stimulating surroundings and various noises soon ceased. The rows of shops lined alongside each other soon vanished. The small paths then branched off into different alleyways – and this eventually led to a dystopian maze of dingy houses. We were soon surrounded by some sinister blocks of buildings. Then, something happened. It was undeniably one of the darkest, most roguish and utterly disturbing incidents that we had witnessed.
“We’re in Heera Mandi” remarked our tour guide, and we glowed with curiosity for what lay ahead.
For those who are unaware, Heera Mandi is known as the “red light district” of Lahore. Previously, it was used for singing and dancing exhibitions but it has taken a turn for the worse over time.
While we coursed through the area, we noticed how grim and murky our surroundings were. One could see transgenders situated at the corners of some estates. Another woman glanced from above as we made our way past. The drainage pipes were leaking, having been blocked out by a surplus of tissue papers and wrappers. There was a very visible lack of human presence.
A couple of steps forward and our camera crew was stopped by a man. He was barely five feet tall with a huge silver earing in his right ear. He reeked of the same stench of the sewer that we had just gone past. With his frail looking physique and his beady bloated eyes, we knew that something was up.
He attempted to blackmail us for crossing this part of the territory, stating that he had been placed here by a Major and demanded that we pay him otherwise he would have the police arrest us and have phone calls placed to our homes stating that we were on deplorable escapades.
None of us were really moved by his threats and began to walk on. And then the unthinkable happened.
He walked in front of us, and as he did my eyes fell upon his left wrist which was grossly discoloured, and decorated with the most disgusting of cut marks. At first, we couldn’t make sense of this, but then he whipped out a small rusted razor blade from his pocket, and sliced his own wrist. It was one of the most disgusting sight we’ve ever witnessed.
The blood flowed like a demonic red fountain from his wrist and dripped onto the floor until it became nothing but a slow oozing motion. We refused to pay him but he kept slicing and slicing himself and eventually the razor slipped. Then, another man appeared and picked up the blade for him.
After seeing all of this, we knew that it wasn’t our place to be.
Our audio guy handed reluctantly handed him a 100 rupee note (which he initially refused) and then we made our way out of that place as fast as possible. Immediately, the words of the first person we interviewed who portrayed the Walled City residents as “loving and joyous people” came to my mind.
For some moments, everything around us seemed ominous. Our sheltered upbringing was shattered. Our protective bubble was burst. This incident broke our whole flow. It left us with a mixture of anxiety and confusion. The hands that clutched the camera began to shake, and we were forced to take a break.
It took us a while, but after some Nihari and discussing the incident over and over again in an attempt to get rid of our anxieties, we mustered the energy to proceed with the project.
As the sun began to set, we made our way to the Masjid of Wazir Khan with its collection of calligraphy as scintillating as ever. Built in the 7th century, the mosque was commissioned during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and is considered to be the most elaborately decorated Mughal-era mosque. It’s also been undergoing extensive restoration for the past 10 years.
Beyond that, there were bazaars, bazaars and more bazaars. It was sad to see how this historic site has been so unsystematically commercialized, seeing as to how there was no shortage of litter outside the shops.
When we asked for interviews, gone were the friendly faces and welcoming smiles as many refused to speak into the camera. The air soon became filled with hostility as one man even threatened to “shoot us”.
Our final sight worth relishing was Badshahi Mosque, whose glistening lights made for an enchanting view. Also widely considered to be one of Lahore’s most iconic landmarks, it was commissioned by Emperor Aurangzeb in 1671 with construction lasting until the year 1673.
The glittering lights of food street were also pleasant, and the food there didn’t disappoint either. Although it was merely a small consolation given the large distaste that we already had in our mouths after this whole experience.
As we made our way out, we felt like emancipated prisoners. Our deep attachment to the city was severed. The euphoria and enthusiasm had vanished into the pages of history.
What we had left behind felt like the ruins of old monuments. It was a Lahore that had seen better days.
They say that “Lahore Lahore hai”, laikin ye bhi to Lahore hi hai.
To watch the documentary visit: Discover360 Youtube