Lahore is one of those magnificent cities where ancient intersects with modern, where history rises and falls between ring roads and parks, between new plazas and malls and sometimes history stands tall in the middle of the urban landscape and then melts away to make way for something new, sometimes even standing awkwardly at odds with its more modern neighbour.
And yet, despite this onslaught of modernity into the urban landscape of Lahore, it has always struck me that walking through parts of the city is like walking in an open air museum. Many great cities are built on the banks of rivers, Paris on the Seine, Budapest on the Danube, Rome on the Tiber, Cairo on the Nile and so on. So too, Lahore is built on the banks of the once mighty River Ravi, and even today the majestic Badshahi mosque and Lahore Fort greet us, even as they did way back in the seventeenth century when Lahore was much smaller and neatly contained in the confines of the Walled City.
Further inwards to Badshahi mosque, Kim’s gun stands guard on the Mall, a gun with a history and a life and many stories of it’s own, and now immortalized by Rudyard Kipling. The Mall, with its own historic monuments, dotting the landscape in quick succession is an architectural delight ranging from the Lahore High Court, the GPO, Tollington Market, Lahore Museum, Punjab University, Governor House, NCA, the sweeping verdant lawns of Lawrence Gardens to the famous intersection of Charing Cross, a crossroads where many chapters of history meet and intersect.
Lahore is one of those cities, that once met is hard to forget. Once lived in, it is hard to live elsewhere. And once, one has tasted of Lahore’s culinary delights, one spends a lifetime replicating those flavours, that ambience and those memories, searching from rows of restaurants at Southall or Wembley, looking for the name Lahore that somehow bestows these gastronomic offerings with that extra chutzpah. Even in eateries ranging from Dubai, New York, Toronto to Paris, the name Lahore bestows a certain street cred and a focal point for non resident Lahoris to congregate, a fact that is hard to explain yet easy to understand.
It is not for nothing that the famous three word saying, carries so much meaning, Lahore Lahore eh. Loosely translated, that means, Lahore is Lahore. Now that would mean very little to someone who has never been to Lahore, but for those familiar with the city, those three words, sum it all, there is no place in the world quite like it. As the capital of the province Punjab, the city has its own economic significance, but more than that, it is a busy city pulsating with life and its own rhythm. This is the city of the famous Horse and Cattle Show, a city that took pride in its annual Basant festival to herald the start of spring, a city that is dotted with treasures of the Mughal era. And it is probably at its most beautiful during the monsoon season, which is when we were headed back.
I often think of a question a friend once asked me. Knowing that I had lived in ten countries over the last four decades, her question was, “so, where is home? “
And I often wondered, is home a latitude and a longitude, like a GPS co-ordinate? Is home a feeling of nostalgia, a series of places and people, a string of events and memories beaded on the string of life, fading black and white pictures in an album, the aroma of biryani and saffron wafting through the kitchen, the fragrance of freshly plucked jasmine flowers floating in a bowl of water, a hot cup of tea and the morning papers, the laughter of friends crowded around a kitchen table, re-reading a favourite novel out in the garden catching the rays of the setting sun, an uninterrupted wifi connection, home is a collection of so many emotions, so many comforts and so many loved ones, that all combine together to provide the haven every individual seeks to return to at the end of the day. It is no wonder, that hotels are striving to give their customers that sense of home, by noting and recording their likes and dislikes, the type of pillow they prefer, the special brand of tea they drink, the flowers they prefer, the allergies they suffer from, all this, in a bid to make the experience of the traveler-on-the-go as close to home as possible.
I put paid to that question, when landing in Lahore, and was greeted by a sticky, hot and humid day, that made me feel warm, welcome and at once, at home. The skies emptied onto the streets of Lahore, and soon there was water everywhere, roads were gridlocked, traffic came to a virtual standstill, but the air was fragrant with a scent that even the most refined perfumer of Grasse has yet to capture; the fragrance of parched earth when it meets the monsoon thunder.
Every time I come back to Lahore, I am always amazed at how the city has changed in the intervening months. Step aside trees, to make place for flyovers and underpasses. Here and there, billboards bigger than cinema screens greet the average driver. As old meets new, the city itself is changing. Few cities in the world tear down the old and build it all afresh. Dubai is one extraordinary example of a city that gives new meaning to the word “old”. Everything is new or newer in Dubai, and whatever little is left of the Dubai of the 70s and 80s will eventually be replaced by gleaming, shining new skyscrapers emerging out of the sandy dessert. But cities like Lahore that have existed for well over a thousand years, must preserve the extraordinary wealth of its cultural heritage whilst seeking to adapt to the changes it faces on a daily basis.
It is the Lahore as I remember, that I always want to share with my children. With that in mind, I set off with my teenage daughter on a tour of some of Lahore’s sights and sounds. Armed with a camera, our first stop was the Wazir Khan Mosque tucked inside the Delhi Gate. That such an exquisitely ornate and beautiful mosque just emerges out of its surroundings without any warning and then simultaneously blends into its neighbourhood always amazes me. Further down the road, the Shahi Hammam, or the Royal Hammams are a marvel to visit. Following an extensive refurbishment, not too dissimilar in appearance to the excavated walls of the Louvre, the Shahi Hammam meets the wide eyed tourist with plenty to offer, not least the clever Mughal architectural feature where one speaks into one wall only to hear the same sound emanating out of the diagonal wall.
From here, and a short drive away, past the Lahore Railway Station a monument worthy of an entire article devoted to it, we found ourselves walking towards the Food Street, the walk culminating at Badshahi Mosque and Lahore Fort. Safe is the space where Mc Donalds hasn’t yet sunk it’s golden arches.
We thoroughly enjoyed the walk down the Food Street. It is a living breathing street, where talking parrots greeted us from various balconies, somewhere in the distance, men lay in the shadow of the huge sandstone walls of the mosque, resting in a makeshift bed, and in the foreground, groups of women sat on their haunches and held forth on important subjects. Turkeys and peacocks wove their way in and out of the groups of people, unflustered and unfazed. Kitchens were beginning to stir in preparation of lunch and buckets would be hauled up and down the narrow elevations of the restaurants on a pulley like mechanism to save time in these narrow and tall havelis. Some of these exquisite havelis still retain their original features and some to my horror have just been plastered over. Old and new sits side by side, each one eyeing the other.
Perhaps the most famous of these is Cuckoo’s den, which, day or night, offers one of the most beautiful views in the world, an undisturbed peaceful view onto the mosque itself.
No matter how many times I visit Badshahi Mosque, I am always awestruck as I enter. It is not just the sheer scale, its harmony and timeless beauty, the cupolas that rise to greet the sky and the pale coral sandstone amongst other architectural wonders that leaves me stupefied time and again.
As I finish my tour, and save the visit to the Lahore Fort for another time, I know that with or without me, my daughter will come back again. There is still so much more to see. But even then, she has been mesmerized by the city I call home. She is not the first to fall in love with Lahore and nor is she the last, but she is part of a new generation that takes as much pride in Lahore as many of my generation do.