They say it is best to write about what you know. Following this piece of advice, I choose to bring to you a tale of Lahore, the city where I grew up in Pakistan. Times were different then. Untouched by suicide bombers and religious fanaticism, Lahore was and still is a beautiful city steeped in history, culture and tradition. People complain that the city has not moved on with the times, that is to say it is not as cosmopolitan as Karachi, it cafes not was trendy as the latter, the people not as forward thinking and the ideas not as contemporary. Yet, lurking beneath all this is a timelessness only a Lahorite can appreciate.
Lahore is the capital of the fertile Punjab, which means five rivers in Urdu (the national language of Pakistan). The city lies on the outskirts of rich land and was traditionally home to feudal families who held enough agrarian land to make a living out of it. Now there is a business thriving in every home. From the modest income of the seamstress who helps run her home by doing traditional embroidery to dozens of salons and restaurants that have mushroomed all over the city, there is opportunity in every corner. Lahorites love food-it would be a cliché to say that eating is the favourite pastime in Lahore but is true. Local specialities like Murg Cholay (chickpeas and Chicken curry,) tikka kebab and sweetmeats are must haves. The Food Street in Lahore is a passion with the typical desi (local) food lover. Open to traffic in the day but closed to motorized vehicles at night, the food street comes to life at night. Brightly illuminated and heavily aromatic, it is lined by food vendors on both side of the road. Take your pick of any Dhaba (kiosk) and settle into the atmosphere of the food street. On a cold winter night, warm Jalebis (twisted sugar and flour dessert) with tea will warm you up as you listen to musicians walking by or buy flowers form the boy selling flower garlands and bracelets. Your Frommers copy would probably warn you against eating local curry due to its spice but trying it is a must albeit a little cautiously. Places like Puraani Anarkali and the Walled City are defined by not only its traditional Lahori food but the businesses thriving there as well. It is here that the musicians and the courtesans reign. Most of the latter have now moved to other areas but the businesses began here at first. Many a wedding in the city has witnessed professional dancers and musicians from the inner city performing on stage. Weddings are a national obsession and people from all walks of life try to enjoy this event as much as possible.
For those wishing to take a trip down the Mughal era, symbols of Mughal architectural excellence stand resolute in the wake of all that is happening around them. The Lahore Fort was built during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar. Sections such as The Sheesh Mahal (The Crystal Palace), Moti Masjid and Naulakha were later added by Emperor Shan Jehan. Naulakha refers to nine jewels, suggesting the blend of semi precious stones inlaid into the walls of the Naulakha. The intricacy of the workmanship bears testimony to the skills of the artisans of those times. Badshahi mosque is another relic of the Mughal Empire, standing strong in an age of religious disorder and anarchy. Influenced by Indian, Central Asian and Indo Greek architecture, it is a gift to the subcontinent by Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir, the most religious of the Emperors. Lahore is also home to Shalimar Gardens, a sanctuary built by Shah Jahan .Lined by hundreds of fountains and palatial courtyards, these gardens together with the Lahore Fort have been declared a UNESCO World heritage site. Lahore was the centre of the Mogul empire and the signs of this can be seen everywhere. From cuisine that has been named after the Mughals such as the Mughlai Qorma (a rich curry) and Mughlai Pulao (saffron and dry fruit laden rice), to actual monuments speaking of a bygone era, Lahore has seen and lived it all.
To experience Lahore while the city is at her best, plan a trip during spring. Basant or the festival of kite flying heralds spring in Lahore. There is colour everywhere. Basant, which, at one time, was a small scale event, is now a major spring activity in Lahore. People come to Lahore in all cities of Pakistan to celebrate Basant .The horticultural society of Lahore also arranges flower shows and other spring festivities during this time.
I would certainly recommend some indigenous goods for the discerning customer of today. Khussas or traditional hand crafted shoes with embroidery and mirror work are beautiful pieces of work that go equally well with western and eastern outfits. Other items to look out for are handicrafts such as textiles, furnishings and artwork. Pakistani art is second to none in the world and there are exquisite pieces by renowned artists that would lend character to any setting. Traditional Islamic calligraphy as well as other forms of art is available in the art galleries but it is a good idea to approach the artist directly for good price and value. A good local contact could give you access to the artist and so would the gallery keeper if you sweet talk him into it.
For the theatre goer, there is a wide range of theatrical activity available. From live productions catering to the masses to more sophisticated productions suitable for the more intellectual, there is something for everyone. The Alhamra Cultural Complex has been host to touring drama and theatre companies from the world over as well as given a platform to local talent. It is worth checking of there are productions lined up for the season. Another show to look out for is the puppet show by the Rafi Peer theatre group. This is very renowned theatre group in Pakistan and offers a variety of puppet shows for different tastes.
And so Lahore remains just as appealing as before. It will always be a city of colour and festivity, home to warm blooded people with a zest for living.Attaking a foreign cricket team may be a terrorists’ idea of giving the city a bad name but Lahore is capable of fighting back. It has given its inhabitants and visitors too much joy for them to be blind to its charm. For the charm is irresistible. Once you go there you will keep going back. That’s a promise.