Heera Mandi: Red-Light Area With A Royal Past

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    Heera Mandi in the Pakistani city of Lahore is a dowager on life support. Located in the walled city or the old city, the neighbourhood is now the country’s oldest red-light district. But walk the lanes and bylanes crisscrossing till you reach this neighbourhood and you might just hear the faint tinkle of ghungroos on the beat of any latest Bollywood movie song floating down from one of the crumbling havelis or mansions here. It’s a throwback to the mujra performances of the neighbourhood’s royal past.

    Switching identities every twenty-four hours, Heera Mandi is just like any other bazaar by day while commercial sex workers earn a livelihood in the cubby holes on the upper floors of the grain shops at night. However, almost unrecognisable today, the locality was once a royal symbol of Lahore.

    To understand this dichotomy, we must return to the 16th century, to the story of this neighbourhood. Back then, the Mughal Empire was consolidating its control over North India, including the city of Lahore. From 1584 to 1598, Lahore was the capital of the Empire, during the reign of Emperor Akbar. Not only was the city's ruined citadel which was built in 1267 by Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din Balban of Delhi Sultanate was re-fortified, laying the foundations for the revival of the Lahore Fort, but several monuments were constructed across the city.

    An area south of the Lahore Fort was developed as a residential neighbourhood for attendants and servants of the royal court and the Emperor. Since it was close to the fort, it was referred to as ‘Shahi Mohalla’ or ‘Royal Neighbourhood’.

    Soon, the area became home to tawaifs, who were professional entertainers associated with the royal court. The tawaif culture, which flourished during the Mughal era, included talented artistes who performed mujra, the sensual royal dance of the medieval Indian court. These were very successful entertainers who contributed greatly to the classical form of music and theatre.

    The tawaifs were trained in music, etiquette and dance by the best ustaads (masters) of the time, and the women of Shahi Mohalla were a social symbol for the elite; their presence at ceremonies was considered a statement of class and sophistication. Although professional entertainers often double as sex workers, the tawaifs of Shahi Mohalla were not like that. The nobles would send their children to them to learn etiquette and the ways of the world.

    The tawaifs of Lahore even found a place in the fiction and the popular narrative. One such story is of a tawaif of Mughal court in Lahore named Anarkali. It is said that she had an illicit relationship with the prince Salim (who later crowned as Emperor Jahangir), the son of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The narrative describes how the old emperor was furious at the fact that his son, his royal heir was captivated by the love of a woman of low class and status, and thus how on his orders, Anarkali was enclosed in a wall in the Lahore Fort where she died. Although there is no historic proof of Anarakali's existence but its certain that because of her character, the tawaifs of Lahore had appeared in movies, books and fictionalized versions of history, since the inception of this culture in the city.

    However, by the first half of the 18th century, the city of Lahore had witnessed several invasions and attacks, first from the Afsharid ruler of Iran, Nader Shah, and then from the Afghans under Ahmad Shah Abdali. These invasions weakened Mughal rule in Punjab, and royal patronage of the tawaifs ended. Many migrated to other cities.

    Brothels first appeared in Lahore during the Afghan attacks. The invading army had carried away several women from the towns they sacked in the subcontinent between 1748 and 1767. Abdali’s troops set up two brothels – one in present-day Dhobi Mandi and the other in Mohalla Dara Shikoh.

    These regular invasions brought chaos to the city but the demolition of the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, the Sri Harmandir Sahib by the Afghan army in 1762, united the community. The Afghan forces were routed out of Punjab, leaving a power vacuum in the region. This was filled with various Sikh principalities or misls. During this time, the brothels set up by Afghans in Lahore were closed.

    Then, in 1799, a young Misldar or chief of the Sukerchakia Misl named Ranjit Singh captured the city of Lahore from the Bhangi Misl. In 1801, he had proclaimed Maharaja of Punjab and vowed to unite all of Punjab.

    Maharaja Ranjit Singh reintroduced several royal customs of the Mughals in Lahore, among which was the culture of the tawaifs and their performances in court. Although Ranjit Singh’s court couldn’t match the grandeur of the Mughals, the tawaifs of Shahi Mohalla once again found patronage from the court.

    In fact, in 1802, the 22-year-old Maharaja Ranjit Singh fell in love with a Muslim tawaif called ‘Moran’, who hailed from Kashmir and lived in a village called Makhanpur near Amritsar. The idea of a Sikh Maharaja marrying a tawaif, who belonged to the community of entertainers called Kanjars, drew much outrage among his nobles and the religious authorities. But Ranjit Singh who had already fallen in love didn’t worry about any disapproval and married her anyway. He built a separate haveli or mansion for her in the present-day Papad Mandi neighbourhood of Lahore. It was not far from Shahi Mohalla, where the tawaifs of the court used to stay. Needless to say, this story didn’t face the tragic fate like the popular tragic love story of the Salim-Anarkali.

    A few decades later, the General-turned-Prime Minister of the Sikh Empire, Hira Singh Dogra, felt that the Shahi Mohalla being located in the centre of the city, thus, along with hosting the houses of tawaifs it can be used for utilizing the place as an economic centre like a bazaar. So, after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839, he built a food grains market in the neighbourhood. It was thus called ‘Hira Singh di Mandi’ (Market of Hira Singh) or just ‘Heera Mandi’. Interestingly, some believe the word heera or diamond refers to the tawaifs of the area, who ‘looked as beautiful as diamonds’.

    Despite Shahi Mohalla’s new identity as Heera Mandi, the tawaifs continued to enjoy royal patronage, but not for long. After two decisive Anglo-Sikh Wars (1845-49), the Sikh Empire came to an end and the British East India Company took over the region. The British weren’t interested in patronising the tawaifs’ courtly music and dance, and the culture of mujras became associated with prostitution.

    Many tawaifs, who had lost their livelihood, became sex workers for English soldiers who had been stationed in the cantonment in the Anarkali area of the walled city or the Old City of Lahore. Since this area was not far from the Mughal-era Shahi Mohalla, now also called Heera Mandi, sex workers began to operate from here too.

    In the early 1850s, the plague spread in the walled city and the local British administration shifted their cantonment from Anarkali to Dharampura, outside the old city. There was an attempt to shift the sex workers as well but many stayed back.

    Despite the cult of prostitution in the area, Heera Mandi retained its reputation as a centre of the performing arts. The only difference was that the tawaifs’ patrons were no longer emperors and nobles but raes or wealthy men from the city. That’s how Heera Mandi earned its nickname ‘Bazaar-e-Husn’ (Market of Beauty).

    Despite the changes in its identity, one thing remained constant in Shahi Mohalla – the culture of the performing arts. As a result, Heera Mandi has raised some outstanding performing artists, including the famous Noor Jahan, Khurshid Begum, Mumtaz Shanti and many others. Incidentally, the home of Sir Ganga Ram, known as the ‘father of modern Lahore’, is located in the area.

    The homes of Ustaad Amir Khan and baithak of Ustaad Daman used to be here. Earlier, this baithak was known as ‘Hujra-e Shah Hussain’, for it served as a retreat for the great Sufi poet of the same name. Ustaad Sardar Khan Dilli Wale ki Baithak, held near Taxali Gate, was one of the most respected baithaks of its time. Ustaad Barkat Ali Khan’s baithak, held in Heera Mandi Chowk, was known for thumri and ghazal singing, while Ustaad Chotey Ashiq Ali Khan was a great exponent of khayal singing.

    Some dangals or music duels were also hosted here. These were organised by music lovers and gave musicians a public forum to compete with each other. The famous dangal between Ustaad Baray Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustaad Umeed Ali Khan was held in Heera Mandi in the early 1940s. It was this musical dangal night that the two musical heavyweights demonstrated their melodic prowess. By keeping on singing for extended periods as none would accept 'defeat' or showed any sign of fatigue. Consequently, the soiree continued till dawn, when Pandit Jeevan Lal Mattoo, an accomplished vocalist in his own right, intervened and succeeded in separating "the warring" musicians. The honours were, therefore, shared equally by the two musical giants.

    Renowned Urdu author Saadat Hasan Manto gives a slight reference to the Heera Mandi in his short story Naya Qanoon (New Constitution) which is set in the backdrop of the promulgation of the Government of India Act 1935 and the unfulfilled expectations and hopes of the Indian people with the English government. This story was written in the late 1930s when Manto was living in Bombay (now Mumbai). However, this story came into limelight recently in 1993-94 when Pakistan’s Sindh Textbook Board carried out some revisions in the Urdu syllabus for Classes 11 and 12 which decided that although this would be included, the name of Heera Mandi as referred to in the story, would be edited to “Mandi” instead.

    The dual culture of Heera Mandi – a hub for sex workers as well as of entertainment – continued even after India’s Independence. Whereas most tawaifs, many of whom had become sex workers, hailed from the Kanjar community, women from other communities, faiths and regions, including East Pakistan, moved to Heera Mandi, either due to poverty or because they were illegally trafficked and brought to the area. However, when Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq was President of Pakistan, from 1978 to 1988, a rigorous effort was made to end the culture of mujras and sex workers in Heera Mandi.

    It wasn’t a success and, to avoid the crackdown in this neighbourhood, many brothels moved to other parts of Lahore. In the age of the Internet, Heera Mandi’s sex workers turned to social media and started offering ‘escort services’ via a host of software apps.

    The grain market set during the Sikh Empire is now shifted from here. Moreover, Heera Mandi does have other facets of its identity, other than prostitution. One of these is its reputation as the busiest eating hub in the walled city. Street food stalls, vintage restaurants and sweetmeat shops are everywhere and heavily patronised for their mouthwatering fare. Also, climb to the top story of one of the restaurants here and you will be treated to a jaw-dropping view of the grand, Mughal-era Badshahi Mosque of Lahore. With the development of Azadi Chowk and Greater Iqbal Park by adding green spaces around and elaborating its aesthetics, the place has won more importance, now because of the growing tourism opportunities which the area provides.

    Over time, neighbourhoods morph and change, as has Heera Mandi. Sadly, this Mughal-era hub of the performing arts has all but lost its essence as the culture of mujras and music is on the verge of extinction. The erstwhile Shahi Mohalla, a royal symbol of the city, now huddles in the shadow of a dark business.


    Aashish Kochhar is a history enthusiast from Amritsar who studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
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