Pakistan is witnessing a revolution in art and media with potentially far greater appeal to its young people than the sermons of religious conservatives. … Over the past three years, a dozen independent television channels have sprung up, from general networks to specialized news, fashion and music stations. Combined with a boom in advertising, increasing economic growth and rapid cable and satellite penetration, these outlets are fueling not only a new industry, but also a new culture—one not limited to a narrow Westernized elite. … Lahore occupies a special place in the new mass culture. —Mohsin Hamid, “Reinventing Pakistan,” in Smithsonian, July 2004
I’m not surprised to read that Pakistan is on the rebound and that Lahore is at the center of the revival. At independence, Lahore was Pakistan’s largest city and its educational, artistic, and cultural center. If it weren’t for geography, Lahore would probably be Pakistan’s capital today. Since 1947, Lahore has grown more sensibly and coped better with social and ethnic tensions than has Karachi, which has ballooned to a megalopolis of 13 million people.
In 1974 I went to work in Pakistan as a lawyer for the United States Agency for International Development, the foreign-aid dispensing arm of the U.S. government. With two small children in tow, Christine and I moved to Islamabad, Pakistan’s new capital rising in the foothills of the Himalayas. Islamabad was peaceful and child-friendly but it could be sterile and a bit boring, and it felt good every so often to get out and see the real Pakistan. My work carried me to Karachi, Hyderabad, Multan, and Peshawar, but my favorite city was Lahore. It was an easy trip—only 160 miles—and an interesting drive, particularly if you travel on a Friday (the Muslim prayer day) when the Grand Trunk Road is largely free of the lumbering Bedford lorries that otherwise clog it.
First you skirt Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s twin city, a Sikh army garrison town that came into its own in the 1840s when the British made it the largest cantonment in Asia. Then you descend through the Salt Range, formed 600 million years ago when the sea that once flowed over the Indus plain stagnated until it dried and solidified into salt. Although it’s bleak and barren territory, the descent to the Punjab plain is breathtaking. If you go in February or March, you’ll see flamingos flocking to the range’s lakes. Choa Said Sharif is a pleasant market town with rose gardens and orchards, which once was the site of Buddhist and Hindu temples. Nearby is a ruined Hindu fort. Then the road descends sharply to Khewra, site of one of the world’s largest salt mines.
When you reach the Jhelum, you will find one of the most extraordinary examples of military architecture on the Indian subcontinent. This is the colossal Rohtas Fort. It was started at vast expense in 1543 by Sher Shah Suri, the Pashtun ruler, to protect the strategic Peshawar-Calcutta road from the Mughals. He never lived to see its completion and work was carried on by succeeding rulers. The fort is now in ruins but what ruins they are! These include massive outer walls, 12 gates and 68 bastions. Standing on a pavilion of the two-storied palace, you get a good view of the whole fort. A high stone platform on the outer wall marks the execution tower from which victims would be thrown to their death. The climb up to the fort from the Jhelum and then exploring the fort make for great family entertainment—but do keep an eye on the kids!
The Jhelum is one of the five tributaries of the Indus that give the Punjab its name (“Five Waters”). The other four are the Chenab, Sutlej, Ravi, and Beas. Since the Beas is totally in India, Pakistanis usually refer to the Indus as being the fifth Punjabi river.
This river system is Pakistan’s 2,000 mile-long lifeline. In its upper reaches, the Indus is confined by mountains and gorges until the village of Tarbela, where the Indus breaks out of the Hindu Kush. Here one of the largest dams in the world has been built to hold and control water for irrigation, and to generate electricity. It ponds the river back into its gorges for 50 miles and contains more than 11 million acre-feet of water. Below Tarbela, after negotiating the Salt Range, the river bursts out onto the plains of the Punjab and pushes southward. In places the river is so wide that it is impossible to see the other bank.
The Indus has made the Punjab the richest and most fertile province in Pakistan, producing wheat, rice, sugar, fruit, tobacco, and cotton. But the infrastructure investments required to make this a reality have been enormous. In the late 19th century the British started the process by irrigating 76,000 hectares of desert in Multan district using water from the Sutlej river. Other large-scale irrigation projects followed. The multiplying network of irrigation canals led to the creation of new farm villages, or chaks, so rapidly that it exceeded the capacity of government to name them. The villages were numbered instead—and so they remain. Today’s map of the Punjab has been totally altered by irrigation.
For most of the past millennium, the Punjab’s capital has been Lahore, an excellent choice in all respects except one—militarily. Situated on the Ravi with no natural defenses, Lahore has frequently been overrun. Its history is a repeating cycle of capture, destruction, and rebuilding. In 1524 Zahir-ud-Din Babur, ruler of Kabul, marched across the Punjab, took Lahore, and founded a line of Muslim emperors of India known as the Mughals. Akbar, the third Mughal emperor, made Lahore his capital from 1584 to 1598. Jehangir and Shah Jahan, the fourth and fifth emperors, both loved the city. They extended the fort, built palaces, and laid out gardens. Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal emperor, built the Badshahi Mosque but spent little time in Lahore. He died in 1707.
After the Mughals, it was the Sikhs’ turn to rule in Lahore. In 1799 the Afghan ruler granted the governorship of Lahore to a clever and ambitious 19-year-old Sikh named Ranjit Singh. Ranjit proceeded over the years to parlay this fiefdom into a small empire and to transform the Khalsa—a Sikh brotherhood of holy warriors—into a formidable fighting force. The Sikhs were not foreign invaders but local boys made good. Guru Nanak, the 15th-century founder of the Sikh religion, was born in the Punjab at Talwandi on the Ravi, not far from Lahore.
As a city, Lahore did not prosper under the Sikhs. Mughal monuments were plundered and not much of value was built in their place. After Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, a power vacuum resulted, soon filled by the British who captured Lahore in 1846. Today Ranjit Singh’s ashes lie in a lotus-shaped urn inside a small brick pavilion outside Lahore Fort.
It’s impossible for the newcomer to Lahore not to fall under its spell. Its faded elegance, busy streets and bazaars, and extravagant imperial mélange of Mughal, Gothic, and Victorian architecture make it a city full of atmosphere, contrast, and surprise. Also its relatively relaxed lifestyle makes it quite different from other Pakistani cities. It’s a city of open-air dining, colorful festivals, and (although I can’t personally vouch for it) late-night partying.
For us, Lahore was a great weekend escape. We’d start at the Mall, with its grand buildings characteristic of the British Raj. We’d snap photos of the university, cathedral, high court, and post office. But the Lahore Museum deserved a more careful look. Its collection spanned all of recorded history on the subcontinent. Room after room of Buddhist art from Gandhara, Nepalese brass statues, exquisite Mughal miniatures, stone Hindu gods, tribal daggers, armor, swords, and silks competed for our attention. Outside the museum was the huge bronze cannon Zamzama, an Afghan prize of war seized by Ranjit Singh. Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, set in the 1880s, begins with the boy defying municipal law by playing on the gun—as Pakistani boys still do.
Then we’d take a tonga ride to the old walled city with its 13 massive gates, many of which are now in ruins. At the former Khizri gate, Rangit Singh kept two caged lions. The walls of the Delhi gate are 20 feet thick and the gate is wide enough for an elephant to pass through. As you navigate the old city, consider this factoid: When the Emperor Jahangir moved his court from Kashmir to Lahore, he made the trip with a caravan of 700 elephants.
Today the old city reverberates to the sound of copper, brass, and silver being hammered into shape by craftsmen. In the Anarkali Bazaar hand-knotted carpets of fine quality are sold—as they have been since Emperor Akbar established the first carpet factory in Lahore in the 16th century.
At the far end of the old city stands Lahore Fort, embellished by four successive Mughal emperors. The fort’s appeal is due to a successful combination of intimacy and grandeur. Don’t overlook the Elephant Path, a wide flight of steps with long, shallow stairs designed to enable rich courtiers to bring their elephants into the heart of the fort without having to dismount.
Opposite the gateway to the fort is Badshahi Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world, with an open courtyard capable of holding up to 100,000 people. The Badshahi Mosque is a testament to what makes Mughal architecture great. It’s all about balance and symmetry. Towers, domes, minarets, columns and cupolas, some in red Jaipur sandstone, some in white marble, are all gracefully harmonized.
On the edge of town are the Shalimar Gardens, one of three gardens with this name created by Emperor Shah Jahan, who also gave the world the Taj Mahal. Thick pink and cream sandstone walls protect this vast oasis with its 400 fountains from the bustle of the world outside. The garden in Srinagar still survives but the one in Delhi disappeared long ago.
Other Lahore must-sees are the beautifully tiled Mosque of Wazir Khan, the elaborately decorated riverside mausoleum of Emperor Jehangir, and the tomb of the 11th-century Data Ganj Bakhsh, probably the most important Sufi saint in Pakistan.
Lahore prides itself on being a center for poetry, music, and the arts. Mushairas and concerts to which poets and musicians from all over the subcontinent were invited used to be a standard Lahore feature at private baithaks (large rooms of private houses used for social gatherings); the spacious but crowded akharas (wrestling arenas serving as community clubs); and takias (rest houses for travelers doubling as community centers). In a 1970s article in the Pakistan Times, Master Allah Ditta, whose baithak at Chowk Mati used to be one of the busiest in Lahore listed the following artists that used to perform at his baithak—Niaz Hussain Shami, the world-renowned tabla player Alla Rakha, Nathu Ram, Bansi Lal, and Pran Nath. Today there is less classical music but Lahore’s musical and artistic tradition continues.
Multan Road is the heart of Lahore’s film industry, or Lollywood as it is known. In the 1970s and 1980s there were 11 film studios in Lahore that made over 100 movies annually. But cable television and competition from Hollywood and Bollywood have taken their toll. Now the output is about 40 films, all produced by a single studio. To produce fewer, higher quality, more costly films seems to be the new Lollywood strategy. The success in 2004 of the action flick Salakhain encourages many in the Lahore film industry to think that better days lie ahead.
A popular festival (we never got to see it) is the National Horse and Cattle Show held at the Fortress Stadium in Lahore. For a week there are folk dances, massed band evening shows, and displays of champion livestock. But for many the high point of the fair is tent pegging. This is where riders aim to spear wooden stakes and jerk them from the ground, a throwback to the days when the Mughals gave their enemies a rude awakening by collapsing their tents upon them.
As we got to know the city better, we got around to interesting spots like the Faqir Khana Museum, a small mansion crammed with treasures of the Faqir family, resident in Lahore since the 18th century. A trio of brothers descended from a fakir from Bukhara achieved prominence in the court of Ranjit Singh despite being Muslims; one as royal physician, another as prime minister, and the third as a functionary. The museum has early Korans, miniature paintings, clothes worn by the Mughal emperors, and a small armory of Sikh weapons.
We were lucky because a young, very knowledgeable member of the family showed us around. He took us upstairs, into rooms crammed with memorabilia. Then he opened a door and we could see over the rooftops of Lahore. I stopped in amazement because the sky was thick with kites. Then I remembered it was Basant, the kite-flying festival that takes place every spring. This is when Lahoris climb onto rooftops to fly their kites or just watch. Kite-flying in Lahore is seriously competitive because rivals glue ground glass to their kite string to cut their opponent’s string and send the kite into a tailspin. For some minutes I forgot about the museum as I surveyed this proxy war being fought in the skies above Lahore.
Today, with over five million people, Lahore has expanded hundreds of times beyond the original walled city, but it still has some of the most defiantly serene architecture, parks, and gardens in the subcontinent. These days when I think of Lahore, I don’t only think of the usual tourist spots—the Mall, Lahore Fort, and Shalimar Gardens. In my mind’s eye I also see colorful paper kites fluttering, swooping and attacking each other above the old city.
Gerald Zarr is a consultant on international development and a freelance writer. His wife, Christine Zarr, took all the photographs in 1977.