Urban studies scholar William Glover has likened Lahore in northern Pakistan to a palimpsest, a document that has been used again and again while preserving the marginal comments, scribbles, and doodles of generations of previous users.
Glover makes this comparison while observing “an older city, partially hidden within a newer one, its presence hinted at by abrupt discontinuities of surface, by remnants of distinct but unrelated plans or by sudden appearances of … traces from the past.”
Lahore had served as capital for many rulers: Ghaznavids, Mughals, Sikhs. Each left their own mark. When the British took over in the 1850s, they found it convenient to recycle the buildings of previous ages. So the railway headquarters or even an Anglican church could sprout in a palace or a royal tomb.
Some writers have reported that when a road was dug up, skulls, bits of bone or pieces of jewelry would be exposed. I was quite excited to learn what I would turn up during my own visit to Lahore’s ancient Walled City.
My excitement stemmed from my own fascination with walled cities. I suspect that this has a lot to do with my deep regret that Manila had lost much of its own enclosed precinct, Intramuros. Likewise, I have admittedly developed romantic illusions from watching movies like “Kingdom of Heaven,” which featured the spectacular assault on Jerusalem’s fortifications. If I were ever holed up and under attack, I would require no less dashing a defender than Orlando Bloom.
There is something rather quixotic about the idea that stone and brick ramparts could protect the citizenry. This speaks of a less gruesome time before airplanes carried bombs, sky-borne packages of death. I also like examining aerial views of enclosed urban communities because these remind me of drawings from Biology class of that most fundamental unit of life—the cell.
Walking through the streets of Lahore’s Old City, one does get the sense of being inside a vibrant, growing organism. Each lane is an artery filled with bustling bearers of information, nutrition, and debris. One floats along, carried as by a tumbling, churning stream.
All around me I saw merchants going about their business. Here was a barber, giving a leisurely shave right on the sidewalk; there was a locksmith, a potter, a beggar. Here was a shrine, there a gym, a billiard hall. Someone was frying somosas or confectioning a narcotic chew. Weaving in and out of the ambulant crowds were pedicabs as fiercely and unapologetically decorated as a fiesta.
Tissue upon tissue, I would find the fabric of the present stretched over the framework of the past. I saw time-worn walls supporting an exquisite balcony. A doorway whispered of Mughal comings and goings. Elsewhere, the sunburst over an entrance announced the global enlightenment of Art Deco.
I saw shops selling shawls and carpets as well as strings of yarn intertwined with tiny round mirrors. These were to be used to adorn the hair of brides. Not having marital plans of my own, it occurred to me that these multi-hued strings would make wonderful curtain ties.
Since all organisms must breathe, we found that even in the midst of the cosmopolitan tumult, there was room to exhale. Our guides brought us to a garden that could only be reached through a very narrow passage. This made the green enclave that lay beyond even more welcoming.
The garden surrounded what had once been a well which we could not find. The men that we asked seemed to know nothing about a water source. Or perhaps they just did not want to talk about it. And so we left the sanctuary of the hidden well that sparkled only in memory.
Later on, we were shown a different kind of refuge—an abandoned bath house. Marveling at the magnificent ceilings, I tried to imagine gazing up at these while relaxing amidst clouds of stream. Such a civilized way to wash off the dirt of a long caravan journey!
Returning to the street, I noticed a stall that sold lengths of cloth freshly printed with impossibly bright designs. These turned out to be placemats which could be cut up and handed out to guests as needed.
They reminded me of the plastic tablecloths sporting brilliant tableaux of fruits and flowers, available in all Philippine markets. Then it hit me: I should buy several yards of the material to dress up my holiday tables!
Soon we were standing before one of the most magical buildings I had ever seen: the great mosque of Wazir Khan. Built in the 17th century, its broad expanses are garlanded with floridly tiled and painted medallions. The minarets, similarly festooned, rose, almost like the fitting culmination of all the activity of the streets. They were points of exclamation, expressions of gratitude for the vitality of the city.
Inside, while contemplating the shimmering murals, someone commented that a study should be undertaken to determine if the flora being depicted still existed. Given this botanical bent, I spied what looked liked atis. Could this fruit, so familiar in my country, also exist here?
On the way out, I saw a large box filled with prayer caps. An apt reminder that the tides have turned, I realized that the caps were made of plastic pretending to be embroidered.
We were able to see the inside of a traditional townhouse or haveli. This had been converted into a study center by the local university. Abruptly, we were enveloped in a tranquility that seemed almost out of place.
Sitting in the parlor, I decided to introduce a little game to fill in the suddenly quiet spaces. I called out a phrase and asked the person next to me to supply the rejoinder, stringing together an often amusing, disjointed tale.
Later on, still smiling because of our haphazardly knotted narrative, we were told another story: the haveli had once been owned by a family that had been forced to flee because of the unfathomable horrors of Partition. Perhaps this accounted for the silence. This was a home that had had the spirit wrenched from it. How could anyone have ever thought it possible to divide a nation with a pen?
Navigating the alleys of the city again, I realized how fortunate I was that I had never been deprived of my most familiar surroundings. Imagine if the latticed windows, the curve of a pillar, the floral medallions which enriched one’s life were all erased. Imagine if one were to know the very breath of Lahore, only to lose it.
While I was stopping to take a photo of an effusively bedecked pedicab, its lone passenger inside stepped out and elegantly saluted me. It was almost as if my insight into my own good luck were being affirmed.
Taking a closer look at the outlandish pedicab decorations, it struck me that these were the same colors and patterns on the tablecloths, on the mosque. Yes, in a city as enduring as Lahore, the centuries have woven a fine net which binds everything, even as life continues to recreate itself with the interplay of all its parts. Who knew where the net ended and where it began?
This was why the dome of the bathing pavilion matched that of Wazir Khan. In repose or in prayer, the spirit must seek out the Almighty. I would return from my visit renewed by the wisdom baked into every brick of the Walled City. I could, as well, now boast of curtain ties and tablecloths that would entertain my guests with the delights of a faraway land.
Emerging from one of the many gates of the old quarter, I found myself in the section of the flower vendors. The scents and colors rekindled in my mind an unfinished saga I had written many years ago.
It was a whimsical piece about the splendid capital of a fabled, invented kingdom. Amazingly, one of my chapters described this exact scene, this same profusion of petals and fragrances.
Lahore had bestowed a parting gift: There are places where we have never travelled which dwell within us, inexplicably, joyfully, sheltered just beneath our skin.
The writer would like to thank his guides, Dr. Pamela Rogers, Dr. Rustam Khan and Dr. Richard Engelhardt. He would also like to thank the Pakistan Embassy for visa assistance. Please send all questions and comments to [email protected]