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OpinionsLahore’s Heera Mandi has a unique history of more than four centuries

Lahore’s Heera Mandi has a unique history of more than four centuries


From Royal neighbourhood to red light district, the journey had many twists and turns

By Girish Linganna

Heera Mandi – the Diamond Bazaar – Sanjay Leela Bhansali's latest Netflix production film has created waves globally among the viewers of the sub continent. The focus has shifted to this particular place, now in Pakistan which has been in existence for more than four centuries.

Heera Mandi in Lahore, Pakistan, is an old area with a rich history. Located in the city's old part, it is known as the country's oldest red-light district. When you walk through its narrow streets, you might hear the soft sound of ankle bells jingling to a Bollywood song coming from one of the old, crumbling houses. This echoes the area's past, where traditional dance performances were once popular.

Heera Mandi changes its face every day. During the day, it looks like any other market. But at night, sex workers make their living in small rooms above the grain shops. Although it's hard to tell now, this area used to be a symbol of royalty in Lahore.

To understand this contrast, we need to go back to the 16th century and the history of this area. During that time, the Mughal Empire was strengthening its rule over North , including Lahore. From 1584 to 1598, Lahore served as the capital of the Mughal Empire under Emperor Akbar. During this time, the city's old citadel (or strong fortress) originally built in 1267 by Sultan Chiyas-ud-din Balban of the Delhi Sultanate, was strengthened. This set the stage for the revival of the Lahore Fort, and many other monuments were built throughout the city.

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

Soon, the area became home to tawaifs, who were professional entertainers linked to the royal court. During the Mughal era, the tawaif culture thrived and featured skilled artists who performed mujra, a sensual dance popular in the medieval or the ancient Indian court. These entertainers were highly successful and made significant contributions to classical music and theatre.

The tawaifs were trained in music, etiquette, and dance by the best masters of their time. The women of Shahi Mohalla were seen as social symbols for the elite; having them at events was a sign of class and sophistication. Although professional entertainers often also worked as sex workers, the tawaifs of Shahi Mohalla were different. Nobles would even send their children to them to learn proper manners and worldly knowledge.

The tawaifs of Lahore even made their way into fiction and popular stories. One famous tale is about Anarkali, a tawaif in the Mughal court in Lahore. According to the story, she had a secret relationship with Prince Salim (who later became Emperor Jahangir), the son of Emperor Akbar. The story tells how the old emperor was enraged that his son, the royal heir, had fallen in love with a woman of low status. As a result, on the emperor's orders, Anarkali was entombed within a wall in the Lahore Fort, where she died. Even though there is no historical proof that Anarkali existed, her story has made the tawaifs of Lahore popular in movies, books, and fictional tales since this culture started in the city.

By the early 18th century, Lahore faced several invasions, first by Nader Shah from Iran and then by Ahmad Shah Abdali from Afghanistan. These attacks weakened Mughal rule in Punjab and ended royal support for the tawaifs. Many tawaifs moved to other cities.

Brothels first appeared in Lahore during the Afghan invasions. The invading army took many women from the towns they attacked in the subcontinent between 1748 and 1767. Abdali's troops established two brothels, one in what is now Dhobi Mandi and the other in Mohalla Dara Shikoh.

The frequent invasions caused turmoil in the city. However, when the Afghan army destroyed the Sikhs' holiest shrine, the Sri Harmandir Sahib, in 1762, it brought the community together. The Afghan forces were driven out of Punjab, creating a power vacuum in the area. This gap was filled by various Sikh principalities known as misls. During this period, the brothels established by the Afghans in Lahore were shut down.

In 1799, a young chief of the Sukerchakia Misl named Ranjit Singh took control of Lahore from the Bhangi Misl. By 1801, he declared himself Maharaja of Punjab and promised to unite the entire region.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh brought back several royal customs of the Mughals in Lahore, including the tradition of tawaifs (courtesans) performing in the court. Although his court was not as grand as the Mughal courts, the tawaifs of Shahi Mohalla once again received patronage from the court.

In 1802, the 22-year-old Maharaja Ranjit Singh fell in love with a Muslim tawaif named Moran. She was from and lived in a village called Makhanpur near Amritsar. The idea of a Sikh Maharaja marrying a tawaif from the entertainer community known as Kanjars caused a lot of anger among his nobles and religious leaders. But Ranjit Singh, already deeply in love, ignored the disapproval and married her anyway. He built a separate mansion for her in what is now the Papad Mandi neighbourhood of Lahore. It was close to Shahi Mohalla, where the court's tawaifs lived. Unlike the tragic love story of Salim and Anarkali, this story did not end in tragedy.

A few decades later, Hira Singh Dogra, the General who became Prime Minister of the Sikh Empire, saw that Shahi Mohalla was centrally located in the city. He thought it could serve not only as a place for the tawaifs' houses but also as an economic center like a bazaar. After Maharaja Ranjit Singh's death in 1839, Hira Singh Dogra established a food grains market in the area. This market became known as ‘Hira Singh di Mandi' (Hira Singh's Market) or simply ‘Heera Mandi'. Interestingly, some people believe that the name “heera” (which means diamond) refers to the tawaifs of the area, who were said to be as beautiful as diamonds.

Even after Shahi Mohalla was renamed Heera Mandi, the tawaifs continued to enjoy royal patronage, but this didn't last long. After the two decisive Anglo-Sikh Wars (1845-49), the Sikh Empire fell, and the British East India Company took control of the region. The British were not interested in supporting the tawaifs' courtly music and dance, and the culture of mujras gradually became associated with prostitution.

Many tawaifs, who had lost their means of livelihood, became sex workers for the English soldiers stationed in the cantonment in the Anarkali area of Lahore's Old City. Since this area was close to the Mughal-era Shahi Mohalla, now known as Heera Mandi, sex workers also began operating from there.

In the early 1850s, a plague outbreak hit the walled city of Lahore. The British administration moved their cantonment from Anarkali to Dharampura, outside the old city. They also tried to relocate the sex workers, but many chose to stay behind.

Despite the rise of prostitution in the area, Heera Mandi maintained its status as a center for performing arts. The main change was that the tawaifs' patrons were no longer emperors and nobles but wealthy men from the city. This is how Heera Mandi earned the nickname ‘Bazaar-e-Husn' (Market of Beauty).

Despite changes in its identity, Shahi Mohalla remained a hub for performing arts. As a result, Heera Mandi produced many outstanding performers, including the famous Noor Jahan, Khurshid Begum, Mumtaz, and Shanti. Interestingly, the home of Sir Ganga Ram, known as the ‘father of modern Lahore,' is also located in this area.

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

Heera Mandi also hosted some musical duels known as dangals. These events, organized by music enthusiasts, provided a public platform for musicians to compete. One famous duel took place in the early 1940s between Ustaad Baray Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustaad Umeed Ali Khan in Heera Mandi. During this musical duel, both maestros showcased their exceptional talents. Both musicians kept singing for extended periods, neither willing to accept defeat or show any sign of fatigue. As a result, the event continued until dawn. Finally, Pandit Jeevan Lal Mattoo, an accomplished vocalist himself, intervened and managed to separate the “warring” musicians. The honours were then shared equally between the two musical giants.

Renowned Urdu author Saadat Hasan Manto briefly mentions Heera Mandi in his short story “Naya Qanoon” (New Constitution). The story is set against the backdrop of the Government of India Act 1935 and explores the unfulfilled hopes and expectations of the Indian people under British rule. Manto wrote this story in the late 1930s while living in Bombay (now Mumbai). However, it gained attention in 1993-94 when Pakistan's Sindh Textbook Board revised the Urdu syllabus for Classes 11 and 12 and decided to include it. In the story, the name “Heera Mandi” was edited to just “Mandi” when it was included in the revised Urdu syllabus by Pakistan's Sindh Textbook Board for Classes 11 and 12.

After India's Independence, Heera Mandi continued to be both a hub for sex workers and a center of entertainment. Most tawaifs, many of whom had become sex workers, came from the Kanjar community. However, women from other communities, faiths, and regions, including East Pakistan, also moved to Heera Mandi, either due to poverty or because they were illegally trafficked and brought to the area.

During Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's presidency from 1978 to 1988, there was a strong effort to eliminate the culture of mujras and sex work in Heera Mandi. This effort was not successful, and many brothels relocated to other parts of Lahore to avoid the crackdown. In the age of the Internet, Heera Mandi's sex workers adapted by using social media and various apps to offer escort services.

The grain market established during the Sikh Empire has since moved from Heera Mandi. However, Heera Mandi has more to its identity than just prostitution. It is also known as the busiest eating hub in the walled city. The area is filled with street food stalls, vintage restaurants, and sweet shops that are popular for their delicious offerings. If you climb to the top floor of one of the restaurants, you can enjoy a stunning view of the grand, Mughal-era Badshahi Mosque of Lahore. The development of Azadi Chowk and Greater Iqbal Park, with added green spaces and improved aesthetics, has increased the area's importance. Now, it attracts more attention due to the growing opportunities it offers.

Over time, neighbourhoods change, and Heera Mandi is no exception. Unfortunately, this Mughal-era center for performing arts has nearly lost its essence, as the culture of mujras and music is fading away. The former Shahi Mohalla, once a royal symbol of the city, now sits under the shadow of a dark . (IPA Service)


The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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