Why Lahore Remains Lahore: A Dip into Pakistan’s Cultural Hub

If you’re not already familiar, there is this saying in Punjabi coined from an old song: “Lahore, Lahore aye“, that “Lahore is Lahore”. Sometimes words aren’t enough to describe something. Lahore is one of those. Calling it Lahore is more than enough to explain it. The singer also repeats the line “Ho jinnay L’ore naee tak’ya o’ jam’ya naee”, “Who never saw Lahore, has never lived”.

View from above the Wazir Khan Mosque

As one of my favorite travel writers once shared:

“Lahore is, at times, a land of stark contrasts.

Decrepit buildings and tangles of power lines surround majestic works of historic architecture.

Sleek modern shopping malls are surrounded by polluted parks and congested streets.

Men drive wooden donkey carts down highways filled with fancy foreign cars.

Armed guards stand at the entrances of peaceful places of worship.

Teenagers in remote rural villages squat together in the fields to watch music videos on their smartphones.

Sweating beggars in old clothes solicit the stylish patrons of air-conditioned cafes.

Girls in skinny jeans and unveiled heads sit next to ones draped in black shawls on busses.

Sometimes the juxtapositions are amusing, at other times they’re depressing.

Either way, I can’t help but be fascinated.”

Lahore Fort, built by Emperor Akbar, is notable for having been almost entirely rebuilt in the 17th century, when the Mughal Empire was at the height of its splendour and opulence.

Just as people I meet often confirm their assumptions of the West with me, I wanted to fortify the visuals of Lahore I got from books like Dozakhnama, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and the stories I’ve grown up listening to about the Indo-Pak partition.

So, how was it, you ask?

Inside the Walled City of Lahore.

Lahore was everything a vintage culture fanatic like me could want from a city: dupattas trailing like capes behind women in bazaars, calls to prayer echoing the changing skies, and a human spirit that never dies even with an accreted history of invaders from the Aryans to the Mongols to the British. Here is how Lahore remains Lahore:

The Diversity in History, Languages, and Faiths

Details of an arch in Badshahi Mosque, built by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1671.

Ruled by empires from around Asia and Europe, Lahore consists of a unique medley of architecture. You could be enjoying the site of the Mughal built domes at one point and be tranced by gothic-style British government buildings the next.

I’ve yet to travel to a country with such vast organic diversity (besides India, but Pakistan was India not too long ago so it doesn’t count). Outside colleges, youth complain over the hot weather in English, Urdu-speaking women bargain over 40 rupees from Pashto-speaking fruit vendors, while drivers lower their Punjabi pop radio to tend to prayer in Arabic at dusk.

Gurdwara Dera Sahib is a Sikh temple in Lahore which commemorates the spot where the 5th guru of Sikhism, Guru Arjan Dev, died in 1606.

Though the majority of Lahore’s population is Muslim, it holds small pockets of Christian and Sikh communities. Before the Indo-Pak partition in 1947, Muslims only took up around half the population.

The Walled City

The Delhi Gate

Walking through the Delhi gate and entering the old city is like being transported into another world. On the outside, it’s a clusterfuck of honking cars, donkey carts, rickshaws, and street carts. On the inside… well, it’s still a madhouse, but with endless alleyways of bazaar stalls and narrow houses as a backdrop! The aroma of the spice market instantly wafts through your nose, the voices of salesmen hawking fabrics and clothes rise above the fray, and if you walk in a bit, the stunningly colorful minarets of the Wazir Khan mosque stand stoically above the chaos below.

The minaret of the Wazir Khan Mosque from the adjacent minaret. We paid 150 PKR each ($1.50) to secretly climb this bad boy. Worth it.

It’s hot, it smells, and it’s loud, so it takes a moment to take everything in. Don’t wait too long, though–there will be many impatient motorbikers honking at you to move out of their way!

Food Street

Coocoo’s Den overlooking the Badshahi Mosque at dusk.

A colorful historic neighborhood with food stalls and fancy hipster restaurants that showcase nighttime views of the beautiful Badshahi Mosque.

A hipster cafe with neon art along its staircase satirizing Pakistani politics and high culture.

No doubt a heaven for food-lovers, but fiery abyss for flavor lacking taste buds unable to handle a well-spiced meal (aka me). I found myself tearing up and huffing of water within 10 seconds of a bite. Unpopular opinion, Burns Road in Karachi has a cheaper and slightly tastier collection.

Restoration of Culture

The Shahi Hamam, the Royal Bath, built by Emperor Shah Jahan and restored by Aga Khan.

Its natural for time to pass and dirt to settle, but there is nothing that quite disturbs me about a city like its failure to preserve its culturally and historically valuable localities.

Wazir Khan Mosque

I was delighted to see that the Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan had funded projects to restore UNESCO sites like the Shahi Hamam (dated 1635) and the Wazir Khan Mosque (dated 1634) originally built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan.

The Welcoming of the New

The Eiffel Tower replica in Lahore’s Bahria Town.

Many cities in Pakistan have progressed and are building more commercial and cleaner areas, but Lahore has taken urban planning seriously outside of the Walled City. Gated communities like the Bahria Town projects for one are a serious step in the right direction. We drove an hour out of the city to take selfies with the Eiffel Tower replica and stir up drama like we were in Paris on a whim.

The People & Their Pride

My friend Suleman covering his legs because he wore shorts to the Wazir Khan Mosque.

Suleman, or as I call him, the guy who puts the “whore” in Lahore. Just kidding, but Suleman is just an example of Lahori hospitality at its finest. Though we started as mere internet friends in Toronto, he was kind enough to meet strangers and proudly show them around in his home city. I’m sure Lahore is filled with Sulemans.

Hasan and Ammar holding the Pakistani flag up at the Wagah Border.

Since Lahore borders directly with India, a flag lowering ceremony is held every evening to commemorate the partition and celebrate each country’s independence.

I never thought I’d end up liking a Pakistani city so much (my ignorance cast a shadow that all Pakistani cities were the same as the political gutter that is Karachi). Thinking about coming back here indefinitely sometime soon.  

If you like my rants and the overuse of the iPhone 8 portrait feature, check out my Lahore highlights on Instagram

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