Woes of Paathi Ground (Akbar’s Fiil Khana)

November 17, 2019

Painter and conservationist Dr Ajaz Anwar has dedicated this dispatch “to my friend from Gurdaspur, late Saleem Hussain Shareef, a painter, who lived in Prem Gali, opposite Paathi Ground”

If you walked past Bagheechi Nihal Chand, at the confluence of Nicholson and McLeod roads, passing through Saadaat Street, at the corner of which Zafar Naqvi’s palatial yellow house stood, it ended with a bend in change of level, and you would descend into a vast open area called Paathi Ground.

There were many old, big trees. A very big chhapparr (a pond of stagnant, stinking water) on the northern corner in which hundreds of buffaloes merrily enjoying the dip, greeted you. It also served as a soaking pit to replenish ground water. Another corner was occupied by about a hundred children from an adjoining school. It was here that two of my uncles, Ishfaq and Asif were intercepted by an elderly teacher. They, till then had not enrolled in any school. Soon after the partition, after what was called an ‘entry test,’ one of them was enrolled in class three and the other in class five, for free. When asked to explain their late homecoming, they jubilantly gave a very valid reason: they were now school-going children. (Compare this with the private schools’ fee structure today.)

Decades later, it was here that Asif, visiting from Canada, made a substantial donation towards replacing the old benches that he had once upon a time sat on. The rich manufacturers of tubewell motors of the adjoining Brandreth Road and Chowk Daalgiraan were never inclined towards supporting the cause of education, because unschooled chhotas (helpers) suited them better. Most of them, however, had illegally punctured the walls of the adjoining Islamia College, Railway Road, with windows for fresh air. 

A large portion of this ground was ‘carpeted’ with cow-dung cakes, which upon drying a bit were put up in inclined position in pairs. Hence the name: Paathi Ground! These dung cakes prepared by womenfolk were worth a fortune. This rich source of biogas was ideal for heating fresh milk. Rumour has it that much of the income from it was spent on purchasing gold ornaments that ultimately ended up financing the cases of the feuding gujjars. This was the story of Allahrakhi who made cow-dung cakes, and her husband Gama who tended to the buffaloes. These milkmen — poalis, as they were called — would hurriedly unchain the animals outside the various houses that joined the caravan with calves following, sometimes slipping over the dung droppings.

The traffic slowed and moved cautiously in the mayhem — all streets led to Paathi Ground. This was before the multi-nationals put an end to the one cultural facet of Lahore. Resultantly, one company was allowed the monopoly to manufacture “tetra-pack,” a pack that cost the consumers more than the milk or juice contained in it. The long expiry dates printed on these products are more due to the added anti-fermenting chemicals that kill the friendly bacteria as well.

Every paoli was more efficient than a traffic policeman in controlling the streetwise animals. Once in their territory, they were treated to a brunch of over-ripe radish or thhiper. At times, there was a deadly fight between two contesting, eligible bulls. In the centre of the ground there was a foundation stone for a hospital, laid by some Englishman, just before the Great War, as it was called, because they did not expect another war. This foundation stone stands preserved in a mosque built there later.

On the western side is a mosque called Naqqar Khane Wali Masjid. It was here that important royal messages were relayed. Presently, in its rebuilt shape, an entrance has been provided from the south. The small street facing it is surprisingly neat and clean. Ahmad Saeed Kirmani, a former law minister, lived there. This is Lahore Hotel’s precinct, once an open-air performing arena for quacks of all sorts, jugglers, retired circus Sandos belching out live flames, monkeys and goats and parrots displaying their feats, peddlers of all sorts of goods, qawwals, musicians, magicians, mendicants, and pathans with air guns training young children, including myself.

This place was not that neglected or unattended. I remember a letter to the editor that appeared in the now-defunct daily Kohistan of Naseem Hijazi, sometime in the early 1960s. “I have seen this place as a verdant garden; it must be retrieved and revived,” the writer had appealed. Later, a civil engineer of Lahore Committee, as it was called then, informed me that this place housed Akbar’s Elephants’ Stables. This place must have been lying open and like the ground in front of the Lohari Gate where Qutb Aybak died playing polo. Moreover, this south-western side was safe from the ravages of the Ravi. It was found suitable for building royal elephants’ stables.

Akbar stayed here and made Lahore his administrative capital for a good 14 years (1584-98), to attend to Dulla Bhatti’s rebellion and the disturbances in the Frontier. He gave the Lahore Fort a wall of fire-burnt bricks, and made many additions to it.

Akbar also built a gate named after him, not far from his Elephants Stables: Akbari Gate. This gate, rebuilt during the British period, was photographed by FE Chaudhary. The picture was reproduced with his kind permission in my book Naeen Reesaan Shehr Lahore Diyaan. This gate too was sadly demolished. The ground was so large that we as children would play cricket there, and many more from the nearby would join us.

The boys from Prem Gali were particularly a spoilt lot. This often led to brawls.

Sometimes a circus also came visiting when the Melas of Data, Chiraghaan, and Mian Mir were off-season. With housing problem arising amid mass urbanisation and shifting of the rural populace to the cities, a shanty town/slum in Paathi Ground was in the offing in the early ‘60s. The Railway Police Lines staff, looking for an opportunity to mint money by any means, allowed the encroachers to build shanties. Katcha houses were built there with no semblance of any town planning. The once open spaces became a most congested quagmire and cul-de-sac. All was lost in the maize. The neighbouring McLeod Road, having become the largest market for motor-bikes, the congested lanes of this katchi abaadi developed into an allied auto parts manufacturing cottage units emitting obnoxious chemical fumes and smog.

Today, the Paathi Ground has disappeared altogether. It is unrecognisable. Once bordered by the shrine of Sheikh Musa Ahangar, the oldest monument of Lahore in its original shape, it emits a digital SOS because the Railway Police has betrayed the future generations.

With the milch cattle banished from Lahore, cow-dung cakes have disappeared, the biogas of which was no longer available. There were no longer long queues of people holding their own cans, waiting for their share of milk being milked. The culture of Lahore has changed much. Boys now have to venture long distances to play cricket and know no Gulli Danda or Pithoo Garam. Basant too has become a surrealistic fairytale.

To be continued

The writer is a founding member of the Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at ajazart@brain.net.pk

Woes of Lahore's Paathi Ground (Akbar’s Fiil Khana)