Inns for time travellers

October 10, 2021

Among the city’s numerous serais, the most prominent was Nizam Hotel

Shaabu. — Image: Supplied
Shaabu. — Image: Supplied

In olden days, a place to stay was called a serai or a temporary abode. This applied even to the palaces of the kings, including the Istanbul Palace that is called Topkapi Saray.

Travellers from far off lands, coming to Lahore, too, needed to some place to stay as not many had relations living here. Moreover, animals had to be quartered and the city gates were kept closed for safety, during the night. Thus, they had to find some accommodation. There appeared a number of serais outside Lohari Gate where the tired passengers found much needed comfort, food, a chance to exchange merchandise and stay with their animals. Additionally, there were opportunities to buy female intimacy. It was here that the oldest profession known made its way through Old Anarkarli where the earliest of the British soldiers were posted and thus many locales or lanes were marked Out of Bounds. The Red Light area swelled and traveled all the way from Chowk Chakla to Tibbi till it was blocked by the massive walls of the fort. Thus ancient lodgings were complex; affording the lodger the logical, psychological and logistical ease he needed. The city gate was at some distance. The vast area, now popularly known as Anarkali, was occupied by a number of large serais. That was long before the locomotive had appeared. It was here that the caravans converged or departed. Incidentally, this area was never threatened by floods from the Ravi that preferred to flow along the northern side of the high man-made mound. For the Red Light area to appear in such places is a phenomenon known the world over. In Istanbul, you find Karakoy (legal), across Sirkeci. In Roma, there is stazioni termini. Even Kuala Lumpur has such a facility near the Chinese businesses.

Among the serais, the most prominent was Nizam Hotel. It had a vast inner courtyard for the merchandize accompanying the guests that has survived. Delhi Muslim Hotel was a late entry. It was built on more modern lines. Many prominent citizens, artistes and scholars enjoyed each other’s company here. The noted classical dance teacher Maharaj Kathak lived here till his end. This cultural complex is threatened with closure because finances cannot be found for its functioning.

Further on towards the Shahalami Gate, there is Serai Rattan Chand. Located away from the city walls, the peripheral road was called Rattan Chand Road. This is where offices of some of the best newspapers of Pakistan, including the Progressive Papers Limited, were located. There was a fairly large bus stand inside the serai for outstation busses. It still is a very vast establishment with a very big water tank for the community and religious rituals and for the washer-men to bring loads of laundry to rinse and wash. Incidentally, just outside, the sale of natural rock from Khewra Mines, the finest in the world, is thriving. Large pieces of the pink salt stone can be seen lying around. On the other side of this road, which is called the Bansaan-wala Bazaar, bamboos of various sizes and varieties are available as well as the ladders made with them. At this junction the largest hospital in Lahore was built: Mayo Hospital. It was connected to the City railway station by a straight road for emergencies. The City railway station was built by the Sultan Muhammad, a Kashmiri wrestler, who had made a fortune by selling the precious debris of the fabled Naulakha. He, too, built a serai named after him that came to be surrounded by Landa Bazaar. Its large rooms have been converted into furnaces smelting iron stolen from the railways. It had a very large entrance gate inaugurated by the then lieutenant governor. The top entrance arch was demolished later to facilitate the entry of trucks from the locomotive workshop. The personal haveli of Sultan, with its Naulakha style hall, exists inside Delhi Gate. It can only be visited by special permission.

The railways had a deep impact on the city planning. Earlier, cities were built along the coastal lines and old river beds. Now, the railway lines, too, became important especially at the junctions. This changed the orientation for the mushroom growth of hotels, big and small, around the railway station. The Empress Road was built for the shortest route to the station. A posh hotel was built here. It was called the Grand Hotel. Old timers say it was located in a very fine and big bungalow. Nowadays, its ruins and the adjacent footpaths serve as the venue for a market for secondhand apparel, imported from the West. Nearer to the City station, a luxury hotel called Braganza Hotel was located. It was owned by a Goanese family. It had large lawns with private porches for the guests. It did not survive the economic realities of the times and was parceled out. Many small hotels now occupy the space.

When Lahore Omnibus, one of the finest bus services in the world, used to serve the Lahoris, all double-deckers and the single ‘Tigers’ passed through either the City railway station or Royal Artillery (RA) Bazaar.

Faletti’s Hotel was built by an Italian in the last years of the 19th Century. By that time, automobile cars had appeared on the scene and the bigwigs would park their cars here before taking the train to visit towns like Amritsar, Jullandhar and Ludhiana. The hotel has an interesting history. The entire cast of Bhawani Junction, including Rita Hayworth, had stayed here. Jinnah, too, stayed here when he pleaded the case of Ghazi Ilmuddin Shaheed. When the Punjab Assembly building was inaugurated in 1938, many parliamentarians started staying at this hotel. Justice Cornelius, the former chief justice of Pakistan, too, stayed here till his end as he never built a house of his own. Spread over 64 kanals, the hotel finally caught attention of the ‘entrepreneurs’. Once managed by the Tourism Department, it was later privatised. Now, its old trees are all set to be felled. The new owner is said to be some Arab prince. The front men remains anonymous. They want to convert even the State Guest House into a hotel and lease it to some party for 25 years.

This dispatch is dedicated to Kaukab Shah, one of the shareholders in Delhi Muslim Hotel, Anarkali.


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Inns for time travellers