Yatra, a recently launched guided tour of Sikh heritage buildings in the Walled City of Lahore, shines a light on a degree of diversity that may have been lost to the society
Standing amidst the mausoleums of beloved Sikh gurus in the Walled City of Lahore, one can’t help but feel a degree of irony and hope. Arguably, it was Sir Ganga Ram who first gave Lahore its modern look. Some of his contribution has been rebranded since.
The colonial-era blueprints remain but Lawrence Garden is now Baghe Jinnah, though many still refer to its original name. Yatra, a guided tour of Sikh heritage buildings launched by the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), shines a light on a degree of diversity that may have been lost to the society.
Yatra takes tourists to the Gurdawara Dera Sahib, the samadhi of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, the samadhi of Maharaja Kharrak Singh and the samadhi of Kanwar Nau Nehal Singh.
Bustling through the crowded streets in a colourful procession of Rangeela Rickshaws on an early-November Sunday morning was fun but expected. What stuck out was the diversity in the tourist group and the openness of the guides.
Besides the restoration of the heritage sites, there seemed to have been some improvement in experience. It did not feel like some stuffy, paint-by-numbers school and college tours.
An energetic and patient man, our guide did his best to make the tour feel welcoming — going over the history, religious objects and practices with the sort of laid back charm that would make you want to grab a glass of lassi with the man after the event was over. But the most important facet of that was how it sparked curiosity. People did not hesitate to ask the simplest questions. Moreover, there was more than one occasion when I heard someone say, “I need to research this when I get home.”
In my experience, a number of people have referred to those who come to Lahore from other cities as ‘immigrants,’ as if they can freeze the normality of personhood in a city that is thousands of years old. But during the tour, I saw the typical Pindi boys calmly remove their shoes and tie on a turban to enter the shrine. I saw the LUMS crowd taking notes on their phones with the eagerness of somebody preparing for their examination. Diaspora Pakistanis — sitting behind me in one of the rickshaws —compared the ever-changing nature of the city to something out of Kafka’s collection.
Some of us take Lahore as a synecdoche of Pakistani nationalism and make it a lapel pin of vague identity through unnecessary rewriting of history. The real Lahore evolved while recording of history wasn’t too important to the locals. For quite some time it was very close to Amritsar. Some of their legends, mythologies, heroes and villains are shared and the partition of the Punjab has not changed that. The tour was not only about a belief system that rarely concerned most in the group; it did not harp on pilgrimage and religious practice; it also reminded people of their inheritance of fables.
There was a sense of unity — to the fellow tourists and to the time past — through this short trek that sought to explain religion, history and culture in the friendliest tone it could. It was enough to give hope, I imagine. And, of course, it ended in the most Lahori way possible: with a dhol
Standing on the shoulders of giants, the people of the city and the country do have reason to feel pride. This is not limited to Mughal architecture, Minar-i-Pakistan and the Lahore Resolution. Lahore’s history dates back to the days when small pockets of civilisation first emerged near the river, the central hub that connected an ancient route from Bengal to Kabul. Inside the Lahore Fort, next to the Alamgiri Gate, are the remains of the temple of Lava — the remains of Lavapur. In those remnants, there is the story of Sita, her marriage to Rama, exile from Ayodhya, her capture by Ravana, her rescue by Rama and her trial.
That, indeed, is one of the first records of poetry our historied and fluxing culture has known. The tour had a feel of poetry about it, not only in the locations, scents, sights, and sounds of the Walled City, but also in the spirit of inquiry of the modern men and women who ventured through the walkways and temples.
Shelley defined an art form in the following words: “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” As that veil was tugged at, a familiar and unfortunate aspect of Pakistan stood in contrast to the concrete history: a lack of identity. The nation was born in rebellion, and it seems to still exist within that space, in the negative. Many of us define ourselves, in part, in terms of not being Indian. We look to the east only so far as China is concerned. Much like a young child leaving their parents’ home to find freedom, we’d let go of the old clothes, the old car, and anything too familiar for the sake of independence. The sentiment might be understandable, but it might also be an overcorrection.
BBC once wrote a think-piece on how modern American accents resemble the 16th Century Britain more than the modern Brits. The separation from colonial masters did not create in them the urge to rewrite everything they could. Now, America certainly isn’t a shining example — much of its misguided history on race and gender testifies to that — but it at least sets precedent for reclamation of uncertain identity in the face of our reckless recreation of it.
This uncertainty really has plagued our landmarks. One of the guides pointed out that Lahore Fort, the former residence of Emperor Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire, has been used for its historical purposes, as well as offices for government officials.
Hidden away from the tourist spots is the ‘special jail,’ that once housed many a political leader and dissenting journalist.
Tours like the Yatra are important. Perhaps they’re comforting even, for it is easier to find stability in the past than in the present, where the price of petrol and sugar changes every week.
Tours like this allow us to know and remember we come from something great, that our cultures hold as much depth and richness as the annals of London, New York, Vatican City, and whatever land the Anglophilic rhythms of these post-colonial generations might look at and romanticise.
Tours like this seem so much like a scene from Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, in which a small village of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs sought protection in temples as trains of dead bodies tore through the land.
There was a sense of unity — to the fellow tourists and the time past — through this short trek that sought to explain religion, history and culture in the friendliest tone possible. It was enough to give hope, I imagine. And, of course, it ended in the most Lahori way possible: with a dhol performance and a heavy meal.
The writer is a storyteller and a journalist. Having published a short story collection, titled Encounters, he is working on his second book
performance and a heavy meal.