Lahore, a case study

April 24, 2022

Dr Ajaz Anwar finds Lahore to be “a typical Third World city with a rich, active history spanning many millennia”

— Image: Supplied
— Image: Supplied


he idiom that distant lands have charming views was lent further credence with the advent of the earliest of the modern vehicles, namely, the photography and the steam railways. Fact emerged more interesting than fiction.

The distant lands thus became closer to the hearts and bolstered fraternity among nations. Different countries — and more so, cities — came to be recognised for their identities determined by various regional factors. This identity gradually eroded and the phenomenon assumed an alarming velocity disproportionate to its capacity to survive. Living cities, like living languages, must always grow and change. But, earlier this change was part of the logical development towards improving the quality of life sustaining pressure on urban capacity.

Economy is the biggest of all realities. Citizens the world over have always sought happiness through material means. This was somehow compensated with state subsidies, tribal pools, joint family system and philanthropy. But those were the times when a small fabulously rich class and an overwhelmingly large poor class formed the main strata of the population. Industrialisation that followed colonisation brought in an ever-expanding middle class that desired to settle in the cities and wanted to better educate their children. They also wanted to share public services. Hence the pressure on the cities, especially the outskirts, after the fortresses lost their role in containing the population. City for the automobile in practice was linear expansion.

The introduction of electricity changed the concept of going to bed early and rising early. Electric lift facilitated the high-rise buildings. The community wells gave way to electric tube wells. The social fabric changed dramatically, assimilating the benefits of the new age. Yet, many historic cities like Lahore, Multan, Delhi, Isfahan, Tehran, Aleppo, Damascus and Istanbul, to name a few, retained their basic character.

A city is not just a conglomeration of built environment. Urban landscape is a very complex juxtaposition of way fares lined with heterogeneous edifices built out of local materials to combat and enjoy local climate, accommodating local flora and fauna. Lahore is a typical Third World city with a rich, active history spanning many millennia. It boasts a big number of historical buildings of religious, secular nature, contributed by the successive ruling dynasties. The invaders too were accepted in its fold. So were the travellers, merchants and artisans who brought in fresh foreign influences to enrich its culture.

Situated on the left bank of Ravi, the smallest of the five rivers of the Punjab, Lahore has thrived on an agriculture-based economy. It has had its share of trade through caravans, and had an advanced cottage industry in metallurgy and various arts and crafts. As to who is a typical Lahori is difficult to say, but it has always been a cosmopolitan city with a diversity of cultures.

It gets extremely hot during the long summers, and the temperatures may drop to zero during the short winters. There can be hailstorms and dust blowing winds. Downpour during the monsoons is very pleasant and the spring is a sight to behold.

Though not located on a fault line, Lahore has occasionally been rocked. The last major earthquake was experienced on April 4, 1904. It caused serious damage to many important buildings. The following year the city saw record-breaking rains.

As it is located on a fertile river valley. Brick has been Lahore’s main material of construction, accompanied with timbre, which was once abundantly available. The mortar was chiefly the lime, though clay too was used for less permanent houses. To escape from the floods and the invaders it was built over a manmade mound and rebuilt time and again over its own debris. It was developed on the left bank because the invaders came from the north. Moreover cool breeze from the north was pleasant and relatively dust free.

Being confined within fortress walls, the houses were small and multistoried. The top story was used for sleeping during the summer nights and basking in the sun during the winter afternoons. It was also used to spread laundry and fly kites and pigeons.

The cityscape would reveal that after clusters of several houses there was one big house called a haveli. The rich patronised the poor while the latter provided various services in return. There was no segregation between smaller and larger dwellings. The disposal of waste water inside the Walled City makes an amazing study. It’s very efficient.

Back then, commercial activity was limited to the main arteries, and larger markets dealt in specialised trades like the food grains, metal ware and textiles.

The planning suggests pedestrian friendly winding lanes. The 12 gates give access to the main thoroughfares that branch out to different localities. Incidentally, when the city expanded outside the obsolete walls in the 1850s, new roads were built outside the gates. Thus, the city of Lahore entered the modern era.

Despite its myriad charms and problems, most of which are typical of the Third World cities, the cultural and social fabric of the city was increasingly threatened. Fortunately, the railway connecting Lahore with Delhi did not do much damage to the built environment, though some plantations had to go. A large area for the office buildings in Donald Town, though generously spaced, had much to offer as breeding ground for the present-day congestion. It is here that within less than a mile, all the important administrative public and private offices came to be located. These included the Civil Secretariat, the municipality, the telegraph office, Mayo Hospital, the General Post Office that catered to postal services from Delhi to Peshawar, premier educational institutes, and district courts. Punjab’s most celebrated shopping centre, Anarkali, too, was developed here. The adjoining area was occupied by the newspaper industry.

People from far-flung areas came to Lahore seeking jobs. Thanks to the railway links, the complexion of the city culture changed. Already the administrative capital of a very large area from Peshawar to Delhi till the early years of the 20th Century, Lahore became a cultural hub. It also attracted an increasing number of migrants. The result was an increase in pressure on the public services.

The citizens too kept on contributing to the population explosion. New colonies like Model Town in the pre-Partition days, and Samanabad and Gulberg in the post-1947 Pakistan, helped ease some pressure on the urban fabric. Yet, the government offices are still located downtown, and the citizens have to go there for all sorts of official work. This puts an extra load on the frail transport system. The old mode of transport — i.e. bicycles and horse driven carts — became obsolete as distances increased. The omnibus, with its fleet of Leyland double-decker buses, once the city’s pride comparable with those of London and Roma, failed too.

The increasing number of public and private auto vehicles turned the city traffic into a nightmare. The many housing schemes devouring the rich agricultural land in far-flung areas only served to further increase the distances. The downtown still remained the hub.

As all available land was occupied by short-sighted, greedy investors, the cultural buildings were under threat. Many were pulled down to make way for high-rise blocks and markets. The Punjab Special Premises Act of 1986, proclaimed with the efforts of the Lahore Conservation Society (LCS), accompanied by the listed buildings, was quite welcome. But the lists have not been updated ever since.

As the prices of land soared, the buyers thought it was their right to pull down any building in utter disrespect of its cultural and historic value. Trees were felled to clear every inch of the land. Even trust and government properties were usurped. Residential areas were invaded by cottage industries and marketplaces. Government property was sold away for a pittance in the name of privatisation.

For Tollinton Market, built in 1864, the strategy of holding public protests and press conferences worked, and the landmark was saved. It proved that the public pressure is more effective than the law. Yet, it is desirable to turn it into a ‘superstore’ once again.

Lahore has two monuments on the World Heritage list — the Fort, and the Shalamar Gardens. These too have not been spared. The open areas around them have been mercilessly encroached upon. A notice displayed on the wall says, “Closed for repairs,” but state functions continue to be held there. A visit to the monument the following morning is like witnessing a massacre site.

The historic districts lend a charming impact that needs to be preserved for posterity. We are only the custodians, bound by duty to hand it to our children and great grandchildren. Lessons from the case study of Lahore are applicable to any and all of the cities of the Third World.

(This excerpt from a paper read out at the International Islamic University, Kuala Lumpur, is dedicated to Prof Dr Attilio Petruccioli, Roma)

Note: Free Art classes, all ages and genders, are held every Sunday at the House of NANNAs.

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

Lahore, a case study