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Lahore: the city of gardens, monuments, and an unusual artist

  • Published at 08:15 pm August 25th, 2016
  • Last updated at 04:12 pm September 9th, 2016
Lahore: the city of gardens, monuments, and an unusual artist

"Madame, Lahore is known as a city of gardens...," says driver Hasan as we cruise through Mall road, with fleeting scenes of grand buildings from the times of the British Raj sitting as stately as before but appearing a little shabby; the massive and leafy trees still standing tall gracing Lahore's old glories. Hasan’s unsolicited tour guiding sends me to a past world with the word "Madame", as if I am watching a colonial period movie and a lady is being chaperoned by the local driver.

Momentarily I tune him out as I am busy rummaging through my memories of middle school history classes: there we studied the Mughal period and learned about Lahore – the city of gardens. Mughal emperors endowed the city during the 16th century with the beautiful Shalimar Gardens, the Badshahi Masjid like an architectural poetry, Emperor Jahangir’s tomb, the Lahore Fort, and then there was the British Raj period. Lahore’s historical and cultural importance had already formed a visual image in my imaginary world. Now I am preoccupied in matching my imaginary Lahore with today’s Lahore.

Fluttering banners on the road sides announce an on-going literary festival, reflecting the literary and poetic aspects of the city…. but they are all looking drab. A heavy smog hangs over the old rulers’ beloved city’s beautiful blue sky. “Too much powdered dust covering the green leaves in the trees”- as I say this to the driver Hasan, he responds - “Madame this is progress!” He elaborates, “our current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is from Punjab and is very much into infrastructure. So a lot of new flyovers and roads are being constructed these days. And that's why we have all this dust.”

He is nosing through the congested traffic of cars, donkey-drawn carts, scooter rickshaws, motor bikes and foot-pedalled bikes competing with each other. Seeing these helmet-less motor bikers, some carrying their entire family on their backs, driving in high speed with their fearless, nonchalant demeanour worries me to death. I feel sad to see a poor donkey keeping his head down and silently pulling a cart full of heavy goods on a busy heavy motorised road….. I try to comprehend Hasan’s definition of progress while trying to match what I am seeing now with the old image of Lahore that I have had in my mind from decades ago.

I am overwhelmed by the sight of the physical magnitude of the old architectural structures – I wonder what great extent and depth of knowledge the Mughal architects had all those centuries ago. Their use of symmetrical lines, knowledge of science and maths, and their social and environmental sensitivities, all of which they incorporated in their design – in some ways, they were way ahead of our present time.


Lahore is historically the most densely populated economic, political, intellectual and cultural hub of Pakistan. The rich Lahori history, dating back over a millennium ago, indeed reveals its truth inside this crumbled wall of Lahore’s old city, built by the Mughals. History has it that Pakistani culture is a hybrid of the ancient civilisation of the Hindus and the newer civilisation of Muslim invaders, who ruled the South Asian sub-continent from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century. In the end, Lahore has the remnants of Islamic and Hindu social practice and this is deeply understood by a controversial artist of Pakistan – Iqbal Hossain of Lahore. He grew up in the midst of multicultural rituals and the shadows of the Badshahi mosque commissioned by the deeply religious emperor Aurangzeb, the Gurdwara on top of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Samadhi and the Data Durbar shrine of a famous Sufi saint.

His Cooco's Den is a must-visit restaurant for the true Lahori cuisine, located in a surreal setting in the famous Heera Mandi (red light district), in the midst of rows of cafes. Legend has it that Heera Mandi was also known as Shahi Moholla; in those days it trained courtesans who won the hearts of emperors. Cooco's Den is tucked in the corner of Lahore’s walled old city and is surrounded by some of its oldest buildings including Lahore Fort and Badshahi masjid. The main entrance to Cooco’s Den is simple. But at night, the only time when this restaurant is open, glowing lights illuminate the intricately designed wooden porticoes and artist Iqbal’s numerous collections, creating a mystic ambiance. The painter gracefully incorporated century old rich, traditional home fragments: windows, doors, statues, and produced a fusion themed façade of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh artifacts.

Seeing me coming, the door attendant chimes the hanging bronze bell and the door opens into the foyer of this five-storied Mughal style Haveli. I notice narrow spiral stairs going up for the restaurant clients while their food gets delivered from downstairs up to the roof terrace via a red basket hanging outside on a rope.

Inside the haveli the walls around me have paintings by the owner of the restaurant Iqbal Hossain. His pencilled drawings of women who used to be the inhabitants of this Haveli – their sad eyes and somber demeanour reflected on the hanging mirrors in this constricted hallway and stairways, haunt me…..I climb the narrow spiral stairs with utmost caution to emerge onto the ragged rooftop terrace. Here the long dinner tables are set in a way that could give the diners the pleasure of viewing the Badshahi Masjid and its magnificent grandeur while enjoying their food. On a good night with a clear sky this ambiance can only be captured from The Cooco's Den.

On the other side is a courtyard surrounded by the buildings that used to be brothels. This specific haveli had a salon for painter Iqbal Hossain’s mother, aunts and sisters. An open courtyard displays a few quaint artistic relics – statuettes of Virgin Mary, Hindu gods and goddesses, Buddha and Hanuman. These reconfirm for me, the owner’s ultimate desire – after one’s complete gastronomic experience his quiet reminder to his restaurant’s clients about Lahore’s ancient history of secularism and his own background, which he proudly showcases.

The next day, I wander around Lahore’s old city narrow lanes and alleys. It's all congested with dilapidated buildings exposed to little light. I walk around observing my surroundings.… feeling, it must have been like this hundreds years ago in much the same way – shopkeepers and street vendors busy with their wares in front of them, bakers frying their puris, fruit and vegetable sellers arranging their produce in synchronising colours.

Donkey carts rattle through the narrow lanes delivering goods from the villages. A window pane has just enough room to open onto the wider lane and let the sunlight in and help an elderly man read his local newspaper. Some men sit in circles in open restaurants, eating and conversing. Here and there, kids race around playing games. Mostly men on the street, with a few veiled women walking by quickly.

Fortunately, Hasan the driver persuades the caretaker of Cooco's Den to let us go inside. I start taking photos as the sun rays light up the building and its beautiful colours – the bay windows fitted with panes of coloured glass are just dazzling. Colourful washings are drying on the railings and around the corner is the awe-inspiring Badshahi Masjid! I stand in front of the building and start day dreaming …..in old times if I had come here at this hour I would definitely hear some voices practicing ghazals, and this main entrance would stay open for the musicians to bring their tablas and harmonium and they would cautiously bring their musical instruments upstairs to the dancing girls’ room to practice……

Hasan’s voice breaks my day dream as he says “Madame if you like you can go upstairs” His “Madame” annoys me a lot, but I choose to ignore it and go upstairs to take more photos. I enter the building, but it looks dark, quiet, almost depressing compared to last night's vibrant artificial lights and restaurant visitors.

The roof is a mess of steps and crumbling bricks. The terrace is cluttered with piles of rugs and furniture. Suddenly, in the midst of this mess I see a man sitting in the corner of the roof terrace, musing at the marble-domed Badshahi masjid…I continue clicking. By the time I get down to look for my husband I find him talking with the man whose photo I have just taken from upstairs ….. my instinct says sure this is him …. the artist Iqbal Hossain, the restaurateur!