Of Heera Singh Dogra And His Famous Mandi

Of Heera Singh Dogra And His Famous Mandi
This author has written extensively about his childhood in the walled city of Lahore where his family had settled after their migration from Amritsar in August 1947. We lived in a one-room apartment on the top floor of a four-story high building in the Gujjar Gali. The Gali branches off the Kali Beri Bazaar and is right in front of the main gates of Pani Wala Talab (waterworks) and the attached Fire Fighting Station. Going further west along this bazaar, among the many streets branching off on both sides is Barood Khana Bazaar to the right, the Said Mitha Bazaar to the left, Shahi Mohalla Street to the right and the Tibbi Bazaar to the left. The Kali Beri Bazaar continues as Heera Mandi Bazaar to Taxali Gate, going past the Shah Jahan-era Taxali Mosque, Pakistan Talkies (the first cinema of Lahore established in 1908) and Ustad Daman’s Baithak (now Ustad Daman Academy). Shahi Mohalla Street leads to the Roshnai Gate, which is the entrance to the vast complex housing the Imperial Fort, Badshahi Mosque, Hazoori Bagh, Baradari, Samadhi of Ranjit Singh and Shaheedi Gurudwara Sri Arjan Singh. Near the beginning of Shahi Mohalla Street, two streets branch off to the left, called Nicha and Uncha Cheet Ram Streets. The junction of Barood Khana, Shahi Mohalla, the two Cheet Ram Streets and Tibbi Bazaar forms the heart of one of the most recognised red-light areas of the Subcontinent.

Our building was at a walking distance from the Mosque-Fort complex and we cousins would often visit the fort or the mosque in late afternoons, or to play cricket in the ground below the eastern wall of the Shahi Mosque. The first time I got a taste of Heera Mandi was while walking back from one of those trips. My cousin and I would have been no more than twelve years of age. Loitering in the Dewan-e-Khas a bit longer than normal, we started back after sundown when the nocturnal activities of the area had commenced. At the Heera Mandi Chowk, our attention was diverted to our right towards Tibbi Bazaar by some heavily made-up girls sitting in front of their houses and others leaning from their first-floor galleries. Walking past the corner of Barood Khana bazaar, we could hear loud music. The room behind the chik (straw/bamboo curtain) was dimly lit. It was, it should be remembered, the early 1960s – when many of the households had only recently got connected to electricity and had one or two low-efficiency bulbs. We stood by the door and could sense the twirling of a girl on the beat of a table. Out of curiosity, I stepped forward and lifted the chik.

The scene inside was nothing out of ordinary but for a preteen lad, it was fascinating and intriguing. It is also a scene that has stayed in my mind ever since, and one that I was reminded of when I, along with three of my classfellows and boarding-house friends, visited a similar establishment in Sargodha in Chungi Number 12. As I lifted the chik, I saw a mature woman in tight fitting clothes dancing on a song. On my right, along a door, sat the music party with a harmonium and a table. The madam sat to their right and was singing. On her right sat a couple of clients with glasses in front of them and cigarettes in their hands. The whole party looked towards my direction; a bit perturbed at the disruption. The madam stopped singing and before she could say something, I dropped the chik and the two of us walked off. My cousin, who couldn’t partake of the scene, still asks me all these years later as to what I saw in those brief seconds. He thinks that a far more serious business was being conducted rather than a mere dance. Later, in some of the subsequent trips through this part of the bazaar (when on summer/winter breaks from PAF Public School Sargodha), we saw some of the then leading ladies of our film industry outside their then residences.
The performers became destitute. To earn a living, the entertainers started performing for private visitors in their own houses. Soon, the demand for carnal gratification overtook the interest in dances

Heera Singh

Heera Mandi, contrary to common belief, is not named because of the diamonds that were showcased in its bylanes, but because of the grain market established there in the dying years of Sikh rule by the then young wazir (read; Prime Minister) Heera Singh Dogra. With the decay in the Sikh Empire, the incessant intrigues for succession, the Anglo-Sikh wars and arrival of British East India Company sepoys, the area gradually transformed from a grain-mandi to a flesh market. Before we dwell further on the Heera Mandi, a word about Heera Singh would be in order.

The Dogra family of Jammu has been prominent due to their controversial signing of the instrument of accession with India in 1947. This distinguished family was an important part of Ranjit Singh’s rule. The elder brother Gulab Singh was Raja of Jammu and the younger Dhian Singh remained the Prime Minister of the Sikh Empire for 24 years till his death; first with Ranjit Singh and then under four of his successors from 1818 to 1843. Another brother Sucheet Singh also held important posts. The three Dogra brothers were the most prominent family in the realm. Heera Singh was the son of Dhian Singh and was called Farzan-e-Khas, Special Son, by the Maharaja. Dhian Singh was murdered along with Maharaja Sher Singh during a palace coup. Sucheet Singh, too, was murdered. However, in a counter coup, five-year old Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, was proclaimed the ruler and Dhian Singh’s 24-year son Heera Singh became the Prime Minister. Heera Singh was himself murdered in 1844. It was during this brief tenure that he established a grain market in Shahi Mohalla, as the area outside the Fort-Mosque complex was then known. The market came to be called Heera Mandi. Under the British rule, the grain market was shifted to the Akbari and Dehli Gate area; whereas, Heera Mandi, under the carnal needs of the British East India Company troops, turned in to a flesh market.

Heera Mandi lies adjacent to the Fort, the centre of power during the Sikh rule. As in any medieval court, dancers, musicians and singers were much in demand to entertain the elite. Ranjit himself had a troupe of Kashmiri women whose performances were presented before the royal court and high visiting dignitaries. These artists lived outside the court premises in the Shahi Mohalla, which also contained many havelis of the Sikh royalty. The red-light area at that time was inside Lahori Gate on the street now called Bukhari Bazaar and the street junction now called Bukhari Chowk. Till the middle of the previous century, when this author used to study in a school in Pappar Mandi Bazaar, they were known in self-explanatory terms as Chakla Bazaar and Chakla Chowk. As Heera Mandi took prominence in debauchery, the practitioners of trade shifted from Chakla Bazaar to Shahi Mohallah, thus creating its reputation as flesh market.

The author visiting the area

After the death of Ranjit Singh, there was a breakdown of law and order in Lahore, during which, as would be expected, the demand for entertainment became low. The performers became destitute. To earn a living, the entertainers started performing for private visitors in their own houses. Soon, the demand for carnal gratification overtook the interest in dances. When the British civil and military administration settled in the area outside Anarkali, they too started visiting the place. They had little interest in singing or dancing but had the money to lure young girls and their henchmen to sexual activities. This was the beginning of the era that brought notoriety to the area.

Zahid Akasi has written a detailed book titled Heera Mandi that contains, among other details, the names of film celebrities who had their origins in the area. Zahid writes that actor Shahid successively got married to – and divorced – Ishrat Chaudhary, Zamurrad and Babra Sharif, all from this area. He traces many popular singers to this area including Madam Noor Jehan, Farida Khanum, Naseem Begum, Tasawar Khanum, Nahid Begum, Surayya Khanum, etc. He also names a number of popular dancers and actors of film industry from the locality. Heera Mandi, thus, remained a rich vein of lady artists for Pakistan’s film industry.

The bazaar lost its prime occupation and has undergone a change in character. Cheet Ram Street is now a centre for producing musical instruments. Outside Roshnai Gate and below the western wall of the Badshahi Mosque, a grand food street has been established that attracts customers from all over the city. Other popular eateries include Phajja Sri-Payee, Taj Mahal puri-halwa, Cuckoo’s Den etc.

However, the reputation and memories of the area continues. Even now, when I pass through the area – though it happens very occasionally – my eyes stray to the first-floor carved-wooden galleries, trying to steal a scene from the long gone past.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com