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Taxali Gate, Taxal And Heera Singh!

I am not writing about the dancing girls, the sex workers or the Red Light area of Lahore when I mention Taxali Gate; this gate has a lot more to offer than these taboos that are associated with it. Whenever anyone hears the name Taxali Gate, they smile sarcastically and then say ‘Red Light Area’ or ‘Heera Mandi’. So, I am trying to shed away this negative image from the minds of the people which has been built up over the years.

Let us come to the name first. This gate was called Taxali because of a Royal Mint (known as Taxal in Urdu) situated there during the Mughal era. That mint no longer exists in the Taxali Gate but the old Taxali mosque still survives.

You can enter this gate from the Lady Willingdon Hospital or the main Bazaar where there is a board displayed saying ‘Taxali Gate’. This place was dead for years because of the taboos connected with it, but luckily in 2011, the development of the Fort Road Food Street breathed a new life into this place.

The gate structure does not exist now as it was damaged and subsequently never rebuilt. The Walled City of Lahore Authority planned to reconstruct the gate, but it will take a lot of time because there are numerous encroachments on the location where the gate existed. This gate was one of the thirteen gates which the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great built around the city. Like other gates, this gate was also demolished and rebuilt during the British Raj but later during the partition period, it collapsed.

This gate was once the center of literature, art, music and many nobles and prominent personalities lived in the vicinity. Initially, the Shahi Mohallah was also located there, where Mughal nobles sent their children to get the knowledge of various faculties and to learn manners and etiquettes. I am of the opinion that this history of the gate cannot be overlooked.

As you enter from the location where the gate existed, you will come across the Buggy Market. The buggy riders and manufacturers still assemble at this point and one can see a line of horses and colourful buggies there.

Let me tell you that Ustaad Daman, a well-known Punjabi poet, also lived there. His academy is still seen today with the structure intact, though someone else resides there now. When Mughal Emperor Akbar ruled, one of the greatest of Punjabi poets, Shah Hussain, used to live in the same one room house. It is said that Shah Hussain was also seen roaming on the streets of Taxali Gate.

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Mualana Altaf Hussain Haali and Allama Muhammad Iqbal were also among the area’s eminent residents. Some noble people still live here like Mian Yousaf Salahuddin, a renowned socialite and the grandson of Allama Muhammad Iqbal. Mian yousaf resides in a beautiful and well preserved haveli, which is one of the finest examples of the architecture of the Mughal Dynasty.

The entire area is still rich in culture and heritage in terms of havelis and heritage homes. Haveli Dhyan Singh and Haveli Awais Meer and many more are intact today. The grave of Chaitram is also seen in a small enclosed place. Chaitram was a Hindu noble and historians say that he converted to Islam before his death and that was the reason a small grave was made there.  You take your way into any street and you will be mesmerized by the architecture.

This gate is quite different from the other gates of Old Lahore. The life, businesses, trades and culture are quite unique. The area inside the gate has a vibrant and dazzling life with colours and tempting food aroma that captivates you at every step.

Taj Mahal Sweets and Halwa Puri

The main attractions inside this gate are the Pakistan Talkies and Aziz Theatre, which was the first ever theatre and cinema house of Pakistan. Moreover, notable places in the area are the House of Sir Ganga Ram, Shahab Halwa Puri (oldest shop selling Halwa Puri), House of singer Noor Jehan, Sheikhupurian Bazar (one of the largest shoe markets in Asia), Ooncha Chaitram, Neecha Chaitram, Taranum Cinema, oil shops, Fazl-e-Haq and Phajja paye shops, Kali Bari Katri, House of Zumurad actress, Lahnga Mandi, Taj Mehal Halwa Puri, an old Church, Akhara (wrestling arena), Singer Hamid Ali Khan’s House, House of actress Nadra Begum, Bethak of singer Mehdi Hassan and the charming Museum of Cooco’s Den at the Fort Road Food Street. Other food spots are Bhola Lassi wala, Babar Nou Gaza Peer Chanay Wala, Baba Chanay wala and Phakko Bong Wala.

House of Sir Ganga Ram

Pakistan Talkies Cinema

In Taxali, the ‘Sheikhupurian Bazaar’ is one of the biggest shoe markets of Pakistan which supplies shoes in wholesale to all the modern markets in the city. These shops sell traditionally embroidered fancy shoes and sandals. This bazaar is the part of the famous but much disliked “Heera Mandi”. The buildings above the shops house the dancing girls, who are few in number now as most of them have moved out. Nearby, you will get a glimpse of the musical instrument shops as well.

A musical instrument maker at work

Taxali to me is not just the Red Light area or a no-go area for respected families. It is a hub of music, arts, literature and food. The Chowk Heera Mandi is itself a food street where you will see restaurants selling food day and night. This part of city never sleeps and all day and night you can roam around the streets of the gate. This gate, like all the other gates of the Walled City of Lahore, has stories, history, characters, and a culture.

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Tibbi Gali is one notorious street here. Most of the dancing girls moved out of this place when the government imposed different bans over this place. However, Tibbi Gali is still functional, though it lies a bit away from the main streets and Chowk Heera Mandi, and you will witness the real Red Light night life there. Tibbi Gali is such a sensitive place that if you take a camera along and try to photograph the street, the locals of the street will snatch it from you, and I have experienced this myself.

One result of imposing bans over the Red Light area was the economic downfall of the people of Lahnga Mandi. This market is situated a short distance from Chowk Heera Mandi when you cross the grave of the Naugaza Peer. At one time, there were hundreds of music instruments and music band shops in this area, but now only a few survive. As the dancing girls moved out of Taxali, this business met with problems and is still steeped in crisis till now. These days, you will see several shops in Lahnga Mandi other than the music shops.

In the beginning, the Red Light Area was located inside Lohari Gate near Chowk Chakla. With the passage of time, it moved to Taxali Gate and a Heera Mandi was established. The name Heera Mandi came from the man who established it and it is a misconception that Heera (meaning diamond in English) is associated with the dancing girls of that area. In actuality, a Sikh courtier and relative of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh named Heera Singh was given land to establish a grain market similar to Akbari Mandi. It was this grain market which became popular as Heera Mandi, and later on the Red Light area shifted there.

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There are several beautiful piazzas in this area near the Neevan Chaitram. If these are restored and preserved, they will provide a wonderful tourist spot for heritage lovers. The Taxali area has buildings with a high architectural value but it faces the danger of commercialization now.

Taxali is very close to the Bhatti Gate and both these gates have been the home of teachers of the nearby Government College and Oriental College. The first ever Government College and Oriental College were also situated in Taxali inside the Haveli of Dhyan Singh, which is located near Said Meetha Bazaar. If you are going to visit this haveli, don’t miss the enticing pakoras on your way, as the pakora shop is right at the corner of the street.

Haveli Dhiyan Singh

There are a lot of members of the Shia community living in the Taxali area. Therefore, during the month of Moharram, you will witness a lot of Majalis and processions in this area.

I think it is high time that people should be brought to this part of the city as well so that they can get familiar with the heritage and culture of this gate and rid themselves of the negative impressions of this place. Trust me, this is a very safe place in the city and there is an aura of serenity in this place which can only be experienced with a personal visit.

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Tania Qureshi

The writer is a media professional and can be reached at [email protected]

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