Life Lahori Eshtyle
Once known as the “Paris of the East,” Lahore is now the hub of a booming cultural experimentation in Pakistan. Haute couture fashion, fusion cooking, and the traditional style of miniature painting depicted in postmodern art are transforming this old Mughal town into the epicenter of Eastern glamour. A trip to the Subcontinent’s most exciting city is an experience involving rich history, colorful culture and amazing food. Lahori hospitality is legendary and there is a population of 8.5 million helpful citizens to amuse and educate you on your journey.
Lahore was the capital of Mughal rule, under Emperor Akbar, during the late 16th century. In the 1800s, as the Mughal Empire started to unravel, the British Raj took control. Their physical legacy is the magnificent buildings they built around Mall Road, a main thoroughfare that is banked by a palatial parliament building and the grand Punjab University.
Lahore is now the capital of the Punjab Province. The majority of Lahoris are Punjabi Muslims, but there is a small yet thriving Sikh community as well. You’ll find throngs of villagers who come to the big city lining its streets in search of jobs, and the lucky few who find them work as cooks on street side food stalls, shoe polishers, or as newspaper vendors, who dart between cars and knock on tinted windows during red lights.
Lahore is situated in eastern Pakistan, on the border with India and along the River Ravi, which flows down from the Himalayas. Pakistan’s national airline, Pakistan International Airline, provides daily flights from most major American airports, with usually one stopover in Europe or through Karachi, depending on your route. Temperatures are mild to slightly chilly during winter months but can reach a scorching 120 degrees during late spring and summer, when many of the city’s residents head to Mari, a former British hill station, in the north.
Lahore is divided into two parts: Old Lahore and New Lahore. Old Lahore is the historical part. The Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque, and the Sikh Gurdawara, frequented by Emperor Ranjit Singh, are situated in this area. The lanes around these monuments are dotted with centuries old havelis, or traditional mansions, that despite their dilapidated facades, provide a rich look at the intricate architecture under the Mughals. The crumbling alleyways and narrow, dusty streets are full of open sewers and heaps of trash but they are also where the real spirit of Lahore resides. In any street, you will find a congestion of motor rickshaws and bicycles standing bumper to tire, street urchins selling their wares to unsuspecting tourists at exorbitant prices, beggars with tin cups offering praise to Allah, horns and oaths, fruit stalls with flies, paan shops with small transmitter radios blasting the latest Hindi movie songs, and many, many men, who lean against the beetle-nut stained walls or sit on their haunches, puffing on a beedi, a local hand-rolled cigarette, as they watch the world go by.
New Lahore is the outlying suburban area where the rich live. Home to politicians, actors, models, artists and socialites, it is a sparkling contrast to Old Lahore, with broad, leafy avenues, trendy boutiques, hip restaurants and enormous new homes built in the style of “Mughal Gothic,” a design first used by the British during the Raj. Here you will find hip youngsters and their equally as stylish parents shopping, eating, socializing and jumping into their chauffeured cars to get out of the heat.
Lahoris say you can never get tired of strolling the streets of Lahore. There is always something new to discover. Old Lahore is a walled city. In the 1580s, Akbar built a massive wall to fortify his capital against enemy invasions. There are 13 gates that lead into the city. Hire a tour guide for 300 rupees ($4.50) and check out the gates, especially Alamgiri Gate, which was built with wide steps for elephant processions, and which leads into Lahore Fort. Inside, visit Sheesh Mahal, or Palace of Mirrors, a lavish room whose walls and ceiling are covered with thousands of small, colored mirrors. Get there early morning to avoid the throngs of tourists and locals. Afterwards, duck into the grand Lahore Museum, the country’s oldest, and wander around its dusty display cases. Some features include Mughal miniatures of Shah Jahan dating back to the 17th century, the Fasting Buddha, and gold coins dating from Alexander the Great’s time. Don’t miss the gallery ceiling painted in a swirl of bright color by well-known Pakistani painter Sadequain.
The Faqir Khana Museum is a private family collection housed in an ancient haveli in Old Lahore. A founding member of the family served as a prime minister and royal physician in the court of Emperor Ranjit Singh. Many of his gifts to the family are featured in the museum. Treasures include royal robes worn by 18th century Mughal kings, a portrait of Queen Victoria, framed in gold and set in real turquoise, presented to Maharaja Singh by Lord Auckland, and a stone poison filter tested by a drug company, proven to work.
Hail a taxi and head south to Jahangir’s tomb. Many frescos of the emperor lounging with his wives and concubines and portraits of fruit and flowers still survive. Just a stone’s throw away is Jahangir’s beloved wife Noor Jahan’s tomb, done in a pinkish limestone. She said of Lahore, “I have purchased Lahore with my life/ By giving my life for Lahore/ Actually I have purchased another Paradise.” For 100 rupees, the guard on duty will take you underground through a black tunnel, lit by the guard’s lantern, to the actual grave of the empress and her only daughter, Ladli Begum.
Another must-see are the Shalimar Gardens, built by Shah Jahan, of Taj Mahal’s fame. Visit its three terraces in the evening for a walk around the shaded marble pavilions set around a symmetrical arrangement of ponds, waterfalls, and 400 fountains. Grab a kebab roll from the dozens of food stalls outside the entrance and make a picnic of it under the centuries old mango trees.
For the tastiest, and spiciest, food in town, head towards Cuckoo’s Nest, located across from the Badshahi Mosque, and housed in a 400-year-old haveli, a former brothel, owned by Iqbal Hussein, an art teacher at Punjab University, and the son of a former dancing girl from the nearby red light district, Heera Mandi. The cooks sit outside the entrance on a wooden platform, immersed in steam from the grills and tandoori ovens. Food is served on the 4th and 5th floor open-air terraces, reached by a narrow, spiral stone staircase. The terraces have magnificent views of the city. One side overlooks Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque, which are lit up at night. The other side overlooks the homes of the working girls in Heera Mandi. Their colorful clothes are strung over balconies and throngs of men can be seen lining the streets late at night, the time when Cuckoos is busiest.
Bread and bottled drinks are hoisted up to the terraces in wicker baskets attached to a rope. Steaming dishes of tawa chicken, a fiery concoction of tomatoes and curry, haleem, a mixture of lentils and beans pounded into a thick paste, seekh kebab, grilled beef, and kharhai ghosht, a lamb curry, are served in bowls of dried clay.
For variety, head towards newly renovated Food Street, a long lane lined with dozens of restaurants offering traditional dishes served on plastic tables placed along the sidewalks. For a quick bite, visit one of the hundreds of dhabhas around the city offering mouth-watering bun kebabs and chicken rolls wrapped in day-old newspapers served to you in minutes. International cuisine done Pakistani style can be found at Elephant and Taipan in the Pearl Continental hotel. Don’t forget to try traditional sweets, called mithia, at Nirala. Either deep fried and crispy, or baked and soft, these colorful treats are always oozing with sugar.
Lahori’s are known for their sense of fun and entertaining but they still live in a semi-conservative Muslim country. Secret nightclubs and underground rave parties abound among the youth of the city. However, for more legal options, befriend locals who are sure to invite you into their homes and force feed you to the point of vomit. Some may even invite you to a family wedding, which are held throughout the city on an almost daily basis. Intimate dinners, poetry readings, and “get-togethers” where the smuggled alcohol never stops flowing are abundant in New Lahore. These are given by the city’s elite, so to be invited it depends on who you know.
Where to Sleep
Hotels are a dime a dozen in Lahore. From cheap holes in the wall to luxurious suites fit for a corrupt politician, Lahore has a range of lodging. For an affordable and historical stay, look to the Faletti’s Hotel, which was established in 1880 by the British and is still frequented by patrons of a bygone era who convene in its dining hall everyday for their 4 p.m. tea and biscuits. A taste of luxury can be sampled at Intercontinental Hotel, located off of Mall Road and said to be one of the best in the country. The Shalimar Hotel in Gulberg in New Lahore is a small, traditional place with carved Sindhi furniture and embroidered bed linens made by women in far off villages. It is also minutes from the area’s best shopping and restaurants.