The Ethnic Mosaic Of Lahore

Qasim Khan Lahore

An Article by Aminah Suhail Qureshi

While looking at “Homage to the Square” by Josef Albers, I just wondered what he must have been thinking back in 1963 while creating this simplistic yet an intricate piece of art – a square within a square in yet another square. At first it seemed to me like a modified Venn diagram, a square being the subset of the one enclosing it. Then I questioned whether this four-edged polygon actually exists in nature. The answer was yes it does! To illustrate, one simple ionic crystal cube is surrounded by identical cubes to form the table salt we eat; this is nature. But another exemplum engrossed my attention as I continued to stare at the painting. How about analysing this painting from an anthropological perspective? What if every square is considered to be a culture symbiotically living with other cultures at same place and time, and every culture providing a bolt-hole to the other? Again the squares cannot be seen but their existence cannot be denied. 

Lahore has been cited as a hub in descriptions as old as four thousand years. Historians argufy over the authenticity of the myths that give an account of the origin of Lahore. Though now a cultural civic centre of an Islamic country, by legend it is thought to have been founded by Rama and Sita’s son, Loh. Lahore’s cultural heritage has evolved through traditions practised from millions of years ago up to now. Historical records reveal that Lahore was the only crossroad developed on the route from Kabul to Agra. Several nomads, invaders and conquerors chose this small stretch as their rest area and later, capital. As people from different areas continued to settle here, dwellings and markets were constructed; this laid the basic foundation of Lahore’s infrastructure. Every tribe and clan brought with itself its own set of traditions and values, hence Lahore’s multiculturalism today.

Tradition is a habitual way of behaving or a constitutive cultural system of a society in which the former determine the modes of procedure. As tradition is a way of behaving, it makes a community either a civilised society or savage scallywags. It depends on the boundaries defined by values which in turn determine a person’s character. Traditions should be considered as a part of culture and, therefore, it should be recognised as an important constituent of society. Traditions not only include the celebration of festivals and the types of cuisines and apparels, but it is also of paramount importance in resolving the judicial law.

Lahore is one of the most notable and suitable examples of cross-cultural metropolis. In fact, we Lahoris do not even realise the existence of such cultural factions, and live quite harmoniously. There is no specific set of beliefs, customs and arts which is capable of fully representing Lahore on any platform or forum; in fact, there are various subcultures coexisting under one umbrella. Various lifestyles and customs can be witnessed owing to the deep-rooted social stratification in Lahore’s civilisation. This is because Lahore was the nearest city to the India-Pakistan border and one of the two cities which possessed appropriate infrastructure at the time of partition, hence the city becoming a major settlement for umpteen numbers of immigrants from India. Consequently, there have been at least two extreme strata of people since the birth of the new country – the moment after which Lahore became the cultural heart of Pakistan. Recently, these differences have become quite visible due to advancement in technology. Thus one square is now a safe haven for several subsets.

The area enclosed by the famous thirteen gates is thought to represent the location of original Lahore. Today, it is referred to as the Walled City which is considered to be a backward and ‘uncultured’ part of Lahore. But all those who are of this opinion must read anew the definition of the word ‘culture’. It is basically a particular society at a particular time and place sharing all the knowledge and values along with having commonly favoured tastes in art and manners. 

People have inhabited the Walled City since long and have shaped up their own customs and traditions. Most of them are known by their professions and have built living accommodations and markets most popularly named after the gates, for instance Bhati, Lohari, etc. Horse-carts and bicycles are excessively used as transport vehicles, and big units of families still live in small quarters made on first and second floors and see people from different parts of Lahore buying different foodstuffs, herbal medicines and other commodities being sold in the shops on the ground floors. Men and children still enjoy lassi while chatting during power cuts, and have in fact been successful in preserving the old traditions of Lahore.

Modus vivendi, as it would be appropriate to say, of people living in swish areas of Lahore is contrastingly different. Boys are worrisomely becoming cissy while girls are increasingly transforming into hoydens. Fashion shows and exhibitions of prêt-à-porter and unstitched clothes boutiques are punctually attended by grande dames belonging to the upper-class. This population is considered to be highly cultured, and blessed with knowledge and values. But in my opinion, values and morals are taught and practised by the middle-class – the working class of our society.

A middle-class man lives an average life. He wakes up in the morning and after sending his children to a renowned English-medium school, he along with his wife tries to make ends meet. He uses cars, such as Mehran and Cultus, and motorbikes for conveyance, is not ashamed of it but does envy those travelling in Land Cruisers and Mercedes. When his children insist to visit a restaurant in DHA, he does fulfil their wish but immediately rubs out an expense from his to-do list.

I was stuck in a traffic jam on The Mall Road on my way to home after attending the painting exhibition when I saw a donkey-cart on my left and a BMW on my right, myself sitting in an Alto; this is the true colour of Lahore. I totally agree with Raymond Williams in saying “Culture is ordinary” but I would lie to extend his views; culture is credo. To be cultured does not really refer to be couth, polished and sophisticated; it truly means just to possess a culture. It seems to me that several uncultured people living together do evolve some dos and don’ts for them to practise. As a result, they develop set of ideas or beliefs on the basis of knowledge they have gained.Faiz Ahmed Faiz has aptly said that every society must accept changes in their culture due to advancement; strictly sticking to the old traditions minimises its chances of survival in the future, while completely ignoring the old and embracing the new ones cut off its roots. Doubtlessly, Lahore has been quite successful in making a mosaic of all forms of native and newly evolved cultures.

Aminah Suhail Qureshi is a BSc (Hons) 3rd year student at Government College University. Lahore. This article was originally published in Government College University's annual magazine "The Ravi".