Lahore as Kipling Knew It

THOUGH Rudyard Kipling lived only five of his 70 years in Lahore, they were the most crucial years of his development as a writer. This rich confection of a city, whose great Mogul buildings and street life evoke the deep hues and sensuality of a miniature painting, was where the teen-aged Kipling cut his teeth as a newspaperman. Lahore provided the setting for some of Kipling’s greatest stories, as well as the raw material for his somewhat misunderstood view of East and West.

Though now obscured as a tourist destination due to its location 15 miles inside Pakistan, Lahore was the heart of Kipling’s India. Between 1882 and 1887, he worked there as the assistant editor of The Civil and Military Gazette, combing the back alleys of the old, walled city for stories and material for his later fiction. Like the Irish street urchin, Kim, the hero of his greatest novel, Kipling used Lahore as a base to explore the rest of the subcontinent.

Armed with the Penguin edition of ”Kim,” I set out for the Lahore Museum, where Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, had been the curator and where the first scene in ”Kim” takes place. The novel opens with Kim sitting ”astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum.” It was while astride the gun that Kim meets a Tibetan lama, whom the boy then escorts into the Wonder House.
The Zam-Zammah (Urdu for lion’s roar) is known in Lahore as Kim’s gun, and, except for the brick platform that has been replaced by marble, the copper and brass cannon looks exactly as Kipling described it; a massive icon of imperialism over 14 feet long, mounted on wooden wheels that are well over six feet in diameter. And the Wonder House opposite is just that; in my opinion one of the world’s great underrated museums.

Pakistan’s oldest and largest museum is a red sandstone masterpiece of Anglo-Indian Gothic with a white marble facade that unlocks a treasure chest of southern Asian artifacts.

I walked into the main vestibule under a high, frescoed ceiling, listened to the hum of the wall fans, and immediately felt at home. This was as I had always imagined the perfect museum to be, with just enough clutter and disorder to create a feeling of intimacy, but not so much as to distract from the individual works of art.

Kim and the lama had gone into the ”Wonder House to pray before the gods there.” The lama was especially awed by the collection of religious statues from Gandhara, a Buddhist culture that flourished in northwest Pakistan in the first centuries A.D. There are also Hindu and Jain sculptures, Persian, Turkoman and Kurdish rugs, Islamic glazed tiles and calligraphy, Tibetan furniture and votive paintings, and a main gallery filled with Persian and Mogul miniatures. Visually, it is like being glutted with a spicy, multi-course subcontinent meal.

In the novel the ”Keeper of the Images” – a figure based on Kipling’s own father – inspired the lama in his spiritual journey across India in search of a sacred river. The wealth of this collection speaks volumes about the encyclopedic knowledge of Asian culture that the curator, Lockwood Kipling, must have possessed; knowledge that evidently rubbed off on his son to judge by the lavish descriptions in ”Kim.”
Kim procured food and lodging for himself and the lama in Lahore’s old city. ”The hot and crowded bazaars blazed with light as they made their way through the press of all the races in Upper India, and the lama mooned through it like a man in a dream.” The crowds are as dense now as they were then (”Kim” was published in 1901). But unlike bazaars in India itself, there are no beggars and few of the hustlers who make life miserable for tourists in places like Delhi and Agra. Despite the press of humanity, you can have a measure of solitude in Lahore’s old city.

And you can see women too: after visiting so many Middle Eastern bazaars where women were just bobbing black tents, I was dazzled by the number of poor and lower middle class Lahori women with hauntingly beautiful faces, highlighted by eye kohl, gold jewels in their noses, and the flowing saris and trousers-and-tunics outfits that give the bazaar its dash of primary color.

I had entered the old city through the Delhi Gate, the most impressive of the portals that are still standing. Under the Mogul emperors Akbar the Great, Jehangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, Lahore reached a zenith of splendor. The old part of Lahore is the greatest medieval architectural spectacle between Delhi and Isfahan, rivaling the former if not quite the latter.
After a few minutes of walking I came to the Mosque of Wazir Khan, which gets its name from the Governor of the Punjab who built the mosque in 1634 during the reign of Shah Jahan. In an Oct. 1, 1887, dispatch in the Civil and Military Gazette, Kipling wrote that the area of the mosque was ”full of beauty even when the noonday heat silences the voices of men and puts the pigeons of the mosque to sleep.” I removed my shoes and walked into the courtyard at midday, sat on a rush mat under an archway and admired the thin wafers of red brick, the kashi tiles and the frescoes painted in various shades of yellow and orange, the very colors of the ground curry sold in the market nearby. The crazy geometry of the bazaar buildings towered over the courtyard, making it seem even smaller than it was. But, on account of the courtyard’s silence and the lovely reflecting pool in the center, I felt far removed from the city.

I walked out of the old city through the Kashmiri Gate, not far from where Kim and the lama spent their first night on the road together in the stable of an Afghan horse trader. The stables are gone, but the transient atmosphere of the caravansary persists in the form of tented tea stalls and rows of jute beds. For the equivalent of 50 cents, I took a three-wheel auto-rickshaw for the five-minute ride to the Badshahi (King) Mosque, farther along the collapsed old city wall. Completed in 1674 by Aurangzeb, the last great Mogul emperor, the Badshahi Mosque is said to be the largest single-unit mosque in the world, and is arguably second only to the Taj Mahal as an example of Mogul architectural genius.
The courtyard, within four inches of being a perfect square, is almost twice the length of a football field. The linear sweeps of red and pink sandstone clash majestically with the three white marble domes that appear as planets floating in space, around which smaller, white marble satellites, resting atop the turrets and minarets, revolve. Though the scale is grand, it isn’t alienating. Under the stucco tracery of the prayer hall, men were relaxing and praying on the carpets. Nobody talked to me, or stared either. I could have read several chapters of ”Kim” without being interrupted.

The Badshahi Mosque stands in perfect spatial harmony to the old city, the white and gold pudding cake of a Sikh temple, the gardens of Hazuri Bagh and Akbar’s fort. The Sikh temple holds the remains of Ranjit Singh, a one-eyed drunkard and opium addict who brilliantly ruled the Punjab in the early 19th century by uniting all the Sikh tribes and maintaining peaceful relations with the British. It was amid the trees and flowers of the Hazuri Bagh where he held court.

The red brick fortifications of Akbar’s Fort, roughly four times the size of the Badshahi Mosque, give an impression of what the old city walls must have once looked like. The fort, completed a century before the mosque, is nowadays a quiet world of well-kept gardens and archeological remains. In the northwest corner is the Shish Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), built for the women of the court in 1632 by Shah Jahan, the same emperor who built the Taj Mahal. What’s left of this pleasure palace is actually quite little. But, like a good, spare poem, the few marble, Corinthian archways and pavilions, each overlaid with frescoes and thousands of silver, convex mirrors, are sufficient to convey the luscious ambiance of the harem. One can imagine the women, in jewels and saris, reclining on cushions, while sipping pomegranate juice and being refreshed by the breezes that blow through the archways.
The most magnificent of the surviving pavilions is called the Naulakha, which means nine lakhs, or 900,000 rupees, because that was the cost of building it. The Naulakha was also the title of a novel Kipling wrote in collaboration with Wolcott Balestier, the brother of his fiancee, who died of typhus a few weeks before the wedding. In the book, the Naulakha is a famous jewel. But Kipling no doubt was inspired by this pavilion in the Shish Mahal, filled with silver and semiprecious stones. Close by is the Fort Museum, an air-conditioned refuge from the heat, holding an excellent, albeit small, collection of miniature paintings and illuminated manuscripts.
The next morning I took a taxi to the Anarkali Bazaar just outside the Lohari Gate. According to legend, Anarkali (Pomegranate Blossom) was the name of a favorite concubine of Akbar the Great, whom he put to death for having a love affair with his son. This is Lahore’s main shopping district, and on account of its length and the mixture of exotic and mundane household goods, it reminded me of Muski Street in Cairo. For the tourist, Anarkali is a disappointment. All I bought was a battery-operated racing car for my son. (The best collection of miniature paintings I found not in Anarkali, but in the gift shop of the Lahore Museum, where prices range between $10 and $200 depending upon the quality. And for those interested in printed cloth and saris, the best shops are in the Panorama Shopping Center, formerly the site of The Civil and Military Gazette, on the Mall road.) From Anarkali, I took another auto-rickshaw to the Bhatti Gate, and walked up the bazaar street to the Faqir Khana, a rambling, down-at-the-heels mansion in the old city that is known for its private art collection. The guest book showed that I was the first visitor in three days.

A kindly man led me through the many rooms of the house, teeming with precious objects: carpets, old books, Chinese silkscreens, Buddha statues, coins, pottery, paintings, photographs. There was a Mogul miniature with a detail of a court artist drawing a horseman. The horseman was so small that a magnifying glass was required to see it. I was next shown a framed and shredded piece of silk. When I held it up to the sun I saw an intricate Mogul needlepoint drawing of archers and courtesans. This work of art was so faded that a strong light was needed to reveal the details. In another decade or so, I thought, nothing would be left of it.

”Kim,” as I was discovering, though as old as the century, had not faded at all in its ability to render both the overwhelming beauty and squalidness of the Indian subcontinent. And my last night in Lahore, I thought I caught a glimpse of the respect, combined with the terror and amazement, with which Kipling himself must have reacted to this city, back in the days when he edited newspaper copy while sweating under a ceiling fan and sipping a whiskey and soda.

From other travelers, I had heard vague stories about the ”street of the dancing girls” in the old city, but I assumed this was just a polite phrase for a red light district. Then a taxi driver insisted I was wrong, and took me inside the Taxali Gate to the Diamond Bazaar at 11 P.M. This was where Kim had listened to the fakirs and their ”lewd disciples.” (I did see one old man who was shaking a bell and chanting.) The narrow, derelict alleys here were crammed with all types of people, and groups of policemen stood at each corner. But there was no atmosphere of crime or tension.
The crowds were attracted to the succession of lovely carpeted rooms lined with velvet cushions, which were opened to the street and illuminated by the light of hissing gas lamps. In each of the rooms, as though mannequins in a store window, were one or two beautiful women sitting impassively, sipping tea and flanked by a troupe of musicians and an old woman – the dancer’s ever-watchful mother. None of these women leered or even smiled at the passers-by. The women looked fresh, haughty and elegant in their saris of every imaginable color, like the daughters of rich oriental politicians being shown off at a ball.

I selected one room and entered. The door closed behind me and I was offered a seat against a cushion. Then, to the accompaniment of a sitar and a squeeze-box piano, two young women began a classical dance. Their painted faces could have been sculptured by a Mogul artist: I was reminded of the ladies in Shah Jahan’s court. The dancers asked for the equivalent of $10 for the private, 15-minute performance. The only thing hokey about it was that, in the middle, a vendor came through the door, as if on cue, and threw rose petals at the dancers.

There are tales of wealthy Arab emirs who send their servants to these streets near the Taxali Gate at night, ready to pay thousands of dollars to the mothers of the most beautiful girls in order to take them as concubines to the Gulf. It is the kind of story that young Kipling would have loved to check out, wandering these same back alleys as he often did.

”Our city, from the Taxila to the Delhi Gate . . . would yield a store of novels,” wrote Kipling, whose imperialism was tempered with a humanism and street-wise reporter’s knowledge of the East that many people today don’t give him credit for. And, particularly in ”Kim,” Kipling has created a sympathetic literary myth to go hand in hand with Lahore’s artistic pleasures.

Credit: Published in New York Times, Jan 29, 1989 Photos: AP Pakistan

5 Comments so far

  1. asimfayaz on September 21st, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

    Brilliant article!

  2. Hasan Mubarak (hasanmubarak) on September 21st, 2008 @ 11:27 pm

    Reminds me brightly of what Kim must have actually felt about the Ajaib Ghar in reality if he ever existed.

    Wonderful piece of writing, indeed!

  3. Lahore as Kipling Knew It « Lahore Nama (pingback) on September 22nd, 2008 @ 8:48 am

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