Lahore Chronicle: A journey from Royal Courtesans to Selling Sex in the City-Sumaira Rauf/Saira Rauf

Heera Mandi (Diamond Market), once a royal emblem now mostly referred as a red light area of Lahore, Pakistan, was also known for the street of the dancing girls. Beautiful women (kanjiries) used to sit in stall-shaped balconies known as kothas and practice their singing and dancing which were considerably more popular there. People used to flock there for a visual and musical feast, however, the aesthetic quest gradually grew less arty and more tarty. The dancing girls of Lahore are now facing an uncertain future, many resorting to prostitution as a last resort.

Heera Mandi, the current name for this market, exists in the heart of Lahore’s Walled City, near the Taxali Gate. The Diamond Market of Lahore was once known as Shahi Mohalla (The Royal Neighborhood) in the Mughal era because of its closeness to the Lahore Fort and Badshahi Masjid (The Royal Mosque).

Shahi Mohallah was the epicenter of the tawaif (concubine) culture in Mughal India, a tradition of courtesans who catered to royalty during the 15th and 16th centuries. Mughals opened the bazaar (market of beautiful women), bringing ladies primarily from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan to enjoy the dances and entertainment. Later, ladies from various regions of the Indian Subcontinent were brought in to entertain the Mughals by performing kathak, a classical Indian dance. Amidst this, the favorite concubines were reserved without legal marriage as a keep by Mughal Emperors in their harem (sacrosanct place).

During the Mughal era, the concubines were hugely influential, the top ustaads (masters) of the time schooled the tawaifs in music and dancing. The beautiful courtesans kept the art of traditional singing and dancing alive. They were instrumental in popularizing Indian traditional dance traditions as well as Urdu and South Asian literature. They were regarded as etiquette experts, and it is stated that young would-be emperors were cared for by tawaifs, who also educated them about their ancestry and culture.

The tawaifs of Shahi Mohallah were also social icons for the elite. Their participation during ceremonies was regarded as a sign of refinement and status. The noble and wealthy families hired them to teach their children culture and social behavior. These courtesans were at the top of the artiste industry’s hierarchy during a time when patriarchal Indian culture gave women little power or position, and women were mostly confined to their homes. In a male-dominated culture, these women had influence, and by associating with them, men improved their social standing. These courtesans were not just art reservoirs, but they also possessed autonomy and were not dependent on males. They paid male musicians to train them.

The royal sponsorship of the tawaifs came to an end when Mughal power in Punjab was weakened. Throughout the first half of the 18th century, the city of Lahore was subjected to repeated Afghan invasions and raids led by Ahmad Shah Abdali. During Abdali’s invasion, Shahi Mohallah was initially linked to prostitution. His army set up brothels using the women they abducted from the villages and cities they ravaged. Over the years, the traditional concubine culture gave its way to prostitution, yet mujra (dancing) and music remained an afterthought.

The brothels in Lahore that had been set up by Afghans were shut down when the Afghan army was forced out of Punjab, leaving the province in a power vacuum that was filled by Sikhs. Maharaja Ranjit Singh reinstated various Mughal royal rituals in Lahore, including the culture of tawaifs and their court performances.

After the death of Ranjit Singh, Hira Singh Dogra, a prime minister of the Sikh Empire, thought that Shahi Mohalla is in the heart of the city, it may be used as an economic hub, similar to a bazaar, in addition to housing tawaifs’ houses. As a result, he established a food grains market in the neighborhood which first became familiar as ‘Hira Singh di Mandi’ (Hira Singh’s market), and gradually Shahi Mohallah was known with a new identity simply as Heera Mandi. In the name of Heera Mandi, the Urdu word heera referring to diamond has long been used by locals to describe the attractiveness of the market girls but in actuality, it is named after Punjab’s Emperor Hira Singh.

Although the Sikh’s reign could not equal the Mughals’ magnificence, the tawaifs continued to receive royal patronage from the court but not so long. The Sikh empire came to an end after two decisive wars, the Mughal Empire was already in collapse by 1857, and the British were solidifying their hold on the subcontinent.

During British colonial rule, Heera Mandi’s reputation as a prostitution hub was cemented. The British Empire, blind to Indian customs and the cultural environment, further reduced the tawaifs’ heritage by associating courtesan with prostitutes and kothas where courtesans sang, danced, and exercised their craft in brothels. The British constructed the brothel in the ancient Anarkali Bazaar (market) for the entertainment of British soldiers. These were later relocated to Lohari Gate and then Taxali Gate.

The brothels were built to provide sexual pleasure and entertainment to British soldiers. Due to a lack of public demand, the concubines abandoned their literary and dancing pursuits, and prostitution became popular. It was a center of prostitution in Lahore from the British colonial period till recently. Many khusras, or transgender people in Pakistan also participate in its dancing tradition and prostitution business.

Furthermore, the courtesans were subjected to the Contagious Disease Act of 1864, which was enacted to prevent the spread of venereal disease among British troops. The British used this rule to regulate and suffocate the revenues of courtesans, branding them as prostitutes. As a result, highly accomplished artists began to fall further down the cultural ladder, and their stature was diminished.

Despite the presence of a prostitution cult in the neighborhood, Heera Mandi maintained its status as a center for the arts. The main difference was that the tawaif’s patrons were no longer emperors, wealthy, and nobles, but ordinary citizens of the city, this is how Heera Mandi came to be known for its nickname as Bazaar-e-Husn (market of beauty).

Renowned Bollywood filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali has produced a film on Heera Mandi.

In the 1950s, a High Court judgment declared dancing girls to be “artists,” allowing them to perform for three hours in the evening. A few years ago women in this neighborhood used to wear anklets to attract males and performed erotic classical dance exclusively for them. Only a few women worked in the sex industry.

Some families living in Heera Mandi called themselves the descendants of Mughal era concubines, now commonly known as kanjar (traditional caste of entertainers). They claim that they were artists, and their family business was singing and dancing. They did not contribute to its commercial prostitution. They alleged that women from outside rural and low-income areas eventually joined the Heera Mandi as sex workers, bringing with them the abilities of mujras and other sensuous dances on Bollywood songs.

The bulk of women in Tibbi Gali, who demanded low fees, chose the lifestyle of whores owing to acute poverty and the inability to support themselves and their families. Men from different social statuses and backgrounds of life used to walk up and down this narrow street in quest of sexual satisfaction and in rare cases for dancing, beauty, and music. During the day, the short, narrow street slept, but at night, it awakened.

The dancing girls’ colorful musical anklets in Lahore’s old Shahi Mohallah district are now silent and for sale. This dilapidated area is no longer a haven for men who want to break out from their arranged marriages and spend time with attractive ladies skilled in the arts of song, dance, and seduction. A colorful, gay street with music and the echo of ghoongroos (musical anklets)coming from carved wooden porticos is now left with a region known for a hotbed of prostitution and drug addicts. The young and old women lurking in filthy corners and streets filled with the rotten smell for their clients.

During Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s reign, an operation was conducted against music and dance houses which with the passage of time became dens of prostitution. The operation was conducted to expunge the brothels of Heera Mandi completely, and, as a result, countless sex workers moved to different parts of Lahore thus now prostitution practices are scattered all over Lahore city.

Heera Mandi is a typical Pakistani bazaar throughout the day, with decent cuisine, a large selection of khussa (traditional Mughal footwear), and stores selling musical instruments and dance. The brothels above the stores open at night as the dark business of sinner’s street. In recent times, the area has become known for prostitution again, though the practice is in decline with the rise of online escort services.

The author is Lecturer in English at Riphah International University, Lahore, Pakistan. She has written articles for several prestigious English newspapers.
The author is working as an Adjunct Faculty at University of Education, Lahore, Pakistan. She is a published writer.
Facebook Comments Box
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top