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Lahore, the Legend

Tracing the origins of the Punjab capital, from myth and folklore to its rapid expansion under colonialization

by Khaled Ahmed

The main gate of the Lahore Fort. Jewel Samad—AFP

Much-admired Lahore “expert” Majid Sheikh, writing in daily Dawn on May 13, 2019, claimed the Punjab capital was once a Jain city. “Jain Hall in Lahore is part of our culture and heritage but the destruction of Lahore’s Jain Mandar in our times was like the Taliban destroying the statues of Bamiyan, or knocking down of the statues in Kabul Museum,” he said, recalling that Lahore had once been important enough for Siddhartha of the Sakia clan—Gautam Buddha—to visit and stay for three months. An educated guess points to him staying at Mohallah Maullian inside Lohari Gate, which is believed to be the oldest mohallah of the pre-Akbar walled city.

“Remnants of a Buddhist temple still exist there,” wrote Sheikh. “The Buddha set aside all Hindu ceremonies, abolished Brahman priesthood and sacrifices both human and animal. We know from Chinese scholars that as the caste-based religion was pushed eastwards, all the lands from Afghanistan to the Punjab were ruled by Buddhists. Buddhism was in a way a revolutionary equity-based system that has influenced the entire world in ways we do not care to study. But then such are belief-based systems.”

Origin stories

According to one origin story about Lahore, Lord Rama—who ruled for “11,000 years”—left the mortal world by taking a dip in the Sarayu River. His sons, Loh/Lava and Kusha, then went northwards and founded two cities—Lahore and Kasur. There is even a temple associated with Lava at the Lahore Fort. Incidentally, Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah was a Lohana, meaning “descended from Loh.” His grandfather, Jeenabhai, was converted from a Hindu Lohana to an Ismaili Khoja. The area of Gujarat, the entire peninsula of Saurashtra, was also called Kathiawar.

In another version, Rama was considered an Avatar of Lord Vishnu, the protector of the Universe according to Vedic or Hindu mythology. It states that he divided his vast kingdom into eight parts, giving one part each to his and his three brothers’ eight children. His elder son, Kush, was given a Dakshin Kaushal in the Gangetic basin, while his younger son Lava was given the north of his kingdom, which came to be called Luvalka or Luv’s land, with present day Lahore as its capital.

From Luv to Loh to Lahore

Luv or Loh, after whom Lahore was named, is portrayed as a brave warrior. The Ramayana states that as a mere boy in hermitage, he and his brother Kush brought the entire army of their father—led by uncle Laxman—to a standstill. His descendants were said to be cast in the same mold, but not satisfied with Luvalka and pushed to the west and annexed today’s Afghanistan and adjoining areas. Around 580 BC, when Bimbisara ruled over Bharat, the society came to be divided into different communities based on their occupation. One of their communities was called Kshatriyas; and King Luv’s descendants were classed with them, and came to be known as Lovana. The Lovanas from Loharghat became known as Loharana (masters of swords), which later became Lohana.

Chinese traveler Fa-hien, who visited India between 414 and 399 BC, describes the Lohanas as a brave community ruling the northwest territory of India. Another Chinese traveler, Kurmang, who came in the 11th century AD, speaks of a Lohana kingdom as a mighty power. Historian Burton writes that the Lohanas were brave people and says they were spread over today’s Balochistan, Afghanistan and eastern fringes of Central Asia. Col. Todd, who delved into history of Rajasthan, describes Lohanas as the oldest Kshatriya community.

A possible reason for the continued references to the Lohanas’ bravery might be how they placed themselves for centuries in the direct path of invaders from northwest, including Persians, Macedonians, Huns, Mughals, etc. After a lengthy span in holding their ground, they finally fell back and initially moved to the Sindh province of today’s Pakistan. When Islam reached the Indian subcontinent and Sindh, the Lohanas disintegrated into small segments, but found a leader in Veer Jashraj, who is revered as Dada Jashraj, born in today’s Lahore, which was then the capital of Lohargadh. His domain extended from Lahore to Multan.

According to folklore, Mongol invader Gengis Khan attacked Multan and was killed by Dada Jashraj, also stated on his apparent gravesite. Folklore further states that the king of Mongols was killed by Mirana, the tiger of Multan fort. Jashrai’s descendants who carry the Mirana surname preserve the memory of the kind who was treacherously killed at 28. After the death of Dada Jashraj, the decline of Lohanas began and their reign at Lohargadh ended.

Lohanas today

The Lohanas of today are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group included in India’s urban Hindu mercantile community. Mainly residing in Gujarat, Mumbai and other parts of the country, they can be found in other parts of the world too. Lohanas who converted to Islam are usually known as Memons (Gujarati) or, if members of the Ismaili sect, Khoja.

Ishtiaq Ahmed, writing in Jinnah: His Success, Failures, and Role in History (Vanguard 2021), sought to gather the scattered contradictory accounts of the life of Pakistan’s founder. In his account, Jinnah’s ancestors belonged to the Hindu trading caste of Lohanas. According to another version, he was named Mamedali Jeenabhai Poonja upon birth, but changed it to Mohammad Ali Jinnah later—while refusing to change it to Janah in English. “Jeena” in his name referred to the founder of Jain religion, Mahavira, who was also called Jeena the Victor.

Shahnaz Rouse in The State of Lahore under Colonialism: A Political and Economic Analysis, has produced a comprehensive account of the city. She writes that Lahore was colonized fairly late, coming under direct control of the British East India Company in 1849. Historically, the city was frequently in the path of those seeking to extract wealth and/or control territory in India, with most occupiers coming overland from the western part of the subcontinent. The British occupation of Punjab violated this pattern, as they first established themselves near ports, making Bengal and Calcutta their base, before expanding westward. They then chipped away at local power centers with combined coercive and reward-based strategies, established agents among rivals in various territories, and produced and preyed upon internal fissures before formally defeating fractionalized Sikh groups, which enabled the final annexation of Lahore.

Lahore of the Punjabis

The year 1857 was a decisive moment in British policy vis-à-vis Lahore and Punjab. In addition to rendering India a direct colony of the Crown, and marking the final defeat of the Mughals, it also led to the British privileging Punjabis over Bengalis and others from Central India, especially in the armed forces. Subsequent to 1857, at which time Punjabis made up 44 percent of the Bengal Army and the Frontier Force, by mid-1858 75,000 of the 80,000 non-British troops in the Bengal army were Punjabis. Punjabi representation in the army continued to grow, with 62 percent of the Indian Army belonging to the region by 1929. New conscription was such that in Bengal there were 7,117 combatant recruits out of 45 million, while Punjab had 349,689 out of 20 million. Aside from the escalation in Punjabi recruitment, this shift in the regional makeup of the army is noteworthy because the myth of the martial races is directly traceable to this transformation in the regional makeup of military bodies.

The events of 1857 thus contributed to several major changes in Lahore including migrations from Bengal and Central India to Lahore. This mass movement was precipitated by Punjab’s pacification and its initial administrative absorption into the Bengal Presidency. In the wake of the 1857 uprising, some members of the Mughal court—especially its dependent shura—also migrated to Lahore in search of jobs and new assignments, as did certain colonial hangers-on seeking further opportunities for advancement.

Growth of Lahore

One of the reasons for Lahore’s growth was the construction of a massive railway network. In 1891, Lahore was India’s 10th largest city, with a population of 176,854. By 1921, that figure had climbed to 281,781, making it the fifth largest city. By 1941, these numbers had more than doubled, a population of 671,659. In addition to facilitating its demographic growth and changes in its inhabitants, the rail network connected Lahore to other parts of the country in a nodal fashion, facilitating an emergent sense of India as a unity. It was, thus, vital to an altered spatial sensibility, beyond the perceptual shift they had wrought.

In colonial Lahore, the British built a number of graveyards to bury their dead. These are segregated sites containing primarily British bodies and some notable converts and/or Anglo-Indians. The cemeteries themselves demarcate the shifting spatial contours of the city and the specializations and hierarchies that came to define the colonial order, with some exceptions. Each is known as “goron ka kabristan” or “the white cemetery.” This designation is noteworthy as all of them are identically named, refusing them any individuality: their naming homogenizes these spaces.

Of the four graveyards, the first and oldest sits in the vicinity of the walled city—adjacent to the earliest settlement by the British in Lahore. The second next to the Cantonment in an area known as R.A. Bazaar, which stands for “Royal Artillery” Bazaar. Of the remaining two, one is next to the Mayo Gardens, which housed European railway officers, and the fourth one sits along the open sewerage canal that today connects the Mall with the street that led to the mental asylum and jail. The last cemetery is in close proximity to the Civil Lines, where members of the upper echelon of the colonial establishment lived. These graveyards are specialized spaces, producing colonial separation in a city that became a melting pot under the same colonial rulers.

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