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Kashmari Bazaar, where epics and legends once came to life
Publication Date : 13-08-2013
Lahore's Kashmiri Bazaar, which once saw the stuff of Pakistan's literary legends, is now a mere memory
Every time I walk through Lahore’s Delhi Gate and head towards the now fast dilapidating mosque of Wazir Khan, I cannot help but think of the now long-closed book shops inside the mosque and, more importantly, the famous Kashmiri Bazaar that starts from the mosque onwards.
Last week I visited the area again with a foreign research historian who was working on a project he called “the role of students in the freedom movement in northern India”. In this subject, the role of Lahore is paramount.
The ancient book shops in the inner perimeter of the mosque fascinated my friend. She had no idea the book industry in Lahore dated so far back.
However, what I would like to bring to light now, is the relatively recent past of the Kashmiri Bazaar, during which the once great literary treasure throve had suffered greatly.
To understand the dynamics of Lahore's book industry, let me present two pictures: one of early official records dating as far as 1849, and another a single published of - the legendary story of Ranjha and Heer - have has been told over and over again by well-known writers and poets over the ages. This approach, although not perfectly, will shed some light on the industry which has been long ignored by the people of Lahore - to their own loss.
The poetry of Masood Saad Salman is probably the oldest published work in the walled city of Lahore. Born in 1121 in Lahore, Masood was later captured and became a slave to Afghan invader Mahmud of Ghazni. However, Masood's poems were passed on from generation to generation, initially by word of mouth, and later translated into various versions of his original work. These versions are mostly hand-written, but I have not been able to determine where in Lahore they were produced.
We also know of the "janam sakhi", the traditional biographies of Nanak (1469-1539), which can be found in many places in Lahore - mostly at the Lahori Gate area, where the city's book industry started.
By the time the mosque was completed in 1642 during the reign of Shah Jehan (1592-1666), the Kashmiri Bazaar was already forming, though the Kesara Bazaar - the local brass bazaar - was more frequently visited by locals.
Slowly, the bookshops began to appear, as demand for cheaper hand-written books grew. The leather-bound "qissas" manuscripts produced in exquisite calligraphy using floral decorated Lahori hand-made paper was a much sought after product by the camel trade caravans that congregated at the market square outside the mosque.
Mosques would emerge whereever there was a market square. And in the square, "qissa khawans" (story tellers) made good money in Lahore as they did in the Kissakhawani Bazaar in Peshawar.
This was a tradition that stretched across the Indian sub-continent and Central Asia – the mosque, the market square and the story-tellers. Special editions of the classics were produced on manuscript and the caravans purchased them to sell in the markets of Central Asia, eventually ending up in the hands of Orientalists, or buyers for libraries and museums in a Europe which was just awakening from its Dark Ages.
As demand continued to grow, publishing shops started coming up along Kashmiri Bazaar, as did shops specialising in paper supply, paper floral decorators, calligraphists, book-binders and book sellers. The story of Lahori hand-made paper is a interesting one, for women would make the paper in their houses, using papyrus pulp found along the river Ravi. A few shops even sold paper pulp which the women purchased and converted into hand-made paper.
At this stage let us take a look at the most popular hand-written book sold at the Kashmiri Bazaar over the last 200 years - the story of Heer and Ranjha which was told by different poets and writers and translated onto paper by various publishers in the Kashmiri Bazaar.
There was also the "Si Harfi" series of stories by Fazl Shah produced in 1886 by Chiragh Din Kutab Farosh, a 32-page publication. The series was also publised by Shaikh Ashraf of Kashmiri Bazaar in 1887, along with other stories. The original shop still exists today.
Various versions of the tale of Munshi Ghulam Hussain was published by Munshi Gulab Singh and was a popular work sold at the bazaar circa 1891. In total, about 2,000 copies of this book was sold at the bazaar.
The story of Munshi Ghulam Hussain was also told by a poet named Hussain, and his work title "Heer Hussain" was published in 1873 by Maktab Sultani who in the same year also published "Heer Si Harfi Arora Rai", and sold over 2,100 copies.
But most popular among all was the tale of the "Heer of Syed Waris Shah of Jandiala Sher Khan", which was published by almost every publisher in the Kashmiri Bazaar. A beautifully hand-written version prepared by the mosque of Wazir Khan today lies in Germany's Berlin Museum.
The above is only a glimpse of the glory of the Kashmari Bazaar in its days. Today the bazaar represents the finest traditions of learning in Lahore - a tradition that needs to be revived and passed on to future generations.
Some non-government organisations have recently made efforts to train poor women to produce hand-made paper, such as those made by women in the past.
This income-generating activity can breathe new economic and cultural life into an ancient city stifled by ruthless wholesale markets that have taken up over 70 per cent of the old city’s housing space for illegal commercial activities.
But can life be breathed again into the industry to produce the beautiful leather-bound versions of the classic tales and epics? Only time will tell.