The Allure of Anarkali Bazaar that Captivates… “slowly like a pomegranate, spilling its seed.”
The lofty dome of Neela Gumbad (The Blue Dome) rises majestically and becomes conspicuous in the early hours of the day. Its turquoise blue, though covered with dust, vies for attention against the blue skies. And the market in its environs, the Anarkali Bazaar, is rubbing its eyes, getting ready to wake up and seize the day.
A lemonade seller fills his cooler with water from a tap in the Gumbad’s courtyard (the tap is probably meant for prayer ablutions). He is getting ready to prepare lemonade. “How much do you manage to earn in a day?” I ask him. “It’s a hot selling drink in summers and I earn about 1000 per day on average,” he says and rinses the water cooler.
As you walk along the road towards the main bazaar, the historical Mohkam Din bakery catches your eye. Looking at the small unassuming bakery who can tell how closely intertwined the bakery is with the history of Lahore. Its famous plumb cakes have satisfied the pallet of many a famous people, and its finger biscuits point toward a long historical time line. No visit to Anarkali can be complete without tasting some of the delicacies of Mohkam Din Bakery.
It is early and while many shutters are still closed, Mohamad Naeem is already done with his business activity, for him it is time for ‘cash closing.’ Naeem and his father before him have been running this small ‘haleem eatery’ for half a century. “My father was featured in a newspaper,” he proudly tells me and shows the laminated newspaper cutting. “My customers include roadside vendors as wells as those who come here in their pajeros to especially eat my haleem. Some have been coming as kids and now have kids of their own.”
This roadside haleem joint has become the de facto breakfast spot for many regulars, and Naeem is their patron saint of cooking. He gets up at 3 am to give finishing touches to the haleem and arrives in the bazaar at 6 am when the stream of his regular customers start pouring in.
He is well known for not letting anybody go without having something for breakfast. A contented soul, he runs his ‘small’ business according to certain rules.
“Since I cook the haleem myself, there is a certain amount that I can cook without spoiling the taste. Though there is more demand for it, I can’t increase the quantity because I am not willing to sacrifice the taste for profit.” His account is soon vindicated by the disappointed customers who have arrived a bit late. There isn’t a dollop of haleem left in the pot.
Nearby there is a refreshing sight of a cucumber seller washing the cucumbers and cutting them into slices. “Taste them, it’s good to eat cucumbers in the morning,” he tells me while carefully arranging the peeled cucumbers in heaps.
Anarkali is also home to those whose businesses thrive on human proclivity for somehow changing the course of the stars and ‘customizing’ the future according to their preferences. ‘Free three caged birds for 100 rupees, the freed birds will ward off the misfortune or evil eye’ is the marketing slogan of the ‘bird vendor.’
He evades my questions when I ask him from where he catches the birds and why they seem so listless.
For those who find it difficult to believe that three free birds can have a say in their destiny, they can try semi-precious stones. ‘Wearing a right kind of stone can alter your fortune’ is what …. tells his customers or whoever passes by his roadside stall. The colorful stones look appealing and who knows, they might even work.
There are others who are here just to amble along and soak up the sights and atmosphere, like this young student who attracts my attention because of his rather intricate hairstyle. He readily poses for a photograph and I learn that he is an aspiring banker and usually saunters along the alleys of the bazaar before going to the college.
“The hair style! Well my cousin is doing a salon course and she practices different styles on my hair,” he laughs and divulges the secret behind his ‘cool’ hair style.
Wouldn’t every budding beautician want a cousin like him!
Anarkali plays a unique role in the retail/wholesale sector. The variety of goods sold here draws customers from all over the world. People come here to buy handicrafts, souvenirs, shoes, toys, antiques, ready-made garments and all sorts of fabric. And there is a whole range of markets to explore and choose from: Babar Market, Paris Market, Dhani Ram Raod, Khanum Market… all have something to offer. Some visit simply to taste the famous fruit chart of Bano bazaar.
While shopping malls have mushroomed in the city, they can’t beat the charm that Anarkali has. “Yes, the malls have affected the business, but even now there is no bazaar like Bano bazaar. People come here not just because they are looking for variety but also because they feel a sense of connection and safety within the narrow, covered lanes of Bano Bazar,” say Sheikh Mubarak Ali who has been running a small dupatta shop since 1965.
Anarkali, however, is not just a bazaar, it also has a lure of history. Starting with the legend behind the bazaar’s name, there are many historical landmarks and buildings that have stories to tell if you are willing to listen.
As we stroll along we pass by Qutbud Deen Aibak’s mausoleum, and many old buildings and structures. On the main Anarkali road, a narrow alley that frames an old building catches our attention. From the hawkers lining the alley we come to know that the palace was once a temple but now it’s a storage dump yard for disposed items. We are told we can’t stay there for long because the building around the temple is now privately owned. Sure, there are some political slogans graffitied on the walls!
Further along the road, an old gate seems oddly welcoming. The inscription on the gate says: Muslim Dehli hotel. It’s quiet in there, one of the oldest hotels in Lahore where Maharaj Khatak used to give dancing lessons. Its doors are opened; the man at the reception is sleeping. As we cross the hotel building the alley on the left side opens into a vast area. The place seems cut off from the hustle bustle of the bazaar. It has a laid back charm of the bygone era with old structures and a huge neem tree that stretches its braches protectively as if to preserve the remnants of history in its lap.
In this quiet spot, Haji Sakoor sits outside his ‘salon’ and asks me to take a photograph of the notice that says ‘Here we don’t shave.’ When I ask the reason he tells me that ‘shaving is un-Islamic.’ He is also an old Anarkalite who has been running his ‘salon’ for the last many years. Next to the salon, a small room houses a printing press that has been there for the last sixty years.
On one side of the neem tree the is the lifeline of the bazaar: the water filter plant that delivers water to the entire market at 20 rupees per bottle. The people here are somewhat suspicious of us, they think we are there to inspect the water quality. We try to allay their fears as best as we can. The water bottles are being piled in the cart, ready for delivery to the shops.
Soon every activity picks up pace, the bazaar wakes up. The Gumbad looks on and gradually goes in the background as a frantic hubbub takes over the bazaar. A steady stream of buyers and sellers descend upon the narrow alleys of Anarkali. Retailers and wholesalers open their shutters. It is 12 pm.
The lemonade seller, who makes lemonade with Gumbad’s waters, is busy catering to his parched customers. Mohammad Naeem has gone home and is probably resting before he begins his preparations for tomorrow’s breakfast. The stone seller is surrounded by people trying to dodge their stars with the help of a few stones.
The crowd gets denser and denser pulsating with the oldest of human activities: buying and selling. Anarkali bazaar witnesses all this, it has been doing so for eons. It recounts stories of what it once was and who has frequented it over time. Listen to these stories while you shop in one of the oldest markets in South Asia.