“No jeans tomorrow,” my cousin advised before I went to bed. I was leaving the family lounge when he commented. Not that I wear jeans during my time in Pakistan. In fact, I enjoy wearing traditional shalwar kameezes and shopping locally as soon as I land so my wardrobe would be filled with the latest fashions and fabrics. But, he was throwing caution to the wind. Since the plan was to take us to “Androon” Lahore, or the inner-city, it’s best to wear loose clothing and keep a shawl handy.
We arrived a day before after severe flight delays. The route was Atlanta to Istanbul, Istanbul to Lahore. Overall, a fairly simple route with only one major stop. However, Lahore really plays hard to get, especially in the winter time. We departed the evening of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Final which worked out perfectly since our whole family was eager to watch Argentina win before embarking on what was supposed to be a twenty-two hour journey. Earlier that week, my sister and I both flew into Atlanta so we could accompany my parents on the flight to Pakistan. While my father used to travel to Pakistan four to five times a year for work, this was the first time he was traveling there after his stroke nearly three years prior.
Chachoo, my dad’s younger brother, received us at the Atlanta airport and after a few handshakes and transactions, facilitated a smooth check-in at the Turkish Airlines kiosk. While on our way to Istanbul, my sister and I periodically walked over to business class to ensure my dad was okay.
“Should we ask Abbu if he needs to go to the bathroom?” my sister wondered. Since my dad didn’t have his walker on the plane, we preferred to be there whenever he needed to use the restroom. I walked over to my dad’s seat and saw him fidgeting with his remote. I reclined his chair completely so it transformed into a daybed. I felt reassured seeing him all tucked in. However, after our journey was over, I was disheartened to find out he hardly slept on any segment of the trip.
We landed in Istanbul without any issue. Once our parents were situated in the Turkish Airlines lounge, we agreed on a time to regroup. Meanwhile, my sister and I foraged through the world’s largest airport. After having a soulful meal, we gathered our mom and dad and boarded our flight to Lahore.
The biggest challenge with landing a plane in Lahore during the month of December is the smog + fog combo. In Lahore, it’s called “dhund” which is the product of high population density, leading to pollution and resulting in virtually no visibility. As we approached Lahore, we heard our pilot mutter a few Turkish words then went on to translate something like, “with poor visibility, we are going to go into a holding pattern until we are safe to land.”
Arrivals and departures in and from Pakistan always happen at odd hours. Our flight was scheduled to land in Pakistan at 5 AM. There was no way things would clear up this early in the morning. We desperately looked out the window. “So close, yet, so far,” I thought to myself. As a game, I started to count the amount of times I saw the same gas station as we circled in the air.
“What if they end up taking us to Islamabad,” I joked to my sister. After about half an hour, the pilot addressed us again. As he made the Turkish announcement, I suddenly heard “Islamabad” Oh no! I called it. We’re going to Islamabad.
After two hours of circling above Lahore, we were completely exhausted and, apparently, so was the plane. Both the passengers and the plane were out of gas. The wait continued to drag out on the tarmac at the Islamabad airport as the airport was not ready to receive us. My sister and I began plotting what we’d do to recalibrate once we got off the plane.
“Book us a hotel here in Islamabad,” she requested. I immediately called the first hotel my parents were most familiar with and made us a reservation for that same night. We eventually deplaned and made our way to a passenger lounge. The only issue with our new plan was that we had no idea how we would retrieve the ten pieces of luggage we checked in. Yes, that’s right. Ten. Each one of us checked in two each, plus my dad’s walker, and my mom was forced to check in her carry-on due to overbooking and insufficient overhead storage on the airplane. About 60% of the items we packed were not for us but rather gifts and gadgets that were requested by the family members we would see during our stay in Pakistan.
We didn’t think through our plan fully, so there we were, all our belongings on the plane, our minds in Lahore and our bodies in a waiting lounge. Our fate was in the hands of the Turkish Airlines staff. After a couple hours, I noticed passengers were lining up so I did the same. I talked to the flight attendant at the counter: explaining that my father is in a wheelchair and requested that we board first.
“Maam, we are not boarding. We are handing out sandwiches and water,” he clarified.
“Sandwiches?” I thought. “We don’t need sandwiches. We need to be in Lahore!”
Looking around, I could tell the tension was rising. The main reason people travel to Pakistan in the winter is for “Decemberistan” as it is dubbed. This is the most popular time of the year to hold weddings. Pakistani weddings are typically anywhere between 5-7 days long. I could hear the murmurs of various travelers in the lounge–some were on their way to a function, others were expected at reunions and the lady sitting next to us was on her way to see her husband. Bottom line, patience was wearing off very quickly.
We had now been in limbo for more than five hours since it was past noon. Folks started crowding the area by the gate’s double doors. One man asked where the flight crew was, another lady started reprimanding the guy who was handing out sandwiches and I was just observing.
I knew it was only a matter of time before a full-on uproar would break out. A few ladies jokingly commented to their children, “This is the real version of Pakistan, the only way you get things done is by yelling and screaming.” They went on to say that this wouldn’t have happened if we had a Pakistani pilot, they know how to land when the visibility is low. I disagreed with everything they said and I so wanted their children to have a positive experience so they wouldn’t be discouraged from coming back.
We eventually made it to Lahore after what turned out to be an eight-hour delay. Most importantly, we were all safe and healthy–all we wanted to do was shower and rest. Our trip to Pakistan was coordinated with my cousin, Sameer, who's a running Wikipedia on Pakistani and Indian history. Traveling with him to the motherland is hugely advantageous–especially, for us.
After he advised us on our attire for the following day, he went on to note that we wouldn’t be leaving anytime before noon. There’s a couple mid-day hours where there’s a bit of reprieve from fog and, besides, nothing starts in Lahore before 2pm. In fact, a few days later, my sister and I went to a café that was highly recommended to get some coffee and treats. While this café opens for business at 11am, we arrived at 3pm and no one was there. The guard explained to us that the owners stayed up very late the night before so nobody came to open up the shop. The fact that the guard knew such intimate details about the people running this operation was comical to say the least.
So, we got dressed, packed our shawls, charged our phones and set out for the inner-city. Sameer deliberately took the Mall Road to point out the colonial history behind Lahore. It all began with Mahmud Ghaznavi the “founder of Lahore, as we know today.” “Ghazni is a city in Afghanistan and when he conquered this area he expanded it making it more lucrative,” Sameer explained. Chronologically, after the Mughals, came the Sikhs. With that, Ranjit Singh ruled over Lahore for nearly eighty years earning him the title of “Sher-e-Punjab”, or Lion of Punjab. Interestingly enough, we later came to learn of Lahore’s most eligible bachelor who keeps a lion in his home and has dyed his hair to resemble his lion–but, that’s another story.
Under the Sikhs, the city flourished. “At this time, the British were still ruling over the rest of India but they had not taken over Lahore yet,” Sameer went on. For this reason, there is Sikh influence in the architecture of Lahore and you’ll come across Gurdwaras, or temples, across the city which are still accessible to visiting worshippers. So, there was an imminent fear that British rule was coming soon. “The British fought the Sikhs because they understood the importance of Lahore as a trading hub. Eventually, they took over for nearly a hundred years. Mall Road is basically where you’ll see the most British influence, most of your state and provincial buildings will be here, ” he added. As we looked around, he pointed out various buildings which have now been renamed but were constructed during colonial times.
While Sameer drove slowly due to unexpected protests happening simultaneously, he pointed out Lawrence Gardens, the Governor’s House, the General Post Office and Tollinton market. Unfortunately, during the thick of the so-called “War on Terror” this area was heavily targeted by the Taliban since Pakistan allied with the U.S. As such, government buildings, like the High Court, were repeatedly bombed. The National College of Arts, also located on Mall Road, has reclaimed a few of these buildings and, in some instances, made them into museums. “This style of architecture is Indo-Saracenic which is basically a combination of British, Mughal and Sikh,” Sameer described. “All of these buildings have the same architect: Ganga Ram who was the architect of Lahore under the British because he perfected this new style of architectural design.”
Beyond the colonial infrastructure, Sameer went deeper, into spiritual realms. On a personal note, I discovered Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, when I was a teenager and it’s what keeps me Muslim. On this tour, I learned about the historic connection between Lahore and Sufis. “Kashf al-Maḥjūb, the first formal scripture on Sufism, was written by Ali Hujwiri a century before Imam Al Ghazali, four centuries before Rumi, and his stamp affected all following forms of Sufim,” he clarified. That blew my mind. Ali Hujwiri is buried in Lahore because, after traveling to forty countries, he settled there. In Sufism, your birth is not commemorated as much as your death as that is the day you return to God. So, shrines are often visited and are a place where believers frequent to worship. “On his death anniversary, there’s nearly a million people who visit Lahore as it’s a national holiday.”
We slowly approached Walled City. “This is the first gate we are going to go through, Taxali Gate.” Sameer parked the car in front of Badshahi Mosque and we unloaded. Then, all five of us boarded a riksha.
The riksha dropped us off near Delhi Gate. Delhi Gate faces Delhi. If you go to Delhi, there’s a Lahore Gate which faces Lahore. From that point forward, there were no cars allowed as we were officially inside the Walled City. We walked past tea houses, men making fresh naan in underground ovens, school girls walking home after classes, handwoven arts and crafts–all while motorcycles weave through foot traffic. Our first stop was Shahi Hammam, built in the seventeenth century. At its height, this Persian-style hammam was meant for royalty, like Emperor Shah Jahan, to bathe and relax with high society. No longer functional, Shahi Hammam is now preserved by the most influential philanthropic organization in Pakistan, the Aga Khan Foundation.
After being serenaded by trumpets and drums, we continued walking toward what locals call: “Patli Gully” or Skinny Alley. It’s also dubbed “Nikkah Gully” because the alley is so tight that if you cross paths with another, you must get married. Basically, no “six-foot-rule” here.
As we learned earlier, Lahore, and other cities in the Punjab Province, are filled with shrines. The following day, we would be visiting Lahore’s most well-known tombs but they don’t typically bring the same gatherings as shrines do. I photographed the shrine of Sufi Din Muhammad with a bright ferozi door. Sameer brought my attention to a well where people would hide in the midst of the 1947 Partition. In some cases, those escaping would jump in the well and die there.
Then, we arrived at the courtyard of Sunehri Mosque. The tile work, intricate calligraphy and golden domes caught my attention. Like most mosques in the Muslim-majority world, the beauty of the architecture isn’t immediately apparent. As you walk in, observe the ceilings, inspect the Arabic written on walls and absorb all the perfectly selected colors, then, you can appreciate its grandeur. There is no order in the Walled City, no streets, no signs. But, the moments you step into the mosque courtyard, remove your shoes, you feel a blanket of calmness. Another moment like this was when Sameer guided us through an alley, passing by various shops with men imploring us to buy wedding clothes. Suddenly, we walked into a hidden garden. I couldn't believe this place existed. We all sat down by a tree that looked like it lived through the partition. “If only this tree could talk,” I thought.
Our knowledge of Sufi history and its rich connection to Lahore only intensified the following day. We learned that many Sufi saints hold equal importance in Islam as they do in Hinduism. For instance, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar also has a Hindu name, Jhulelal, the God of water. “That’s the beauty of it, you see how Islam and Hinduism share traditions with one another,” Sameer described. “The bottom line is to demonstrate that we co-existed.”
We drove along a bridge above River Ravi and Sameer pointed out a garden complex that was built by Shah Jahan. It became clear that he has conflicting views on the Mughal’s reign in South Asia, “they brought a lot of good stuff in literature, poetry and language but they also brought hyper opulence. At the same time, in Baghdad they were spending money on universities and educational institutions. But, people get offended if you criticize the Mughal Empire.”
Sameer’s point is a notable one. Sikhism took from Islam, Islam co-created with Hinduism, all these believers one worshiped in harmony. Eventually, we made our way to Jahangir’s Tomb and Noor Jahan’s Tomb. From the placards describing these tombs, it was clear that there was a particular tone in the description, inciting a disdain for Sikhs. Sadly, this is due to more recent political influences in a post-Partition world that didn’t exist before.
A few days later, we packed our items and headed to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. More important than going to the capital was going to Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the military but also a historically significant city in the Punjab Province. As the best man in his friend’s wedding, we had to use our time wisely for our tour. But, I wasn’t too worried since Sameer calls himself an “Indi-Pindi” boy, Rawalpindi is hometown so he knows it like the back of his hand.
Unlike most cities, Sunday afternoons are bustling with energy and activity. We drove from Islamabad to Rawalpindi, and parked in “Androon” Pindi, right in front of “Ibrahim Electronics” which I had to take a picture of since that’s my nephew’s name. Sameer pointed to the Jamia Mosque in the distance but I had no idea what he was referring to. In the same way that other mosques are completely unassuming, this one would be no different. As we approached the mosque, a kind guard opened the door and a little kid suddenly latched on to Sameer’s leg, hugging it tightly. Turns out, that’s the guard’s adorable little son. We gave him some loose change and he opened the gate. The mosque is typically only open during one of the five daily prayers and we arrived at an unusual hour.
After taking our shoes off, a vast rustic courtyard welcomed us. From a block away, there was absolutely no telling that this was what awaited us. Deep turquoise embroidered Jamia Mosque in all corners, complemented by white domes and golden finishes. It was perfect. While the guard's son ran freely through the courtyard, Sameer noted the arches. “Where have you seen this before?” he asked. I wasn’t sure so I shrugged. He went on to explain that this particular arch style is not like the one we typically see in mosques influenced by Arab architecture, this style is from Sikhs. So, the only other place you would see arches like these is in Gurdwaras.
Rawalpindi was mostly dominated by Hindus. In fact, Sameer revealed that the most successful Hindu businessmen lived in Rawalpindi leading up to the Partition. That’s why, before India was parted, there were approximately 350 Hindu Temples here. Now, there’s only one functional Hindu temple in all of Rawalpindi but, when you walk through the inner-city, it’s easy to notice buildings that used to be temples.
Again, we found ourselves walking through alleys and narrow streets. This time, Sameer kept pointing out all the “jharokhey” surrounding us, or wooden balconies. This was different, I hadn’t seen anything like it while touring Lahore. Almost every building we were passing had a wooden balcony. You couldn’t miss it. We followed the passageways leading us to Haveli Sujan Singh. Havelis are the original apartment buildings of South Asia, with their own unique architecture. Haveli Sujan Singh, for instance, was 24,000 square feet and, when it was fully functioning, had 45 rooms. What’s unfortunate is that these structures, much like the temples and other historical homes, have not been preserved. Again, we stumbled across a tree. But, this one was rooted in a building. Somehow, this tree grows in spite of being completely intertwined with this edifice. If trees could talk..
A brief note on the title: according to Wikipedia, Jugaad is a colloquial word in Indo-Aryan languages, which refers to a non-conventional, frugal innovation, often termed a "hack". It could also refer to an innovative fix or a simple work-around, a solution that bends the rules, or a resource that can be used in such a way.