Lahore might not be the capital of Pakistan, but it is definitely its soul. Noisy, cluttered, colourful, opinionated, and deeply anchored in history, the unforgettable city wears its heart on its sleeve. At first sight -- to both my brother and me -- it felt no different from certain pockets of Chandigarh where we have grown up and come to identify with. But over our few days spent roaming the streets, visiting the monuments, consuming the delicacies, and taking in the atmosphere, Lahore's beauty crept up on us, making out a space entirely its own in our hearts and memories.
For us -- like many other Indians crossing the border -- Pakistan was not so much a geographical journey as an emotional one. Our grandmother was one of the many that crossed over to India during the bloodbath that was the partition, and her village Sargodah -- located in the Punjab district of Pakistan -- featured prominently in the stories she told of her childhood. Unfortunately the strained relationships between the two countries have made visa procedures on both ends extremely difficult to navigate, and thanks to the single-city visa policy we did not end up getting to visit either our grandmother's ancestral village or the Nanakana Sahib Gurudwara. Thankfully, where politics fails cricket delivers, and the visa procedure got a lot easier with tickets to a match between India and Pakistan at the Gaddafi stadium.
While the match itself was an electrifying experience, we used the excuse to explore the city over the next few days. This is a glimpse of some of our favourite experiences in Lahore -- and while it may not serve as a comprehensive guide to the city, we hope it inspires you to take a trip to a place that must be experienced to be believed.
Born out of the same dynasty, there was no surprise that the first glimpse of the Badshahi Mosque reminded us of the Jama Masjid in Delhi: the symmetry, the awe-inspiring presence, the vast courtyard, the feeling of serenity. We were pleasantly surprised to find a small museum on the first floor of the main entrance which housed relics that were several centuries old. Also in the distant skyline you can see the Minar-e-Pakistan, or the 'Eiffel Tower of Pakistan' (as our guide liked to call it), the monument that marks the separation of Pakistan as a country. We walked around the compound, admiring the detailed calligraphy and the painstakingly assembled white marble on red sandstone -- all the while gasping to each other about its grandeur. And just as we thought it was impossible for the mosque to be any more beautiful, the sun set and it was lit up -- turning it into something that looked like it would be right out of a dream (or a grand Yash Chopra movie!). Breathtaking would be an understatement.
What is better than the sight of the Badshahi mosque by night? An aerial view of the Badshahi mosque lit up as the backdrop to one of the most delicious meals you'll have, of course! What makes this possible? A wonderful haveli-style restaurant situated at the perfect place -- overlooking the mosque and other parts of the old city. Cooco's Den was recommended to us as Lahore's best restaurant and it did not fail to live up to the hype -- the food was delicious, the ambiance was other-worldly, the hukkah was perfect, and the view was to die for. Definitely a dinner we won't be forgetting in a while.
Having seen only a part of the walled city the previous day, we head out to old Lahore again the next morning. We thanked the weather gods for it being a cloudy day, because the Lahore Fort, down the road from the Badshahi Mosque, is a sprawling complex that has so many interesting landmarks that walk one through what it must have meant to be a king back in the day. We kept wondering about how the Emperor would have ruled from his throne here, how he would have addressed the masses in the Diwaan-e-aam, what kind of wonderful conversations would have happened among his chosen 'gems' in the Diwaan-e-khaas, what would be going through his head while he strolled the royal gardens, what conspiracies of creation and destruction would have been hatched within these walls. Just imagining the power wielded by the Mughals while occupying this space was a rush to the head, and we both took it in quietly.
After the vast grandeur of the Lahore Fort, the intricate tile work of the Wazir Khan Mosque felt like a direct contrast. The colourful glazed tile mosaics gave us the feeling of being in some sort of a kaleidoscopic dream -- the greens and the blues of the calligraphy and floral motifs doing a mesmerizing dance across the facade. Though we didn't have much time to spend here, it rounded off an overwhelming day very fittingly.
So much walking through the day had left us famished, and the Lahore Food Street turned out to be exactly what we were looking for. As the sun began to set and the lights came on, the street seemed to take on a life of its own -- bustling with energy and all sorts of inviting aromas from the many jharokhas that lined it from both sides. While we gorged on the best of traditional Lahori cuisine, and joked about the density of the human population matching the density of fat in our food, it was difficult not to feel like this was the good life -- good food, gorgeously lit surroundings, and... more good food!
After two intense days of soaking in Lahore's history, we were looking forward to a day of lazing around. Someone suggested we head to the Mini Golf Club -- apparently a popular hang out place for the youth of the city. A longish drive lead us to the club, which surprisingly had more to offer than just the mini golf, and spent the day trying to out-do each other at how many holes we managed to hit, and rounded out the day with some hukkah at the club.
With our return getting closer -- and realizing we wouldn't be allowed back home if we didn't bring back gifts -- we headed to the much talked-about shopping mecca in Lahore: Liberty market. For a couple of guys, the endless shops of silks and kurtas and jewelry and footwear got very overwhelming very quickly. Thankfully, there were enough little eateries for us to take a breather at -- and we ultimately managed to buy some really beautiful things.
Tucked away in a corner, you would miss this unassuming restaurant if it were not for the serpentine queues outside it. Strongly reminiscent of outdoor vendors in old Delhi with huge containers of boiling oil for frying all manners of things, Bashir's fish turned out to be the most memorable meal we had thoughout the trip. Though the long wait almost wore our patience thin, the taste of the delicious fried fish made every second worth it. Even thinking about it now makes our mouth water -- if fish must be cooked, it should be cooked no other way.
Crossing over the Wagah border was one of the most awaited aspects of our visit, especially because of the momentousness of the event of walking across to a land that was hostile and -- at the same time -- an extension of us. The actual crossing is also ceremonial in many ways -- you are required to get down from your vehicle and physically walk over the actual border -- adding further gravity to the moment. What was most heartwarming was how welcomed we felt, most officials breaking codes of propriety to offer us tea and invite us home. Both occasions -- crossing over and back -- are likely to be experiences we can recount by the second for the rest of our lives.