Destruction of Lahore’s famous food street

A Gul’s article for The Friday Times published this week. Credits, copyrights for photos and text remain with TFT

Gawalmandi food street at night

The ruins of an entrance to the Gawalmandi food street

The flow of traffic through the demolished gates of food street

Banners proclaiming an alternative perspective

Food street offered outdoor desi cuisine amidst the elegant colonial architecture

Once standing, these mini-towers quickly became one of the cultural symbols of Lahore

I recalled the evenings that I spent ordering mouth watering kababs, tikkas, fried fish and other desi delights at night. Also rampant were the thoughts of halwa-puri, til wale naan and murgh chanay that are cherished by Lahoris. But then I saw the damaged entrance to the food street and while I was entering, my hunger temporarily vanished

Although the issue of Gawalmandi food street is local, it does lead to broader questions. In the greater scheme of things, we must think about where we are headed in terms of our cultural identity

The decline and ruination of heritage in Pakistan by the callous state is a well known story. This is a common ailment that afflicts the planners and developers across South Asia where architectural legacy of a thousand years is being decimated and commercialization has a free reign in urban contexts. A departure from this trend occurred when a well known, controversial yet engaged civil servant turned around Lahore’s cultural life by introducing the concept of pedestrian food streets and adorning the vibrant canal that runs across Lahore with a green lifeline. We witnessed the endearingly kitschy floats representing the various sub-cultures of Pakistan and in the late-nineties a busy street was turned into a pedestrian space where the legendary cuisine of Lahore was showcased for its urban residence and the tourists alike.

The adjoining old buildings mostly dating from the colonial era were restored with tasteful facelifts. Art students and designers were duly involved in this process. This was perhaps the saving grace of an otherwise vulgar promotion of the khaba culture. For years this became a modern landmark of sorts. Tales of the first Gawalmandi food street spread across the globe and every visitor wanted to be there. It brought a glimpse of the erstwhile, pedestrian pre-partition city with choicest Lahori food delicacies.

Other cities were green of such a popular entertainment enclave. People from Karachi would often cite this as a model to follow. Islamabad emulated this at the Melody Market.

And all of a sudden in an oppressively hot summer of 2009, we discovered that Gawalmandi food street has been undone for a mix of political pressure, administrative negligence and sheer indifference to culture. Why are we so eager to destroy what adds to cultural value of our fledgling society. If anything, we ought to preserve these little signs of renewal and regeneration.

The apparent excuse for altering the pedestrian nature of the food street was to lay sewer pipeline. It seems like a typical bureaucratic shenanigan whereby some sort of ‘development’ is cited as reason good enough to damage environment or heritage. If a public utility had to be extended to this area, there must have been multiple other ways to manage this process. The lock stock and barrel razing of the place belies this claim.

The heart of the matter pertains to the local politics and wrangling that goes on unabated in Pakistan. Yet the mainstream media has not even bothered to report this matter in its full light save a few newspapers and may be one television channel. On a side note, what does this imply regarding the purported freedom of the media? Is it the case that media in unconcerned about civic issues and only focused on palace intrigues and glorification of unelected arms of the state? A trivial issue like a cultural emblem of subcontinent’s most talk about city is nothing but a footnote of the corporate media interests. I asked to myself, why shouldn’t a pedestrian culture get any attention? With these thoughts and others, I entered the Gawalmandi food street on a humid morning of Lahore’s stifling August. There was a traffic flow that could easily drive you nuts with loud glaring horns, usual feature of old Lahore’s environment. Amidst such loud horns, I was about to enter into the food street.

I recalled the evenings that I spent ordering mouth watering kababs, tikke, fried fish and other desi delights at night. Also rampant were the thoughts of halwa-puri, til wale naan and murgh chanay that are cherished by Lahoris. But then I saw the damaged entrance to the food street and while I was entering, my hunger temporarily vanished.

Before it was virtually halted, one would go to the food street, find a proper place to sit, chit chat with one’s companions, order desi delights, enjoy the meal under the grandeur of old colonial architecture and have a full fledged Lahori evening.

But recently the food street has been dogged by a controversy. The food street can be properly functional only when the eateries can provide outdoor seating so as to attract people who want to enjoy desi food under a starry sky. But presently the street has been opened up for traffic round the clock and people can only have their food within the premises of the dhabas. This has two major ramifications. One, the people whose livelihood depended on the sale of food will suffer since the pre-partition, old world setting has been a major attraction for people to visit food street in the first place. Secondly, within the larger picture, this step will lead to the destruction of an important cultural symbol of Lahore.

Not only did Lahoris enjoy visiting the food street, its popularity also attracted national and foreign tourists. A local shopkeeper who has now been working for over a decade in the food street mentioned this as a central recognition that food street had achieved in terms of cultural attraction.

Also important is the media coverage attracted by such places. The elegant portrayal of the pre-damage food street resulted in a non-militant peaceful outlook of mainstream Pakistan. And what is important is that unlike many other artificial attempts to glorify a peaceful ‘enlightened’ Pakistan in the past few years, the revival of the food street seemed to be very natural since it appealed to our overall lifestyle.

Although the issue of Gawalmandi food street is local, it does lead towards larger questions. In the greater scheme of things, we must think about where we are headed in terms of our cultural identity. I must make it clear that unlike many ‘cultural extremists’, I do not have a worldview that revolves almost entirely around the notion of tradition. But still, culture is universal, and it is valuable. To care for one’s own culture is indispensable. But if we start to dispense with it, then we are surely on the path towards cultural oblivion, and I say this not metaphorically but literally. A vibrant culture always connects with our history and origins. Thus if we are to undo the signs of the past and neglect heritage we will never be able to understand our present.

The value of history and the preservation of diverse, colourful traditions enable societies to progress and prosper. Pakistan is not just a sixty two year old entity. We are the inheritors of great civilizations and thousands of years of a plural, tolerant way of life. The destruction of food street and its unsung death therefore saddens many of us. The decision makers in the Punjab must revisit this decision; protect the threatened livelihoods and the ambiance of a great city that by all accounts is shehron ka shehr

A Gul lives in Lahore. This piece was prepared with contributions from Raza Rumi

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8 responses to “Destruction of Lahore’s famous food street

  1. Its sad,and something like this can only happen here,the pictures tell a tale.I wish that one day there is accountability.

  2. Pingback: Destruction of Lahore's famous food street « Lahore Nama | Headlines Today

  3. Oh no, I really loved visiting Food Street. I’m so upset to know that this has happened 😦

  4. Well, at least the Anarkali food street is still there.

  5. yajuvendra Bamrara

    although iam from india but i love lahore. b,cos lahore is same like our delhi.no diffrence between these two major metropoliton cities. and intrestingly our actor ,poet,author .they mostly came from lahore. my heartly desire to go to lahore but situation is not good right now. but i really stunn to see ruin of the culture annciant symble at the food street. and no body comes to against this nonsence work. inshallah mai jaroor lahore jaunga aur lahore ki food street mein murg mussalam khaunga.

  6. You have failed to point out the real culprit behind this act. That culprit is Shahbaz Sharif who ordered Food Street’s destruction.

  7. It’s hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! your website is really good, Thanks

  8. This really answered my problem, your website is really good. thank you!

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