Gali Surjan Singh — an amazing street of Lahore
You must have heard that the Walled City of Lahore has narrow, curvy, tiny, tangled and strange streets which lead you to huge bazaars and famous chowks. It is indeed true and to believe this you need to experience it. The streets of the walled city are unusual, and if you enter in one, it will lead you to another gate without letting you feel the length you have walked. Interestingly, I got to know that streets were built so for defensive purposes, and any attackers would lose their way in case of attacking the city for reaching the fort. The Mughals and later the Sikhs developed most of the residential areas of the walled city. Well, I think it was a superb planning and while studying the building and town planning techniques I bet we cannot beat those architects and planners. I have roamed around whole of the walled city Lahore and observed all the streets are tangled. The streets of the walled city keep changing their tracks and widths in order to dwindle and affect the speed of the attackers. I came across this fact that whenever the enemies tried attacking the city they would start reducing in number because of the structure of this labyrinth, the maze like network of narrow widening streets. I have experienced that myself too, as while walking in groups sometimes we have to slow down our speed or walk in a queue as the streets keep changing their width and thus it is difficult to keep up with the pace. The narrow and blind turnings confuse you and there are a lot of possibilities of losing the track. That is why, to experience the walled city, one has to have a map or a native along in order to reach the right place and location.
Today, let me take you to one of the streets of the walled city of Lahore where your elbows would be touching the side walls and you will be amazed that how people are living there, because two people, coming in opposite directions, cannot pass through that street whereas it also has several houses and the residents are happily living inside that street. This is the Gali (street) Surjan Singh and an off shoot of the street Gali Gubarchian is about less than a meter wide and the complex of these streets is called Koocha Charakh Garan. This street is located inside the famous Delhi Gate, built by Akbar the Great in 1566. As you enter from Delhi Gate, it is the third street on your right. While walking in this street, you will see the open windows of the houses, television turned on full volume and ladies of the houses gossiping or scolding their children in a very traditional manner which we would hardly find anywhere else in greater Lahore now. This is our culture and heritage and despite many changes with the passage of time, walled city’s culture hasn’t changed.
Now let us go into this street which is famous for certain reasons, and I will tell those in the following lines. Gali of Surjan Singh and the Gali Gubarchian are interlinked and the complex is known as Koocha Charakh Garan. These are typical of the remaining historical fabric of the walled city. You must be thinking what a strange name ‘Surjan Singh’ is. This street was named after Hakim Surjan Singh, the 19th century physician who lived there. Surjan Singh was a known physician in that era and was respected by the people. He had cured many royals and that is why the street was named after him. The street I think is the best example of Lahori life. There you will find small shops, tea stalls and tharas (platform outside houses for sitting) outside many houses. Here you will also find 400 years old houses. There is a hustle and bustle of the residents, people selling fruits and vegetables on their bicycles come into the street and the women of the houses drop down a basket hanged with a string in which the seller puts in the vegetables or fruits and the same way the payment is sent to him. What an amazing cultural scene! What I like the most is the thara sitting where the residents still sit together for chit chat and socialising, mostly during evenings till late at night. This thara system was an intense culture in old times and now can only be seen in a few parts of the walled city. While standing in the street you can call out the name of any resident loudly and that person will appear in the window or balcony, or would come down to see you. There are houses in this street which have small bethaks (drawing rooms) which are open for the neighborhood and anyone living in that street can use those bethaks and the resident owning them would never mind. Can we ever imagine letting anyone use our drawing rooms this way…I bet no! The reason for such a culture inside the walled city is the well connected neighborhood and social bonding. Everyone knows each other and they live like a family.
Gali of Surjan Singh and Gali Gubarchian have almost 23 buildings, 18 of which were constructed in the late 19th or early 20th century and middle class people settled there. The buildings there represent the transformations in technology and architectural expressions that were affecting Lahore during the colonial period. You will see high rise buildings in these streets with pigeons everywhere, the cats playing around and friendly with the residents. This complex was restored by Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 2011 and the restoration work has also been recognized by the UNESCO and it is a heritage street now. It was the first model street where the restoration work started and the ugly dangling wires were taken underground, the open drains were covered and the storm and sewerage pipes were re-laid in order to provide the residents a healthy living. The houses here are not more than four marlas and you will see the aged men sitting in their house balconies and if you come across them while visiting the street they will warmly welcome you, tell you the stories of the past days and would not let you go without having a cup of tea or lassi. This is the hospitality of the residents of old Lahore
You will also come across street performers there, playing harmonium or flute. That’s something typical inside the walled city. It’s a colourful life and people live for present rather than worrying for tomorrow. I think it’s a must visit street for a lifetime experience.