The capital of Punjab, Lahore was strategically important for many of India’s rulers, becoming under the Mughals an imperial city and gateway to Afghanistan and the frontier. The most lasting mark of Mughal rule is the imposing Badshai Masjid, an enormous mosque built by Auranzeb (the son and imprisoner of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal) with an adjoining fort and extensive gardens. There is also a Sikh temple sitting next door – the sight of Sikhs openly coming to and from a place of worship inside Pakistan is a heartening one. You can eat the aforementioned Punjabi mustard greens and cornbread roti from little shacks right outside the Shahi Qila’s walls. And I highly recommend that you do. Here you’ll also find Coocoo’s, a famous old restaurant decorated with portraits of the women who ply these streets at night. It never seems to be serving food, but eating in Lahore is a humbler thing anyway. The nihari shops at the walled city gates are worth braving (disregard cowardly gastroenterologists): shank meat buried in embers, simmered overnight and topped with fresh ginger, chilies, coriander and lime juice is about as good as eating can get. The chicken karhais of Lahore, cooked to order with pieces of stringy, tasty chicken and served with the best naan, are also, for me, a pinnacle of gastronomy, expressing Punjabi zest directly and eloquently. These are, after all, the people who invented bhangra.
Funnily enough, the reason for the unique preservation of Lahore’s walled city is largely luck. Certainly equivalent districts existed in other cultural capitals of North India, most notably in Delhi and Lucknow, the two centers of the high culture of Urdu poetry. Sadly, both cities’ inner districts were razed completely in 1857, as payback for the Revolt against British rule. Lahore remained untouched. What the British did by burning down those cities but leaving the great Mughal structures was something roughly like destroying London except for the Tower and St. Paul’s: the trademark “high” points of the city survived but none of the textures of its lived reality, the influences that suffuse a city’s culture, its streets. In Lahore, by contrast, you can see what tourists can only imagine at the Red Fort or the Taj Mahal: the dense, complex, and still vital operations of an inner city bursting with markets, shrines, mosques, food, dancing girls, riotous children. That’s what makes Lahore different: its history is sometimes worn on its sleeve and sometimes hidden within, but never is it advertised or reified. It’s lived.