This was my fifth visit to the same place to resolve the mystery around the building popularly known as Noori Manzil inside the famous Lohari Gate, Walled City of Lahore, near Mohalla Peer Shirazi. Every time I visited the place, I was informed by the locals that some parts of it were haunted. It was not actually fear that stopped me from entering. Instead, I was prevented by the fact that I was a lone female. It took me all these visits to convince the family living in one part of the building. Finally, the fifth time, I could photograph it. I was allowed this only because I had a male friend accompanying me, who the family thought would guard me! In any event, the family was kind enough to call a local person to guide us into the haveli.
Thus began my excursion. I entered through a narrow, dark doorway which led me into a reasonably large courtyard – usually one does not find open spaces and courtyards inside the walled city. The building façade was mesmerising and held me captivated for few seconds. Up to this point, there seemed to be nothing remotely supernatural about the atmosphere inside. It was a wrecked beauty of a building, but still staggering on doggedly. I believe – based on my observations – that this is a living area between the two sections of the building. It had turned into a courtyard as the roof had collapsed over the passage of time. I am fairly sure this took place due to neglect. Our local guide Akhtar seemed nervous right from the first step. Along the sides of this courtyard were the main structures decorated with carved brick balconies, reflecting a Sikh influence on the architecture. These lined designs are a prominent feature of Sikh architecture, which was visible all over the building. Most likely, then, it was a Sikh era construction.
Our local guide was hankering to get us out of the place, but our curiosity won
I entered one of the portions of the building on the right and I was lost in the majesty of the ruins. It was undoubtedly a masterpiece. The interior was spellbinding and mysterious. Now, for a moment I felt a few pangs of fear too, and our local guide was probably hankering to get us out of the place, but again our curiosity won. The main area inside this double-storey portion of the Haveli had a small square courtyard with rooms around it. It was an abandoned haveli and some shoemakers had occupied two rooms on the ground floor. Other rooms were locked since ages. The building was fairly dilapidated, with pigeons all around and debris on the floor. Some parts were covered with bird droppings which gave it a snowy look! I wondered why nobody ever thought of maintaining it. As a sample of fine old architecture, it is no less than any other haveli inside the walled city. Could it be that it is simply ignored and stigmatised as being haunted for no good reason?
The Noori Manzil was a dollhouse – but a ramshackle fiasco at that. I wanted to go to the upper floor but our guide tried to stop me. Finally, after a long argument, I managed to reach the first floor which was actually derelict. It quivered with each step I took. Truth be told, at this point I was somewhat frightened and most of the pictures I took here are blurred. The huge cracks told the story of how ruthlessly the building was neglected. Each brick falling apart cried a tale of woe. The railing running around the upper floor was dusty. The walls of the haveli were carved, and brick-work in paisley design was used as a border everywhere.
The structure of the building seemed strange to me, but I could associate it somewhat with the haveli of Nau Nehal Singh (Victoria School). I asked Akhtar, our guide, if I could get any history of the place or if the family living in it could tell me something. He took me to the family again. There I met more women and lots of children playing in a room left darkened by power outages. The ladies, initially a little hesitant in talking to me, later narrated the whole story. The head of the family was working abroad and according they did not have sufficient income to maintain the building – so they left it falling apart.
According to the residents, the haveli was a house of dancing girls during the Sikh period. It was built by a courtesan Poori Bai and the Haveli was known as Poori Haveli at that time. As time passed, the haveli – like many other streets and gates of the walled city – was renamed to Noori Haveli or Noori Manzil. The Haveli was a two-storey building with thirty-two rooms. I couldn’t get a chance to see all the rooms as one portion was completely locked and other rooms were closed as well. There was a stable for horses, which had now been converted into shops for the shoe-makers. According to the residents, the haveli occupied some 27 marlas of land, which is considered huge inside the walled city today. It was allotted to the family after Partition in 1947, when the Sikhs moved out.
The Noori Manzil was a ramshackle fiasco of a dollhouse
According to history books, the red light area was located inside the Lohari Gate before Sikh rule and most of the affluent courtesans had built beautiful havelis in Lohari. The famous chowk inside Lohari Gate, Chowk Matti, was also named after a prominent courtesan Matti Bai. With the passage of time, the red light area movted to Chowk Jhanda, then Tibbi Gali and eventually spread over Heera Mandi.
The haveli is no doubt a masterpiece and a hidden jewel inside Lohari Gate, Lahore. The residents are not financially sound enough to restore or maintain it. I hope it is not lost to the merciless commercialisation of the area by the time I next visit it.
Tania Sarosh Qureshi may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org