SUNDAY FEATURE: The Old Bazaars of Punjab

The history of Punjab unfolds this land of five rivers as the birth place of Indus Valley Civilization, the land of warriors and of-course for its gastronomy. But little is realized that it has also been the land of remarkable trade and commerce that was quite sophisticated for its time. It is the old bazaars of Punjab that testify and give a glimpse even today to this rich history and culture as we lose ourselves in the charm of its old winding alleys.

Through the history

The undivided Punjab enjoyed an advantageous geographical position on the world’s silk route. This overland route created a potential market for the agricultural and non agricultural material resources of the region. Punjab became a commercial hub and crossroad for trade across Europe, Persia, Central Asia, Deccan and Delhi. A well developed process of bills of exchange called hundi system was used for the purpose of trading by the kafilahs or caravans of merchants, pilgrims and travelers.

However, the location of Punjab on the famous silk route was on one hand good for the trade but on the other hand was the source of instability bringing repeated invasion. The 18th century undivided Punjab  saw a low state of trade, not only because of foreign invasions but also because of the policies of various independent Sikh and Non-Sikh chiefs of Punjab. Nevertheless, the trade managed to chisel out its path through the vicissitudes of political turmoil. It is in the late 18th and early 19th century that the stability of the region restored under the powerful reign of Sher-e-Punjab Maharaja Ranjit Singh as Punjab entered its golden era.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the bazaar of Lahore; 19th century

With the partition of India in 1947, some of the old historic bazaars of undivided Punjab that included Multan, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Shikarpur went to the other side of Wagah border but the indelible imprint of the collective culture stayed. Within Punjab, as William Francklin puts, there was never a fixed route for trade but the most significant one lied between Amritsar to Patiala – the two cities that till date house the oldest bazaars of present day Punjab.

Amritsar to Patiala – The bazaars in the olden days!

The city of Amritsar was founded by the fourth Sikh Guru Ram Das ji in 1574 A.D. To initiate the economic activity he invited fifty-two traders from different sectors to settle here who started the first thirty-two shops in the city that was to become the grand emporium of trade in the coming times. Sugar, spice, rice, wheat, indigo, utensils and white cloth (the togas of upper class Romans and turbans of Central Asian Turks were all made of Indian white cloth) were the main items that the bazaars of Amritsar offered to the traders from other regions. The Asiatic Annual Register of 1809 mentions that Amritsar was the prominent hub of trade for shawls. Pashmina was imported from Kashmir and Tibet. Lungis and Dohar manufactured at Pakpattan, the famous ghee from Kamalia and Qabuli, ‘Nemuk Lahooree’ or salt from Lahore, turmeric from Kathua and saffron from Kashmir found market in the bazaars of Amritsar. From Persian side came the swords, horses and dry fruits.

An old picture of Hall Bazaar in Amritsar

During the British Raj, Amritsar was not only trading in shawls but also carpets, and piece goods, silk and woolen cloth. Indian textile industry catered to a quarter of worlds demand and Amritsar became one of the most flourishing textile production centres. Author Gurcharan Das points out that this trade with Europeans, however, was mainly balanced with gold and silver in the balance sheet as Indians were not much interested in British goods until the Industrial Revolution of 19th century. In fact, it is during this time that the cloth and carpet trade and production in Amritsar started to decline as the machines in the west supplanted the handlooms. However, this did not alter the energy of the bazaars as the city developed expertise in the culinary niche – making it the ‘Food Capital of Punjab’ – putting it on the world map for its mouth watering cuisine.

In between Amritsar and Patiala, the ancient cities of Jalandhar and Ludhiana were the other commercial hubs. Jalandhar founded by Devasya Verma as mentioned in Vedas, was famous for its fine textiles and the Nakodar chandeli fabric which were marketed to Lahore and Kashmir through the bazaars of Amritsar. While Ludhiana founded by the chiefs of Sikander Lodhi who was at the helm of power at Delhi in 15th century, had a full-fledged bazaar popularly called Chaura Bazaar renowned for its white cloth. The bazaar got further boost during British Raj as the city became an important British cantonment.

The Patiala State was founded by Baba Ala Singh in 1763 with the foundation of Quila Mubarak or Patiala Fort. It enjoys a special place in the history of Punjab as can be observed from folklore and tradition. After the decline of Maharaja Ranjit Singhs Empire, it was the royal house of Patiala that provided patronage to the artisans and musicians of the declining empire. Similarly, they gave patronage to the members of disintegrating Mughal court at Delhi and welcomed all the silver and gold smiths, parandi (ornament) makers, jutti  (shoe) makers and other artists. Eventually, the bazaar of Patiala began to develop and flourish around Quila Mubarak and became a creative hub. The Darshni Gate right outside the Quila in the bazaar became the jewelers’ souk with a Shiva temple opposite to it. While, paranda hattis andtraditional embroidery shops got established in the by-lanes webbed across.

Jump into the heart of action!

The bazaars of Punjab are as lively and bustling with energy as they were in the past. Only the wide alleys of these souks of past now look narrower in the present as we jump into the heart of action. There is chaos but also exotic vibrant charms as the architectural legacies overlook these bazaars.

As we enter the connected labyrinth of bazaars in the old walled city of Amritsar through the Gandhi Gate (also popularly called Hall Gate) and dodge across motorbikes and rickshaws or wander across the Town hall whose architecture reminds us of the imperial era, marvel at Sikh architectural features and frescos at Quila Ahluwalia in Hall Bazaar or take a deep sigh looking at the grandeur of Ram Bagh Gate that still stands in its original form in nanakshahi brick – there is plenty to occupy the mind (and senses!).

Quila Ahluwalia in Amritsar

The famous lassi (buttermilk), Amritsari Kulche (a unique bread) and kulfi faluda (ice cream)at Katra Jaimal Singh Bazaar; the tongue tantalizing aam papad, pickle and papad wadia (spicy lentil balls used in curries) at Ram Bagh Bazaar; the beautiful gold jewellery at Guru Bazaar (a souk much frequented by British ladies during British Raj); exquisite textiles at Shastri Bazaar; or a walk through the newly revived Heritage street to visit Golden Temple simply transports to the olden days.

Creamy lassi at Katra Jaimal Singh Bazaar

 Not to miss the Bartan Bazaar that provides market to the brass and copper utensils that are made in Amritsar which have been enlisted on the UNESCO’s list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’. The curious fascinating feel of walking through these bazaars, comes from the knowledge of the fact that there is a network of ancient tunnels (some branch out from Quila Ahluwalia and Ram Bagh Palace to mention a few) underneath, above which the whole bazaar bustles every single day.

Similarly, the Chaura Bazaar in Ludhiana extending from famous colonial clock tower to the Ghas Mandi is now famous for hosiery, apparel and garments, machine parts. The World Bank ranked Ludhiana as the city with best business environment in India in 2009 and 2013. The only surviving structure from ancient period in the city is the Purana Quila or Lodhi Fort which is about twenty minutes away from Chaura Bazaar. Heading to the bazaars of Patiala, the old world charm starts much before we reach the Anardana chowk. Some of the old shops still have clearly defined Sikh architectural features like embellished parapets, chattris or domes and pilasters. These shops stand distinct and graceful next to the new fashionable facades in the market.

Busy lanes of Adalat Bazaar

 The pulsing Adalat bazaar is replete with beautiful phulkaris (folk embroidery of Punjab) and rich fabrics like silks and satins showcasing some of the finest embroideries that are done by karigars or craftsmen of Patiala, Lucknow and Kolkata. The dyers of Patiala who have been traditionally dying the turban cloth of famous Patiala Shahi Turban, in the royal state colours of soft pink and lemon, are till date running their shops in Adalat Bazaar. As we go deep into the souk, there are many offshoots to other bazaars and popular lanes.

Silk thread Phulkari

The colourful paranda (traditional silk or cotton thread hanging used as hair ornament by Punjabi women) bazaar near Quila Mubarak; the famous jutti lane near Tope Khana road in Adalat bazaar; the heat and the smell of spices in the Gur Mandi are all exotic experiences with their own enticement that these bazaars offer even today. These bazaars of Punjab are living specimens of our grand history – the thriving hubs of our culture and tradition.

Published in The Post India on 22.9.2020