Do you know, a wall protected the old Mughal-era Lahore and the fort was a garrison, built outside the Walled City to keep a watch on suspicious movements? And, that, the majestic Ravi flowed nearby and added grandeur to the ambience?
It would not be an exaggeration to say that only a fraction of Lahore’s population has visited the Walled City or the Old Lahore — because the area has been for years largely inaccessible. The wholesale business activity, encroachments, lack of parking spaces and badly management traffic in and around the old city has deterred people from visiting this heritage site.
But, for the keen visitors of the old parts of the city, there is good news: the Walled City Lahore Authority (WCLA), formed under an Act of the Punjab Assembly, is offering guided tours of the Walled City and training many girls and boys to work as guides.
“A vast area outside Delhi Gate has been earmarked for the purpose of parking for visitors’ cars. Besides, traffic in the area has been managed and entry of vehicles inside the Delhi Gate is restricted,” says Kamran Lashari, Director General of WCLA.
Motor vehicles, including two-wheelers, are not allowed inside from morning to evening. Only the residents of the area are allowed to take their motorbikes inside. Also, he says, the rehabilitation work done with the financial assistance of the World Bank and the illumination of buildings at night highlights the architectural charm of these Mughal era structures.
As part of the WCLA project, interested men and women, living in the old city, are being trained as guides. They will be trained in the history and significance of the area for eight weeks, free of cost, while a person living outside the old city but keen to get training will be charged Rs5,000 as fee.
“Preference is given to the residents of the Walled City so that they can feel a sense of ownership,” says Asif Zaheer, Director Tourism and Marketing, WCLA.
Many candidates including local girls applied and, in the first course, WCLA trained more than 30 students. Out of these, 12 are presently working with WCLA as tourist guides. Some of them are working on freelance basis while a others have joined travel agencies and private tour operators who take groups to different parts of the country. “This means the qualified tourist guides are high in demand in the tourism sector,” he adds.
Adeel Chaudhry enjoyed his visit to the place and learnt a lot from the tourist guides. “I had been to the Walled City before but I never knew its history was so rich. The tourist guides are skillful with an endless stock of old-era tales and jokes to entertain people.”
Titled, ‘Walk through the Royal Trail’, the tour offers visitors two options: one starts through Delhi Gate to Wazir Khan Mosque and the other begins from Delhi Gate and ends at Lahore Road. While walking along the royal trail, tourists stop at Shahi Hamam, Guli Surjan Singh, Sohneri Mosque and some havelis, and pass by Waan Bazaar, musical instruments bazaar and Heera Mandi. The packages are Rs625 per person with breakfast, Rs875 with lunch and Rs1000 with dinner. There are options for tourist to customise the tour and avail a more economical package, which comes without food.
Muhammad Javed, a senior tourist guide says he was not expecting such a good response from tourists. “The tour is becoming popular through word of mouth. Sometimes, it is difficult to accommodate all the tourists and we fall short of guides.”
The tourist guide course is quite comprehensive and includes modules such as developing communication skills, introduction to areas inside the Walled City, ethics and manners of a tourist guide, mock tours of the Walled City, history of the area and introduction to all the monuments, havelis and streets.
Khair un Nisa, a tourist guide, says she joined the first batch of the course, when it was strange for a female to get into this job. “Today I can work with full confidence and I enjoy my job a lot. So far, I have conducted more than 100 tours for WCLA.”
Mariam got herself enrolled in the ongoing course, as she was encouraged by some of her neighbours who are working as freelance tourist guides and doing well. Family agreed to let her get training, as they knew she would remain in the area and could bank on her neighbours as a strong support base.
Lashari says the purpose of these tours is to familiarise people with life, history, traditions and culture of the Walled City –“These tours are about life that goes on while the tours of museums and monuments are about the dead and the past.”
He says, WCLA is bombarded with requests for tour management in the upcoming winter season. “A lot of embassies, schools, colleges, universities, cultural organisations, NGOs, conservationists etc want to visit the place, he says, adding, “the visitors will increase as WCLA is planning to announce a week-long festival, ‘Trail by Night’.”
The WCLA tours are gaining popularity fast through referrals and social media. “We actually do not need to launch an expensive media campaign,” he concludes.
Centuries down the road, Lahore has expanded exponentially and the Old Lahore is just a small part of the second largest city of the country. However, its historical significance is not lost — and a visitor entering the old city from any of its 12 gates feels he has travelled back in time. The buildings, monuments, mosques, havelis, some adorned with woodwork stun the onlooker.