Ever wonder how Lahore’s infamous Heera Mandi got its name? Or who the architecturally magnificent Wazir Khan Mosque is named after? Ever felt the desire to follow in the footsteps of Mughal royalty, wander the narrow streets of Lahore’s inner city where princes and nawabs once roamed, all the while sampling authentic Lahori delicacies as you browse through tiny shops in markets that can be traced back to a hundred years?
The Disco Laari Project makes it possible to do all this and much more. A guided tour of Lahore’s walled city that starts off in a pimped-out bus and ends with a meal had in the shadow of the imposing Badshahi Mosque, the Disco Laari Project is just a couple of months old but already garnering the attention of locals and visitors alike.
The initiative is the brainchild of three friends – Faisal Naeem, Asser Malik and Taimur Ehtisham, two of whom gave up lucrative job offers post-college to take the plunge and do something they all believed in wholeheartedly. “We wanted to show people the real Lahore, discover its hidden gems and experience its rich culture so we can be proud of our city, instead of taking it for granted as most of us do,” says Faisal.
Loosely inspired by the Hop-on Hop-off guided tours that most visitors to London will be familiar with, the Disco Laari project was meant to feature a similar open bus but the difficulty of procuring one in Pakistan forced the boys to rethink their vision. Their search landed them at a quintessentially desi ‘laari adda’ in Lahore where one abandoned and intricately painted bus caught their eye and the Disco Laari was born.
“Dekhnay mein bholi, chalnay mein goli” is the coy greeting we receive from our ride as we gather around it one gorgeous spring morning in Lahore to kick-start our tour of the Royal Trail. The meeting point is the parking area of the sprawling Lawrence Gardens on Mall Road and it being a Sunday, we had to wait an hour past the official starting time of 11:00am for the stragglers to trail in bleary-eyed as our group of about 20 assembled. Luckily, given the myriad of selfie opportunities available (in front of the bus, on top of it, in the doorway, inside with the disco lights flashing, and outside with the pristine Quaid-e-Azam library structure in the background), few of us paid heed to the minutes ticking away.
A short ride down the Mall Road deposits the group at Delhi Gate, the starting point for the two-hour walking tour along what is known as the Royal Trail – the path that royal entourages passed through when they arrived from Delhi on their way to the Lahore Fort. Their first stop was always the Shahi Hamam (the royal bath) to freshen up before being presented in the court of the king and this is where we make our first stop as well.
Even though the hamam is currently undergoing restoration work, it’s not difficult to imagine it during its glory days, beautifully decorated with fresco art work and featuring arched windows that allow beams of sunlight to sparkle off its tiled floors. With provisions for hot and cold baths as well as steam rooms, the hamam remains an architectural wonder and a throwback to the decadent history of the Mughals.
Nestled in the shadow of the hamam is an area once home to Akbari Mandi, where street vendors would peddle their fares to travellers from outside the gates of Lahore. Even now, you’ll find the odd variety of food stalls, bangle sellers, plastic shops and a lassi stall certified by the Walled City Authority to be the best in the city. Ask for Faheem and you’ll be pointed in the right direction.
Weave your way through the cobbled path and you’ll end up in front of Wazir Khan Mosque, whose striking minarets rise above the densely populated lanes like sentries standing guard. The story goes that when Shahjehan’s queen was afflicted with a mysterious illness, there was only one hakim (physician) who was able to cure her. His name was Shaikh Ilm-ud-din Ansar and so pleased was the king with his services that he was given the title of Wazir Khan and made governor. Wazir Khan was known to be a benevolent noble and he built the mosque in an effort to give back to the community.
A fraction of the size of the nearby Badshahi Mosque, Wazir Khan Mosque took double the amount of time to be constructed and once inside, a look at the gorgeous tile work and intricate wall decoration will tell you why. Soak in the serenity of the mosque, an oasis of calm in the middle of a frenzied part of the city, before stepping back into the chaos.
The Disco Laari tour will give you a chance to browse through the hundred-year-old Waan bazaar, a furniture market renowned for its traditional beds and stools. It will allow you to sample the delicious naan kahatais from the city’s famous Khalifa Bakery, a local biscuit that sends foreign visitors into raptures of delight according to the organizers. It will also give you the chance to learn little-known facts, such as how Heera Mandi got its name (it was named after General Hira Singh, who was given control of the area by the British as acknowledgment for his services).
There is a host of places you will discover that you never even knew existed, such as the Boli Bagh and Sohneri Masjid. An unassuming gate down a bustling lane opens up into a small square of greenery, enclosed on all four sides by walls – a secret garden, a place to put their feet up for those in the know. Our experienced guide tells us there was once a time when roses bloomed here and manicured bushes lined the paths, but for now it lies untended, a playground for local boys to practice their cricket. The garden provides a magnificent view of the Sohneri Masjid, a gold-domed mosque of whose origin little is known.
No Lahori excursion can be complete without a meal and the Royal Trail tour is no exception. We give the better known and more commercial Food Street a miss and fill up the tiny hall of an unassuming restaurant located just off the main Food Street. This is the place rumoured to have provided Cukoo’s with its food before the latter had its own kitchen and its ‘tawa chicken’ is the stuff of legends. Pieces of heavily spiced chicken, grilled on a huge tawa, and served with a generous sprinkling of fresh green chillies and lemon slices, the meal is a spectacularly Lahori way to finish off an action-packed day.
At PKR 1500 per person, the tour is a great way to discover Lahore for yourself or show off your city’s many gems, architectural, historical and gastronomical, to friends and families visiting from outside. According to Asser, the group is also considering offering specialized tours that focus on shopping (“on special request from all the aunties who always hold back the group when they start haggling in the bazaars”) and food sampling.
“We’ve always been told that Lahore is a historical city but before today, none of us really knew what that meant,” offered a satisfied customer as we walked back to our bus. “I’ve grown up in Lahore and I never ventured into this area before. This tour made me fall in love with my city.”