If we were to retrace the evolution of marketplaces in Lahore, Anarkali, Shah Almi, and Ichhra Bazaar would hold historical clout in descending order, without it being much of a debate. But while these bazaars have seemingly always existed in the historic city, there is one that trumps all these, and others, as far as its essential charm and appeal is concerned. That place is Liberty Market.
Women of the city will not contest this. Men will begrudgingly agree. For Lahoris, Liberty Market has been an ever-present and growing centre where all their essential consumerist dreams are fulfilled. Clothes, jewellery, fabrics, shoes; whatever you need to fill your sartorial demands, you’ll find it here.
The D-shaped market isn’t an architectural marvel. Large billboards hung precariously on top of one another cover most of the ageing and dated façades of the buildings many of which haven’t been changed much since the late 1960s when the marketplace project was started.
As a public space, it isn’t even remotely leaning in the direction of a piazza or an idealised shopping district one may find in most developed country. However, it’ll be extremely hard to find a woman of any age who hasn’t, at one point or another in her life, relied on the bustling market to buy essentials. It’ll be even harder to pinpoint a Lahori who hasn’t taken their guests from other cities and countries to Liberty on a shopping trip, or even just a sightseeing tour, ending it all on a high note with the legendary “Variety ki cone.”
How did this once gentrified and posh market, originally created to cater to the residents of the Gulberg housing scheme in the 1960s, become that most important stop for fabrics, embellishments, jewels, ethnic footwear, food and the aforementioned universally beloved soft-serve ice cream? It is a temporal fusion of urban public dynamics, upward social mobility, migration, and democratisation of high fashion into more affordable wares inspired by the former.
The story of this market, then, is as full of twists and turns as that of the films that were once shown in the now-defunct Liberty Cinema located right next to it, from which the market derives its name. Ironic, that the cinema originally christened “Liberty” has now faded out while the market that grew in its shadow and borrowed its name has thrived and carried forth the name with undefeatable gusto.
Evolution through the decades
Dr Ajaz Anwar, the architect, artist, and founding member of the Lahore Conservation Society, is also a delightful historian of bazaars and market places. Having lived in Istanbul, Rome, London, Tehran, and Kampala, he has studied some of the world’s oldest and largest bazaars and marketplaces. He tells TNS that bazaars are a human need for essentials and used to evolve naturally based on the needs in human settlements.
He points out Anarkali and Ichhra as local examples, and adds that our ancestral and cultural trend was of tented and covered bazaars where the shopkeepers sold their wares openly. Liberty was a project of the Lahore Improvement Trust (LTI), the predecessor of Lahore Development Authority, in the late 1960s.
“First came the Main Market in Gulberg where the residents of the area would be able to buy groceries, fruits, meat, produce, and anything they needed to run their homes,” Dr Anwar says. “But this area was developed away from the older city centre because of congestion and increase in population.”
Essentially, due to the growing urban sprawl in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the people who moved to places like the newly made housing colony Gulberg were provided Main Market, and Liberty to shop in. Dr Anwar believes this was a gamble, especially in the case of Liberty.
“It wasn’t truly needed but a lot of people bought shops at higher costs in hope of a gentrified clientele and waited for the customers to come.”
An owner of one of Liberty’s oldest clothing shops remembers when he was a child himself and his father invested in a shop in the market, going against the wishes of his grandfather who wanted to keep the family business in Azam Cloth Market, Lahore’s oldest fabric market. “My father had the foresight to move here but his decision was not always lauded,” he says.
“Many of his friends laughed at him because back in those days the area was nothing like the congested and bustling place it is today. He sat at his shop and hoped some nurses from the nearby United Christian Hospital (UCH) would stop by to shop, if no one else!”
However, his father’s fears were unfounded, and he was rewarded for his adventurous zeal. With rising gentrification in the city, customers did come. Since then, none of the early investors have looked back. They enjoy the kind of financial security via their property in Liberty few others can match.
Dr Anwar believes in the organic evolution of marketplaces, and while initially Liberty was a manufactured shopping district, its evolution happened later. With the Afghan refugee crisis of the 80s bringing more and more people from across the Afghan border and the changing demographics of KP as war raged in the neighbouring country, Liberty was given a new breed of entrepreneurs in the shape of Pakhtun cloth merchants who moved here from selling in places like the Bara Bazaar in Peshawar, or as extensions of their business in the province.
While the main Liberty Market still belonged to predominantly Punjabi and Lahori business owners, the Pakhtun cloth merchants saw this place as a worthwhile venture and started taking up retail space in an informal extension at the backside of the market in the 90s. This was the area which is now unofficially known as “Dopatta Galli.”
The early 2000s also brought in some Sikh clothing merchants whose specialty is Indian sarees, lehengas, and Lakhnavi embroidered fabrics, and so Liberty is now also a representative of the few minorities that call Lahore home.
“A thing does not last if it is not needed,” Dr Anwar muses, in summation of how Liberty Market has thrived while its namesake cinema was shut down long ago.