By VICTORIA BURNETT (Financial Times)
16 July 2005
If you ask a Lahori what it is that makes their city special, the chances are they'll turn to you with a sigh that's half wistful and half smug and say: "Lahore Lahore hai" - "Lahore is Lahore".
On the surface of it, this is not enormously helpful. But Lahore's motto does hint at the indefinable charm of this sultry city of mopeds and Mogul mosques. It captures the self-assurance of a town that for centuries has been a hub of poets, artists, musicians and universities and the capital of passing empires.
Bang in the middle of the Punjab - a region now split between Pakistan and India - Lahore was on the frontlines of the bloodletting that accompanied the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The city was gutted by communal rioting and by the flight to India of Hindus and Sikhs who, before partition, lived side by side with its Muslim population.
Now, the winds of peace with India are fanning the embers of a renaissance that began in the 1990s under Nawaz Sharif, the Lahori former prime minister. The city is sprucing itself up for a growing flow of visitors from Delhi - many of whom have memories or relatives there - with a fancy new airport, refurbished colonial buildings and ambitious hotel projects.
With temperatures hovering around 46Degrees C, Lahore is best left well alone during the summer months. But at any time of year the city's at its best in the evening, when the fat sun slips behind the rooftops of the old city and tints the great marble domes of the 17th century Badshahi Mosque a fiery pink.
As a hazy dusk settles along the Mall - a wide avenue of government buildings and four-star hotels in the city centre - spotlights flatter the sandstone facades of elaborate Mogul-Gothic palaces: the stately High Court; the Lahore Museum, once run by Rudyard Kipling's father, Lockwood. The shabby but interesting collection includes a suitably ugly bronze statue of Queen Victoria and a startling, hollow-eyed starving Buddha. Opposite the museum, sits the Zamzama - the canon the young hero straddles in the opening of Kipling's Kim.
It is no coincidence that one of the fonts of the city's renaissance is a pedestrian street in the district of Gawalmandi, lined with crumbling, colonial buildings and filled with outdoor restaurants. Food is not a delicate or sophisticated affair in Lahore, but Lahoris are famous food-lovers - none more so than the tubby Mr Sharif, who reputedly broke off a cabinet meeting to fly down to Lahore for some home-cooked grub.
By night, Food Street, as it is known, blazes with strings of lights and - a recent, dubious touch - glowing fake palm trees. The air is heavy with oil from sizzling pakoras and pooris and smoke from flaming grills of skewered lamb and roasted sajji chicken. Throngs of diners fill the rows of tables or wander the avenue in search of their favoured eatery.
Waiters rush to lure potential clients to stalls selling tikka, hareesa - a Kashmiri stew of spiced grains and meat - and murgh karahi - chicken sauted with ginger and tomatoes. Vendors sell Kashmiri tea, pink and milky and served with chopped pistachios, clam-shaped pots of sweet rice pudding and cardamom-scented icecream, or kulfi.
For a meal with a spectacular view, I head to Cooco's Den, a restaurant housed in a haveli on the edge of the Heera Mandi, Lahore's red light district, which overlooks the Badshahi mosque and the massive walls of the 16th century Lahore Fort. Iqbal Hussein, the owner and a local artist, grew up in the haveli, then a brothel run by his mother. At night, diners flock to fill the terrace and harried waiters use a pulley system to reel pots of delicious murgh handi - chicken cooked in a clay pot with ginger and chilli - from the street-level kitchen.
The old city that stretches behind Mr Hussain's restaurant - a maze of narrow streets filled with ragged children, goats, rickshaws, chickens and men whose bellies bulge over their dhotis - is home to basant, the kite festival that heralds the start of spring.
For two days in February, Lahore is a frenzy of kite-fighting, music and hashish - a refreshing burst of hedonism in a country unlikely to go down in history for its riotous spirit. The sky is speckled with thousands of bobbing kites as rivals battle to cut one another's strings. Residents crowd the rooftops and the air throbs with the blare of horns and the squeal of Bollywood singers.
While ordinary revellers fill the streets and rooftops, Lahore's elite parties in the elegant courtyard of Yusuf Salahuddin, grandson of the poet Allama Iqbal and owner of a beautifully restored haveli tucked away in the old city. To the dismay of many locals, the corporate sector has jumped on the basant band wagon, sponsoring all-night parties crammed with glitzy socialites. The festival's popularity hasn't escaped the hotel owners either - with rooms going for an unheard of Dollars 300 a night.
For those with a strong constitution, an early walk in the old city will yield a street-side breakfast of halwa poori, deep-fried puffy bread with sweet semolina pudding, or kulcha, a sesame seed bread served with thick cream.
The cool of the morning is the time to pace the vast flagged courtyard of the Badshahi mosque (dodging the ancient but insistent guide who rattles off improbable statistics about its size and construction). With its towering, octagonal minarets and inlaid floral mouldings, it is grander and more beautiful than its counterpart - the Friday mosque - in Delhi.
Opposite the mosque, through a doorway flanked by great stone elephants' feet, sits the once splendid Lahore Fort. If you have the patience to indulge local tourists in their favourite pastime - having their photo taken with a foreigner - it is worth a wander to read the Raj-era graffiti carved on marble pillars by bored British soldiers.
Among the neglected palaces is the Shish Mahal, a love pavilion whose ceiling is studded with tiny mirrors to create the effect of a starry night, that was built by Shah Jahan - the romantic Mogul emperor who went on to build the rather more famous Taj Mahal. With a Dollars 1m grant from Unesco, the dilapidated Shish Mahal is getting an urgent facelift. If the winds of peace continue to blow, the city may yet live up to its other maxim: "He who has not seen Lahore, has not yet been born."
Victoria Burnett is an FT correspondent based in Islamabad
*Cooco's Den, 2168 Fort Road, opposite the Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque, Old City, Lahore.
*Pearl Continental Hotel, The Mall, nr Governor's House, Lahore, tel: +92 42-636 0210. Rates for double room: Rs14,000 to Rs19,000 plus 24 per cent tax
*Avari Hotel: 87 The Mall, Lahore, tel: +92 42-636 6366. Rates for double room: Rs6,500 to Rs18,000 plus 24 per cent tax