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A typical Punjabi saying is Lahore tay, Lahore ey. It  means that you can go around the world, Heck you can go around Pakistan, but Lahore IS Lahore.

The Mughal Emperor Akbar relocated his capital to Lahore. He built the massive Lahore Fort on the foundations of a previous fort and enclosed the city within a red brick wall, and to protect it from invaders. This is the inner city (or Anderoon Shehar) where the hub of all business was built, protected by 13 gates. Thus Lahore is also known as the “Walled City”.

Jahangir and Shah Jahan later extended the fort, built palaces and tombs, and laid out gardens. Akbar, in particular, was one of the more tolerant Kings, and under his rule the arts flourished. In fact so fond was he of music and poetry, that one of the gates opened directly into an area which is known as Shahi Mohalla or the “Royal Neighbourhood”.

Also close by is the notorious HEERA MANDI or Diamond Market.

Contrary to its name, it is not a place for the trading of diamonds, but perhaps diamonds of a different type. It is Lahore’s infamous red-light area.

Yes. A whole community of artistes lived in the Shahi Mohalla, and they were patronised by the royalty. There were the women, the musicians and of course the procurers of wine and opium.

This was the time of famous poets and because the common man could not afford to, or be educated enough to understand, how these luxuries were the pastimes of Kings and Nawabs.

In fact it is a well known fact that the spread of poetry has been through the singing of couplets by these very courtesans.

Such was their upbringing and demeanour, that the Royalty sent its young men to these women to learn the Tehzeeb (manners and mannerisms) of royal culture.

The main purpose of these women was to provide culture. It is not that sexual favours were not bestowed – but there was much more emphasis on arts; on experiences that could set the imagination afire with the expression of art, music and so much more.

The various types of people who lived in this area, all belonged to specific tribes. The musician were known as Maraasi, while the caretakers of the women were from a tribe called Kunjar.

Over the years, the Shahi Mohalla has unfortunately become seedy and decadent. Maraasi and Kunjars are synonymous with that kind of lifestyle. The word Kunjar is now used as an epithet and means a Pimp.

Gone are the days of culture and elegance, the women now wear garish makeup, outlandish outfits and sway and dance to the music of some item Bollywood song. There is nothing left but poverty and disease.

The government refuses to acknowledge, educate or provide any form of health care. The more affluent prostitutes have moved out of the Shahi Mohalla into the posh areas of Lahore.

Paradoxically in this community the birth of a daughter is celebrated, as when her mother becomes too old, she will take over.

Heera Mandi is where the buying and selling of women takes place. Virgins are recognised by the nose ring they wear to denote their sexual innocence.

They are sold to the highest bidder, and the removal of the Nath or nose ring is highly prized, and these girls sometimes as young as 11 0r 12 are sold for the night. It is not a nice place – simple. It is very rare that one of them will marry, in the event that someone has the courage to marry a woman from the Shahi Mohalla and dare to give her a home. Most of them are born and will die knowing nothing other than this life and these streets.

Iqbal Hussain is a painter from the Kunjar tribe, and if not for his talent or choice to come out of that quicksand, he too would eventually grow up to be nothing but a pimp.

He has taken over the homes of his mother and aunts – the place where they would entertain clients. He lives on the premises in a renovated area, which is obviously closed off to the public. This is the stigma behind Cocoos and its owner. A man who rose out of his murky background, and while he chose to remain there, he chose another path.

I think that it is remarkably strong for any person to stand up and admit that yes, I am who I am and embrace that.

The streets after a certain time are littered with all sorts of colourful people. Made up women enticing men into their enclosures, the ever eager pimps busy procuring clients, or the deviant ones offering all sorts of kinky services. The characters are all there, waiting to script a new story every night.

While prostitution is known to be the world’s oldest profession, the irony is that after all this time, it still remains a thing of shame and degradation. Not for the men who facilitate its continuance but for the women who are indentured to this mire. The nocturnal life of Heera Mandi  created another breed of people. The patrons that stumbled out at odd hours  needed to be fed. Places and food sprung up in this ecosystem.

One such place is Fazal e Haq Paya, known affectionately as “Phajjay kay Paye”. This place is over a 100 years old and remains true to its original recipe. Today it is open 24/7 , throughout the year. 

Paya is made from the hooves of cow or goat, and cooked overnight till it is a thick rich soup loaded with marrow, gelatin and collagen. It is said to be especially beneficial in the winter months as it strengthens bones and promotes immunity.

The head is sometimes added to the soup and then it is known as Sirri (head) Paaye (hooves). Relished as a breakfast item, it can be eaten lunch or dinner. It is either Badda (cow) or chotta (goat) Paya. There are two Paya options. There is the masaledar (spicy and with lots of spices) or the simple one which is just the flavor of Paya enhanced with ginger garlic and fried onions. Garnished with  slivers of ginger,  sliced green chillies, it is served with lime and fresh hot naan. The true testimony of a good well cooked Paya is when your fingers stick together like glue.

Roll up your sleeves and welcome on the journey.


6 hooves small(goat) or 2 large(cow)
Let the butcher dress them for you. You get the charred ones which will need a few extra steps, but have a smoky deeper flavor or you can get the steamed(hairless ones)
Wash thoroughly and place in a large pot with 3 litres water
3 tablespoon ginger
3 tablespoon garlic
Bring to a rolling boil and let it boil for 30 minutes
Turn the heat on medium low and leave to simmer for 6-8 hours
check level of water in between and top up if needed.

I usually start mine late at night, and leave it on a low flame to cook through the night.

8 hours later 

5l6 medium onions slice
4 tblspn garlic paste
4 tblspn ginger paste
4 tblspn finely julienned ginger
6-7 finely sliced green chillies
Juice of two limes
2 cups of ghee
Salt to season
1l2 a cup chopped fresh coriander

In a pot heat the ghee and fry the onions till almost golden brown

Add the ginger garlic and roast all till it has reached a golden brown colour and the smell of raw garlic is no more.

Turn off flame, and pour into the big pot that has the Paya cooking in it.

Now add the sliced green chillies and lime juice to the pot cover and let it cook for an additional 2-4 hours.

The thickness of the gravy must be considered at this point. You’re looking for a rich thick  homogenous stew.

You may increase the flame to thicken it, or lessen time(2 hours). The onions must become invisible. Your frying them to a perfect crisp is very important.

To serve
Sliced limes
Thinly sliced green chillies
Chopped mint
Thinly juliennded ginger
Fresh hot (thicker) Naans.

Happy cooking, happy eating!

For more interesting information on Heera Mandi, I would recommend:
Taboo by Dr.Fouzia Saeed
The Dancing girls of Lahore
Hira Mandi by Claudine Le Tourneur d’Ison

About the author

Brampton Begum

Brampton Begum

Begum has spent most of her life moving from one country to another. she is passionate about her cooking, her roots, music and her family. Her story telling style stems from the way she looks at everything around her, every single day - she sees every story and stores them in a special place called Nostalgia for the future, nostalgia from the past. Above all, she has a whacky sense of humour and is also an intensely private person with a passion for stories that tell the story of a place and a person. She lives in Canada with her husband, children and a mental cat.