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Heera Mandi Arial View

From Forbidden Place to the Diamond Market

by Pomy

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Historical Background and Significance of Heera Mandi (Diamond Market)

The release of the latest Netflix TV series, Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, in May 2024 stirred up a heated controversy between India and Pakistan. The show, set in the Mughal British era, depicts a group of courtesans who entertain men through singing, dancing, and engaging in conversation. Many people in Pakistan believe that the series overemphasizes the area’s connection to the sex trade. They also think that Hindus are propagating the idea that polygamy and the practice of keeping women for sexual purposes were introduced to the region by the Muslim Mughal rulers, thereby causing disrespect towards Muslims.

This controversy prompted an in-depth exploration of the true nature of this red-light district. Our research revealed that the topic is far more complex than it initially appears.

Heera Mandi was a historic red-light district in Lahore, Pakistan, that was renowned for its courtesans, dancing girls, and traditional music and dance performances. 

The term ‘Heeramandi’ carries a significant historical connotation. Scholars from Lahore, aware of the history, argue that the name is derived from ‘Hira Singh‘, a governor of the area during Sikh rule. Before this, it was called Shahi Muhalla (a royal neighbourhood). However, the clever use of the word ‘heera‘, which translates to ‘diamond’ in English, subtly suggests that ‘Heera mandi’ signifies a ‘diamond (dancing girls market)’.

In its prime, Heera Mandi was renowned for its skilled performers, proficient in various traditional forms of music and dance, such as classical music, mujra (a traditional form of dance), and other cultural performances. The area was a favourite haunt of the nobility and the elite, who sought entertainment and social interaction.

However, the passage of time, societal and cultural shifts, and the onslaught of modernisation have impacted the significance and reputation of Heera Mandi. Today, it remains a bastion of some traditional arts and performances, but it has also been subjected to criticism and challenges due to evolving attitudes, legal constraints, and efforts to mitigate the exploitation of individuals involved in the sex trade. 

Introduction of Polygamy and Harem

This blog explores the historical presence of areas such as Heeramandi, designated for women within imperial palaces across various Eastern and Western civilisations. These areas are commonly known as harems, a term derived from the Arabic word ”hurmat,” meaning chastity and sacred. In Persian, these palaces are called ”Androoni or ”inside.” In the Indian subcontinent, they are referred to as ”zanana” or ”female.” However, researchers have discovered that such traditions existed before the advent of Islam and were notably absent in the Roman and Greek empires.  Although Pharaonic Egypt had quarters for women and children, these were not isolated spaces like harems. Referring to these quarters as harems is a common misconception, as earlier Egyptian practices differed from later Islamic (Arab) cultures.

Intriguingly, Near Eastern and Chinese cultural traditions, including Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, point to having isolated places for women. That space was sometimes called inner place, rear place, or forbidden area. When Mongolia conquered China in 1205, they adopted this concept and disseminated it wherever they went. The Ottomans and Mughals, extensions of the Mongols, based their traditions on ancient Mongol customs, albeit with variations. Also, the ‘‘Tawaif ”courtesan of the Mughal imperial household bears many similarities to a Japanese ‘Geisha”.

Influence of Confucianism and the Concept of Filial Piety

Now, the question arises as to why the Chinese imperials kept those places. One answer could be Confucianism. The foundational fabric of Chinese society is weaved into Confucianism, which thrived in ancient China during 550 BCE and emphasised filial piety as a principle for building a great culture. Filial piety encompasses honouring ancestors, demonstrating love, respect, and support for family members, showing politeness, and maintaining brotherly unity.

Another essential aspect of filial piety was ensuring male heirs to continue the family line, and this was what led to polygamy and keeping multiple women to ensure they have enough heirs to replace kings in the context of child susceptibility to survival risk context. Given the patrilineal nature of Chinese culture, it was crucial for a couple to have a son. If a man had no heir, he could take additional wives to improve his chances of fathering a son. However, the practice of polygamy was limited to the wealthy ruling elites, and there were strict rules governing it.

Rules and Hierarchy in Polygamous Relationships

The principal wife held a higher rank than the concubines, and there were guidelines to prevent favouritism and emotional attachments. A strict hierarchy was essential for its survival. The “Three Rites” is a classic of Confucianism that provides a ranking of royal consorts: one Queen, two Consorts, three Madames, nine Concubines, 27 Hereditary Ladies, and 81 Royal Wives. The hierarchy aims to prevent having two queens or empresses and to ensure filial piety regarding heir and lineage. The Empress Dowager, the emperor’s mother or widow, holds absolute power in the royal household, and her position is second to the emperor in many aspects. Similar titles for the empress’s mother exist in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese languages, as well as Malka alia in Mughul and Valide Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  

With time, additional categories were introduced and reordered within the royal consorts, such as Learned Lady (八子; bāzi), Lady of Beauty (美人; měirén), Lady Without Impurity (舞涓; wǔjuān), Lady Who Pleases the Spirit (娛靈; yúlíng), Talented Woman (才女; cǎinǚ), and others. Despite these changes, the queen retained the highest rank among all royal consorts.

During the early imperial period, it was customary for Empresses and higher-ranking women to sleep with the emperor during the full moon to ensure strong virtues and attributes in their children, as it was thought that yin and yang are at their peak those nights. On the other hand, lower-ranking women would sleep with the emperor during the new moon to promote good health by maintaining the yin and yang balance of power.

Evolution of Imperial Consorts in Ancient Chinese Society

In ancient Chinese society, the royal harem primarily utilized dowries rather than importing women from distant regions. The term 媵 (yìng) originally referred to individuals or items included in a dowry, such as maids, sisters, or nieces accompanying a bride. The Etiquette and Ceremonial (《仪礼》, Yili), an ancient Chinese text from the 5th to 3rd centuries BCE, uses 媵 (yìng) to denote a concubine or a humble person, such as a servant. Women from neighbouring regions such as Korea and Mongolia were taken as consorts in later periods.

King could have as many women as he wanted; aristocratic feudal lords were allowed to have nine consorts, comprising one wife and eight concubines, and could not marry again once they reached this limit. Other officials were permitted one wife and one concubine, while ordinary citizens were restricted to having only one wife.

At the heart of Confucianism is the concept of Yin and Yang, which symbolizes opposing yet complementary forces in Chinese cosmogony, emphasizing balance and harmony in both nature and human existence. However, Taoism later adopted Yin and Yang, simplifying them into gender stereotypes, which influenced hierarchical gender roles in imperial households and restricted women to roles focused on producing male heirs.

Harem Dynamics in Ancient Chinese Society After the Mongol Invasion

When the Mongols invaded China in 1212, they introduced a more open concept around women and family. Rooted in their Shamanist religion, Mongol society viewed individuals as free and equal. This belief system, suited to their nomadic lifestyle, saw women working alongside men in setting up tents, tending animals, hunting, and managing the family, especially during their husbands’ absences. Women had to be independent and self-reliant in maintaining their households. This lifestyle fostered a unique society and culture, which later merged with Chinese Confucianism, evolving into a more complex and transformed culture over the centuries. The Mongols’ social structure was based on kinship systems with lineages called ” bones.” Closely related lineages, known as white bones, could not intermarry, while more distant ones, called black bones, could. This network created a sense of unity among tribes and clans.

“Genghis Khan, the 13th-century Mongolian warrior, not only ruled the largest empire in the world but also significantly contributed to its population. A genetic study found that nearly 8 percent of men in the former Mongol empire share nearly identical Y-chromosomes, translating to roughly 16 million descendants today. This genetic spread is attributed to the unique cultural and historical circumstances of the Mongol empire.”   (Mayell, National Geographic, 2003)

Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol empire, had many wives and concubines, often princesses or queens from conquered territories. He visited different wives’ yurts nightly and took one wife on military campaigns, leaving the others to manage the empire. Only Börte’s (the queen’s) sons could be considered his heirs. He also married two daughters of the Tatar ruler, Yesugen and Yesui, who became two of his most influential wives. Earlier accounts suggest that Mongolian shamanistic cultures did not view sexuality with shame, and women enjoyed significant freedom. Although Genghis Khan strictly regulated adultery for political discipline, unmarried women had more sexual freedom. The Genghis Khan’s’ yasa detailed the role of women, polygamy, and their status. Even after adopting Islamic norms, Genghis Khan’s descendants, like those in the Ilkhanate, were more relaxed than other Muslim states. This pattern of relative sexual freedom and lack of shame persisted until the socialist era, despite drawbacks such as the spread of syphilis in 19th-century Mongolia, as noted by Russian doctors. The glimpse of these traditions can also be evident in the Ottoman and Mughal treatment of women and the construction of their harems during their empires.

Selection of Women for Imperial Service in Ancient Chinese Palaces

For an in-depth understanding of the harem and its dynamics, let us consider the example of a Chinese imperial harem during the Qing Dynasty called “Forbidden City.” (Note: Qing Dynasty is different from ancient Qin Dynasty) The architects designing the layout of the Forbidden City adhered to Confucian ideology, which dictated the ideal cosmic order. This design reflected the space’s ceremonial, ritual, and residential functions, ensuring that all activities within this micro-city conformed to its participants’ social and familial roles.

The Selection Process for Women in the Forbidden City Involved Several Stages:

  • Eligibility was determined, with girls primarily from “Eight Banners” families being considered. The Eight Banners were Mongolian (Manchu ᠵᠠᡴᡡᠨ,ᡤᡡᠰᠠ or jakūn) administrative and military divisions.
  • An initial inspection scrutinized physical appearance, including facial features, skin, and teeth, followed by a skill evaluation, in which candidates were tested on their abilities in household tasks and needlework.
  • A behavioural assessment was conducted to observe demeanour and conduct, ensuring the candidates ‘ suitability. Chosen finalists received specialized training in etiquette, arts, and household management and served the emperor’s mother to demonstrate their suitability.
  • Based on their evaluations, selected women were assigned roles as concubines or maids, maintaining the strict hierarchy of the Forbidden City.

Most women in the Forbidden City served as maids and servants. However, there was a selected group of concubines whose primary role was to bear as many children as possible for the emperor. The inner court consisted of three primary groups of women: concubines, palace servants, and royal princesses. Those who bore male children were promoted to imperial consorts, with the empress at the top.

The Role of Eunuchs in the Forbidden City

As mentioned earlier, in ancient China, due to the high infant mortality rate, the emperor had access to a large harem to ensure that there would be enough heirs who would survive to adulthood. As a result, eunuchs played a crucial role in protecting the legitimate heir. For centuries, only castrated men were allowed to enter the private quarters of the Forbidden City, aside from the imperial family. By giving up their ability to reproduce, these men gained exclusive access to the emperor, which allowed some of them to become wealthy and influential politicians. They were involved in every aspect of palace life, mainly focusing on safety, security, and maintaining the sanctity of the chambers. Their duties ranged from cooking and serving as chair bearers to fetching water and ensuring the smooth operation of daily activities inside and outside the palace. There were different Eunuchs for inside and outside palace duties to completely isolate the forbidden palace from outside the world.

Eunuchs are recorded in Chinese court chronicles as early as the eighth century BC, but their prominent role in government is generally traced back to the Han Huan Di (146-167 AD). Over time, eunuchs gained enough influence over emperors to manipulate state affairs and, in some cases, contribute to the downfall of dynasties.  By 1644, there were approximately 70,000 eunuchs in the palace. However, this number was significantly reduced during the Ming Dynasty to 3,000. This decrease was due to concerns that eunuchs had amassed excessive influence and power within the royal household.

Castration of Males to Become Eunuchs in Ancient China

Eunuchs in ancient China were not naturally prevalent among transgender individuals; many were surgically transformed due to parental pressure to seek a cash reward or personal choice to escape economic hardship. Families hoped their sons would find comfort and prosperity in the palace. Some adults, unable to make an honest living, chose emasculation over a life of crime, while others envied the seemingly more effortless life of palace eunuchs. Emperor Guangwu of Han dynasty initiated a policy that commuted death sentences to emasculation which was later adopted as a rule by his successors.

The emasculation decision was based on consent, not force. The prospective eunuch was asked, Hou hui bu hou hui,” meaning, “Will you regret it or not?” If any doubt were shown, the operation would be halted. Local anaesthesia, often chilli pepper oil, was used. The procedure involved a team of four men: the surgeon performed the cutting, while three others assisted by holding the patient. A small tube was inserted into the urethra to maintain the opening during suturing. Typically, the wound would heal in about three months. Unfortunately, about two per cent of patients died from complications such as being unable to urinate post-procedure, resulting in a painful death.

In the palace, eunuchs played significant roles, including transporting concubines to the emperor’s apartment using a sedan chair. The eunuchs kept meticulous records of these visits, noting the concubine’s name and visit date. Two eunuchs would then escort the concubine back to her apartment. If a concubine became pregnant and the emperor wished her to bear his child, the eunuch would sign the entry. 

Eunuchs were often used for sexual pleasure by both royal men and women. Boy eunuchs were tasked with intimate bathroom and bedroom duties by palace ladies, particularly those whose testicles were intact but whose penises were removed after puberty because these eunuchs were sexually frustrated.

Comparative Harem Cultures in Ancient Iranian and Chinese Civilizations

Ancient Iranian (Near Eastern) and Chinese civilizations shared similarities regarding harem and royal polygamy cultures, likely due to their close proximity and interaction along the Silk Road, which facilitated the exchange of culture and traditions. Both had one chief consort, the mother of the heir, and many lower-ranked wives and concubines, though their ranking systems differed. During the Achaemenid period (550 BCE), high-status royal and aristocratic women received rigorous education in horsemanship, archery, and hunting, contrasting with the seclusion of harem life. Herodotus (an ancient Greek historian and geographer 425 BCE) noted that Persian noblemen kept multiple wives and concubines to have many children, with these women having their own quarters, revenue, estates, and many servants, including eunuchs and concubines.

In the earlier Sasanian society (ancient Persian) , the Zoroastrian religion led to next-of-kin marriage (khevtuk-das), where men could marry daughters, sisters, and mothers, who were seen as pious and meritorious. This practice was believed to produce stronger males and more virtuous females and protect racial purity, contrasting with Mongolian culture, which prohibited closely related marriages.

Ḵosrow Parvēz, the last Sasanian ruler, was known for his extreme indulgence and maintained a harem of 3,000 women, which offended the public and ultimately led to his execution. Even though he claimed that the women in his harem were free to marry and leave, but they chose to stay due to the palace’s lavish comforts.

The Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires, originating from Turko-Mongolian roots and spanning Turkey, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent, maintained imperial harem traditions akin to those of the Mongols.In the Ottoman Empire, the Imperial harem was a secluded palace where the sultan’s wives, concubines, female relatives, and servants resided. This institution played a pivotal role in Ottoman court politics and social life, particularly during the influential Sultanate of Women (1533-1656). Managed by the valide sultan, who wielded significant political influence, the harem housed primarily women of slave origin, though some were free women married for strategic alliances. These women received education and training comparable to male pages and could ascend the harem’s hierarchy ranks. The chief eunuch, the Kizlar Agha, oversaw the eunuchs responsible for guarding the harem. Over time, the architecture and layout of the harem evolved to reflect its increasing influence and significance within the Ottoman court.

In the Mughal Empire, exemplified by structures like the Jodha Bai Mahal in Fatehpur Sikri commissioned by Emperor Akbar for his favourite consort, Mariam-uz-Zamani (Jodha Bai), the harem typically adhered to a strict hierarchical order. Mughal harems featured elaborate gardens, fountains, water channels, and large kitchens to cater to the needs of the women, slaves, and children raised within. Women in the Mughal harem were educated, trained, and received a monthly stipend. They actively participated in political affairs, with notable examples including Mariam-Zamani’s involvement in inland and overseas trade. During periods of ruler incapacity, such as Humayun’s addiction to substances, his wife took charge of court affairs. Additionally, Shah Jahan’s daughter contributed significantly to various architectural projects.

These empires, while distinct in their cultural and religious contexts, shared a common Mongolian heritage of maintaining complex harem systems that were integral to their political and social structures.

Now, back to our initial discussion: Lahore’s Heera Mandi, founded initially under Mughal rule by emperors Babur and Akbar, transitioned from a royal district to a centre where concubines and tawaifs (courtesans) entertained aristocrats with dance and music after the Mughal capital moved to Delhi. Women from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan were brought to Heera Mandi to perform Mujra and Kathak dances, supported by aristocrats who patronised their poetry, art, music, and etiquette education.

Heera Mandi Balconies

Poor condition of old Mughal Harem in the royal neighborhood (Shahi Muhalla)

During British rule, Heera Mandi continued as a vibrant cultural hub in Lahore, featuring restaurants, music shops, and entertainment venues. The British allowed the red-light district to thrive, expanding brothel houses in the area, which attracted nobility and elite society for socializing and entertainment.

However, during the Cold War, Pakistan aligned with the United States against Soviet communism. As part of his Islamic reforms, General Zia ul-Haq amended the constitution to establish Pakistan as an Islamic republic in 1979. Under the pretext of upholding Islamic traditions and opposing music, dance, and women’s emancipation, he banned the existence of tawaifs, leading to the decline of Heera Mandi as a cultural center.


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