Heeramandi: True Story of a Forgotten Community, Explained

Netflix’s ‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’ is an eight-part Indian series that unfolds against the backdrop of the final phase of India’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule, spanning two centuries. The series is directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and delves into the narrative set in Heeramandi, a district renowned for its courtesan culture during that era. Through the perspective of the tawaifs, or courtesans, inhabiting and navigating this milieu, the series portrays the politically charged atmosphere of the period, shedding light on the individual struggles of women and the collective challenges they face. Given the series’ culturally vibrant setting, audiences are left pondering the historical events that inspired its creation.

The History of the Land of Heeramandi

‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’ draws inspiration from the time’s rich historical and cultural context rather than specific individuals or events. The original story was conceived by Moin Beg around 2010 and brought to Sanjay Leela Bhansali. However, it didn’t materialize into a project at that time due to various circumstances, including Bhansali’s involvement in other film productions. However, the fleshed-out historical setting of the story caught Netflix’s attention, leading to its adaptation into a series. The script for the series was developed from Beg’s story by Mitakshara Kumar, Snehil Dixit Mehra, and Vibhu Puri.

Heeramandi, now in Lahore, Pakistan, holds significant importance for understanding the film due to the long lineage of artists it has been home to. During the Mughal rule in India from the early 16th to the mid-18th century, artisans, dancers, and other performing artists were often brought in from regions like Afghanistan and Uzbekistan to entertain the rulers and courtly elite. Over time, this area also began to attract similarly talented artists from within the country. This cultural amalgamation led to the flourishing of the tawaif culture in this region. Due to its close association with the royals, the neighborhood began to be known as “Shahi Mohalla” or “Royal Neighbourhood.”

Tawaifs or highly skilled courtesans, were adept in various arts such as music, dance, poetry, and conversation. They were often well-educated and refined, serving as companions and entertainers for the elite. Young royal princes were sent to these women to learn the mannerisms and language of sophisticated and elite society. They were among the few women in the region with the right to own property and were economically independent, making them socially and politically influential figures.

After the decline of Mughal rule, the Sikh Empire rose to prominence in the Indian subcontinent, with Lahore emerging as its capital under the leadership of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Known as the “Lion of Punjab,” he established his rule in the early 19th century, uniting various Sikh factions and expanding his territories across present-day Punjab, Pakistan, and parts of North India. Ranjit Singh recognized the importance of the tawaif culture. He became a devoted patron and tried to add more value to it by making it an economic epicenter. The “Shahi Mohallah,” located in the heart of Lahore, was transformed with the addition of a grain market established by the Prime Minister of Ranjit Singh, Raja Dhian Singh.

The market, initially named “Hira Singh Di Mandi” after his son, Hira Singh, gradually evolved into “Heeramandi.” Positioned between the Taxali Gate and the southern vicinity of the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan, Heeramandi maintained its reputation as a cultural hub until the roots of British rule began to take hold over society. As British rule occupied the Indian subcontinent, cultural and social changes swept the country. Due to their lack of understanding of what the tawaif culture was, the women there were seen as sex workers and judged with moral disdain. This led to a decline in their patronage, treatment, and, subsequently, their power.

Stringent rules and regulations were imposed upon the community, and their roles as performers and artists were highly undermined. The distinction between tawaifs and sex workers slowly declined until it was completely eroded. The post-independence period witnessed the stark decline of the tawaif tradition as societal attitudes shifted and modernization reshaped Indian culture. Many tawaifs faced economic hardships as their traditional sources of patronage dried up, forcing them to seek alternative means of livelihood. Many started working in the entertainment industry, and some married or lived their last years away from the place that had once been their home.

After the partition, Heeramandi came under the state of Pakistan, but its trajectory took a different turn from its illustrious past. Today, it is an underdeveloped area, marked by neglect and lack of infrastructure and social services investment. Amidst the dilapidated buildings and narrow streets, Heeramandi has become synonymous with the darker side of urban life, serving as a hub for prostitution in the country. The once vibrant tawaif culture has been overshadowed by the harsh realities of economic hardship, forcing many women into the trade as a means of survival. Despite efforts to address the issue, poverty and social marginalization continue to perpetuate the cycle of exploitation, trapping vulnerable individuals in a cycle of poverty and exploitation.

Through its characters, it is this phase of decline that ‘Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar’ has been able to capture. While their internal structures were still in place, they were being pushed to the fringes of society. To sustain and survive while the wave of political freedom loomed over the country in 1947, the tawaifs had to go into battle on many fronts. The series is essential to understanding the many ways in which a foreign, forceful, and exploitative rule corroded indigenous systems and left people vulnerable. The series is an homage to those women and serves as a reminder of the mistakes of the past that should not be repeated.

Read More: Best Movies About Prostitution and Sex Workers