History of the Real Heeramandi Behind Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Series

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Heeramandi series is all set to release on 1st May on Netflix. While the story has created quite a stir, we take a deep dive into the history of the real Heeramandi.

Srushti Pathak
New Update
SLB Heeramandi

The filmmaker known for his opulence, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, has already created buzz with his new Netflix series. Heeramandi, the tale of courtesans from pre-independent India is winning hearts with a star-studded cast. 

But do you know that there existed a real Heeramandi in what is now Lahore?

The term Heeramandi, in Urdu, literally means diamond bazaar. The place holds cultural and historical significance. Originally a grain market, it was named after Heera Singh. He served as the Prime Minister of Lahore during the Mughal reign. They turned it into a lively hub for artisans from around the world. These included musicians and dancers keen on creating a name and space for themselves.

Image Courtesy: Substack

Traditionally, tawaifs were the custodians of elite art and culture, and enjoyed a relatively autonomous lifestyle with a respected place in public society. They owned property and controlled their own wealth; were fluent in reading and writing; and were well versed with literature and politics; unlike the more “respectable” purdah-bound women of the time, who had to their name neither property nor literacy.

Unsurprisingly then, their training in music and dance started at a very young age, under the guidance and tutelage of renowned ustaads (masters). Young girls regularly spent hours in riyaz, learning songs and dance to the exacting standards set by their teachers.

Heermandi Lahore
Image Courtesy: Substack

Abdul Shah Abdali’s invasion transformed the place from a cultural one to an infamous area. Prostitution took over art. Heermandi was also known as Shahi Mohalla while under the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It is said that he constructed a separate mansion for a courtesan he was fond of in Heeramandi.

The intertwining of moral judgements with the role of the tawaif in Indian society stems directly from the influence of the British colonists. It was during the British Era that Heeramandi converted brothels into houses for their soldiers, pushing the original dwellers to areas like Lahori Gate and Taxali. Though Zia-Ul-Haq tried hard to end prostitution in Lahore, it continued in other parts.

Manisha Koirala
Image Courtesy: Variety

Heeramandi has undergone a metamorphosis, going from a regular market during the day to a red-light district at night.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi has stirred a lot of interest and piqued curiosity among viewers. And we can’t wait to see how close to history it comes.

Heeramandi Sanjay Leela Bhansali history of heeramandi