The real story of Heeramandi, now a Sanjay Leela Bhansali series on Netflix

Mohammad Bilal
Mohammad BilalFeb 21, 2023 | 17:15

The real story of Heeramandi, now a Sanjay Leela Bhansali series on Netflix

The idea to make Heeramandi, a story on the courtesans of Lahore's Heeramandi area, was given to filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali nearly 14 years ago by writer Moin Baig. Heeramandi, which in Urdu means diamond market, is an area in the city of Lahore in Pakistan.

Bhansali, however, couldn't make the film at that time as he got busy with Devdas. After that, Bhansali got busy with Saawariya, Guzaarish and then Bajirao Mastani, and the script of Heeramandi couldn't see the light of day. 


At one point, writer Moin Baig even asked his script back as Bhansali didn't do anything with it. But as luck would have it, Baig and Bhansali never knew that the iconic story of Pakistan's most popular street would be transformed into a series, that too for Netflix.

As per Bhansali, when he and Baig narrated the story to Netflix, "they were in a tizzy!" At last, Heeramandi deserved a series of 8-9 episodes to tell the world the story of Lahore's tawaifs (courtesans) whose fortunes came crashing down under the British Raj and remains there today.

Watch the teaser:

What inspired Heeramandi

Heeramandi, which in Urdu and Punjabi means a diamond market, is an area in the city of Lahore in Pakistan. Sometimes also known as Shahi Mohallah, Heeramandi is one of the most popular destinations in Pakistan that saw a dramatic downfall in the British era.

  • The area, which saw its rise in the Mughal era where women mainly from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan danced, sang and entertained the emperors, became a centre of prostitution when the British developed brothels there for the recreation of British soldiers during the British Raj.
  • It was during that time that Heeramandi lost its esteem and came to be known as a prostitution hub. 

What was it back then? 

The market was originally the centre of the city's tawaif (concubines) culture during Lahore's Mughal era, the 15th and 16th centuries. It was started by the Mughals who brought in women from Afghanistan and Uzbekisan to savour the dance and entertainment they provided. Later, some women from different parts of the Indian subcontinent were also brought to Heeramandi to perform on Indian classical dances like Kathak to entertain the Mughals.

  • After the Mughal era was over, Maharaja Ranjit Singh reintroduced several royal customs of the Mughals in Lahore, among which was the culture of tawaifs and their performances in court.
  • It was Maharaja Ranjit Singh who named it Heeramandi. Singh had established the food grain market in the area and it was initially called 'Hira Singh di Mandi', and later came to be known as Heeramandi.
  • The culture of tawaifs was restarted by Ranjit Singh, but it could never match the grandeur with which the Mughals honoured the area. History also tells us that Maharaja Ranjit Singh also fell in love with a tawaif, which was met with resistance from his people as the woman belonged to the kanjar caste. Ranjit Singh didn't pay any heed to these criticisms and went on to marry the woman and built a separate haveli (mansion) for her.
  • However, it was the British rule which gave the area a bad name and it came to be known as the prostitution hub. The brothel houses were redeveloped by the British in the old Anarkali bazaar for the British soldiers. After that, the hubs were shifted to Lahori Gate and Taxali Gate.

What is it like today? 

During daytime, Heeramandi looks like any ordinary market where shops sell food, khussa (traditional Mughal footwear) and musical instruments for mujra, which happens at night. 

  • During the night, the brothels above the shops open up and the prostitution work starts.
  • Today, Heeramandi is a hub of sex workers who perform mujra for people. The practice never stopped, and women from different parts of Pakistan and neighbouring countries found shelter in Heeramandi.
  • During the rule of Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan (1978-1988), a rigorous effort was made to end prostitution in this area, but it did not work out as the brothels were shifted to other parts of Lahore. And in the era of Internet, the sex workers of Heeramandi have turned to social media to offer 'escort services' via a host of apps.
Last updated: February 21, 2023 | 19:30
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