A Past No More?

Yes, it has been a while since I posted an entry, again.  

Having recently returned from a trip to Pakistan to visit family after three years, I suppose I feel the urge to document it.  The political, social and economic scene changes every time I visit – and this time more than it ever has in my lifetime, at least.  One does not have to look far – local dailies, international news media, web logs – all include fresh daily news items tainted with ‘Pakistan’ in their headlines.  It is needless to say that the nation is under seige, from both internal and external powers that be.  Hope is distant and intangible for the time being.

The family trip to Pakistan included visits to grandparents in both Islamabad, the capital city, and to the historic city of Lahore.  I was pleasantly surprized that my young children found some excitment and interest in the places we took them to (other than requisite family ‘meet and greets’ over tea and dinner events). 

In Islamabad, they enthusiastically enjoyed visiting Faisal Masjid with their grandmother (Shah Faisal Mosque – world’s largest mosque, which also houses the world’s largest cantelever roof), running in their socks on the grand marbled floor expanse around the main prayer hall.  They were ‘wow’ed by the largess of the structure and took time to take in the serenity of the interior prayer hall – (well, in all honesty, that lasted only a few minutes before the little one decided he wanted to run into the center of the carpeted prayer area!).  They also visited newly renovated “Lok Virsa”, a premier museum of ethnology and cultural heritage which chronicles the history of the various eras of the Indus Valley civilizations, and Badshahi Masjid, Lahoremodern day Pakistani ethnic geography.  While the children were still a bit young to fully appreciate the value of such a museum, they did enjoy the life-size dioramas of village scenes from the Punjab, Northern Karakorum Mountains as well as relics from the ancient civilizations of Harrapa and Mohenjodaro. 

Lahore of course had it’s own ‘living’ history – not that which is bottled up in showcase glasses in a museum.  They enjoyed a memorable trip with their cousin to the older side of Lahore by the walled city and Lahore Fort. The sheer awe they displayed upon entering the Badshahi Masjid is evoked in the attached photograph above.  Again, the tremendous expanse and majesty of the monument was enough to inspire reckless abandon as witnessed through a child.  We moved next to the Lahore Fort (Shahi Qila), citadel of the city of Lahore.  It’s actual ‘build date’ is not very clear (sometime before 1025 A.D. sources say), but the hands of many Mughal rulers have touched it, including Auranzeb, Shah Jahan (of Sheesh Mahal and Diwan-e-Khas fame here) and Jehangir and Akbar as well – during the greater part of the 1600s.  The children most enjoyed the Diwan-e-Aam Jharoka (or Royal Balcony) – where my husband told them that the emperors used to hold court and speak to the people from the elevated marble pulpit.  Each one of them re-enacted the role of the emperor, pretending to make some pivotal proclamation!  The best part (for me at least) was when I saw the Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors) under repair with scaffolding and tall gates barricading entry to the visitors.  A sign near it read, “Under Renovation and Restoration, managed and funded in collaboration with UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee”.   Does this mean there is some hope that my children may someday be able to share with their children, a piece of this history from my birth country’s heritage? 

——————-

In a country where there is an absence of Rule of Law, where lawlessness and unchecked violence is rampant, where the poor person earning barely $16/month cannot afford a kilo of wheat if available, where electricity is shut off daily, (execpt in the VIP sectors) for hours on end, and where the rich get richer, driving their BMWs and Benzs, is there any reason why national heritage preservation will be considered a priority?  There are much more pressing issues facing the country at this juncture in time, as its future hangs tenuously.  Sadly, it is only in my dreams for now, that I may envision the survival of Pakistan’s historical heritage and national treasures.  

The article below details similar thoughts on the sad state of preservation of such glorious treasures. 

(Story Source:  The Guardian, January 11, 2008)

Here in the city of Kim, Pakistan’s magnificent history is being left to rot

Musharraf has allowed one of the wonders of Asia to disintegrate; and a country that neglects its past endangers its future

Simon Jenkins in Lahore
Friday January 11, 2008
The Guardian

Poor Lahore. Yesterday this jewelled city of the Raj was hit by a suicide bomber aimed at lawyers protesting at President Pervez Musharraf’s imprisonment of his top judiciary. As body parts scattered the tree-lined Mall, Kipling’s “city of dreadful night” became the city of dreadful day. Nor could the outrage have happened in a more symbolic spot. Just up the road from the bombed Victorian high court stands “Kim’s gun”, the great 18th-century Zam-Zammah cannon, pointing towards the scene.
While the historic cities of Pakistan’s great rival, India, soar up the league table of celebrity, nothing better displays Pakistan’s current misery than the state of Lahore, joint capital of many an Indian empire and of British Punjab. Splendid Victorian palaces still line the boulevards of the Mall: the high court, the governor’s house, the general post office, the government college and Lahore’s museum, Kim’s “Wonder House”. Even the art college built by Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, survives, with students squatting under giant fans in its corbelled hall.
The style of these and other buildings is the “Anglo-Saracenic” (or Mughal-Gothic) with which the engineer/architects of the Raj paid their respects to a local culture over which they intended to rule for ever. Bursting with imperial confidence, the buildings are the glory of Punjab and the most remarkable group of 19th-century public buildings anywhere, complementing Lutyens’s Edwardian Rajpath at the eastern end of the Grand Trunk Road in what today is India.
A mile away across this now sprawling 8 million-strong metropolis heaves and sweats Lahore’s walled city, old and unchanged. Here, on a wet January night, one can easily imagine the fleet young Kim darting through the mud and huddles of humanity, over the rooftops on some mystery “woman’s errand”. At its heart lies Lahore fort, its gates, gardens, mosques and decorative finishes the finest Mughal monument after the Taj Mahal. Crowded outside its walls are scruffy courtyard houses (havelis), markets, food stalls, brothels and alleys of unimaginable dirt and decrepitude. Buried within are shrines, mosques and derelict palaces. Only a few structures have been restored by enthusiasts, such as the exotic Cuckoo’s Den restaurant by the fort.
In no other world city have I seen so much magnificence so neglected. Pakistan’s ancient sites, those of the Indus civilisation and Taxila and Moenjodaro, are well guarded. Limited preservation is being done on Lahore fort and Shah Jahan’s exquisite Shalimar Garden in the suburbs. But saving Lahore itself has become a desperate struggle conducted by a few lone warriors, such as the Karachi architect Yasmin Lari, and Lahore’s Kamil Mumtaz.
Yesterday’s blast at the high court followed persistent attempts by the government to demolish the building, despite its handsome moulded brick walls and terracotta, marble and teak inside. The authorities also tried to demolish old Tollington market on the Mall. Looking like an East Anglian railway station, it was saved by public outcry and is now a thriving art centre.
Such carelessness is not for want of help. The World Bank offered $10m to restore the old city, which the authorities used to pay for drains. A so-called Sustainable Development Walled City project has hired offices and bureaucrats, but seems to have lost the will to conserve anything. Nobody is trying to stop a hotel company from buying up a street of havelis and demolishing them – houses that in Marrakech would be worth millions and might one day be so in Lahore. There is no protection for these structures, and if there were a well-placed bribe would negate it.
Even a modest project initiated by Lari to restore the royal route through the walled city from the Delhi Gate to the fort has ground to a halt, from a mix of corruption and inertia. The gate itself was demolished by the British in the 19th century but rebuilt, probably at Curzon’s instigation, in the 20th. Through the murk of the royal route can be seen Mughal arches, lattice-work panels and classical porticos. All Pakistan’s history is here, but disintegrating beneath encroaching shanties, cobwebs of wires and piles of rubbish. Meanwhile the dictatorship is spending $1bn on a new army headquarters in Islamabad.
Islamabad, five hours north of Lahore, offers a glaring contrast. This is Pakistan’s own Chandigarh, Canberra or Brasilia, a new city built from scratch in the 1960s and with all the mind-numbing tedium that only 20th-century planning could inflict on humanity. Everything there before – natural or manmade – was simply bulldozed. A grid was imposed on the wide Potohar plateau. Each square was given a letter and number and allocated to commercial, retail or residential use, Soviet-style.
Embarrassed at the resulting soullessness, the city authorities are now seeking to recapture some of the character they destroyed, as are the planners of Britain’s not dissimilar Milton Keynes. Anything surviving from the past, a village, a historic landmark, even a tree, is seized on to lend character to a settlement that lacks any sense of place.
The result has been the virtual demolition and rebuilding of a 16th-century village, Saidpur, on a hillside overlooking the city. A Hindu shrine has been stripped bare and made into a museum. “Illegal residents” have been cleared and their belongings dumped on the road, to make way for an ersatz tourism village of restaurants and boutiques: anything to suggest that Islamabad has a history. Elsewhere on the city outskirts, an old British station has been restored as a museum. At the pleading of a local artist, Fauzia Minallah, surviving banyans have been left standing, in one case in the middle of a motorway. These magnificent trees, she points out, constitute the nearest Islamabad has to “a national heritage”.
Pakistan used to pride itself on its cities being cleaner and more modern than India’s. This is no longer so. While Islamabad seeks to create a past for itself, Lahore’s past is collapsing around it. Hovering over its ancient walls is a sense of utter neglect, so much so that some 400 buildings have been scheduled for demolition as dangerous.
The reason is rule by distant dictator. Some dictators take pride in their past, eager to make their mark on the nation’s narrative. This was true of the Shah of Persia and even of Saddam Hussein. It is sad that present-day Pakistan, once a prized province of India’s Mauryan, Mughal and British empires, should not only have cut itself off from that narrative but find itself at the mercy of an insecure and philistine soldier, for 10 years the puppet of London and Washington.
Though eager to be admired abroad, Musharraf has allowed one of the great cities of Asia to decline into squalor. For centuries the Grand Trunk Road from Delhi through Punjab carried the history of the subcontinent streaming beneath the walls of Lahore. But while India is at least fighting to rescue what remains of its past, Lahore is left to languish.

From the Indus to the Himalayas, Pakistan should be the object of every traveller’s desire. Today it is awash with pessimists ready to declare its 60-year-old creation doomed and its further Balkanisation, begun with Bangladesh in 1972, inevitable. I am not sure, but any country that neglects its past loses touch with its present and endangers its future. In Pakistan the bulldozer is doing as much to hasten that danger as any suicide bomber.

simon.jenkins@guardian.co.uk

A few more personal snaps on the go…will these treasures (Tollington Market and Kim’s Gun)  still be standing in the years to come?

   Zam Zamaah

  

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1 Comment »

  1. Maham said

    Good and beautiful

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