Losing Lahore

Josh Loeb writing for this week’s Friday Times

Delhi Gate – entrance to the
“Royal Route”

The Dhai Anga Mausoleum

The derelict tomb of “Buddu,”
Dhai Anga’s husband

“Cities that survive and prosper are not cities which destroy their heritage. People don’t visit Paris because of business; they visit because it is a beautiful city”

“This country is strewn with heritage,” she continues. “Turn a stone and there’ll be something there. And it should not be the preserve of intellectuals – ordinary people are interested” – Yasmeen Lari

“He who has not seen Lahore has not been born,” the saying goes, yet speak to those interested in old buildings and they will tell you that Lahore is dying.

Earlier this year, English architectural historian Simon Jenkins issued a stark warning. “Lahore’s past is collapsing around it,” he wrote in a British newspaper. “Hovering over its ancient walls is a sense of utter neglect.” He went on to warn that cities that neglect their past endanger their future. If this true, Lahore’s future is bleak.

Take the mausoleum of Dhai Anga, wet nurse to Mughal Shah Jahan. Completed in 1671, the building is situated in what was once a rose garden but is now a mini-wasteland – the haunt of drug-addled young men who pace about with bloodshot eyes beneath the arches of the tomb’s chambers. Of the “beautiful enamelled tile mosaics” proclaimed on the information board outside there is now almost nothing left. Whilst funds are directed towards Lahore’s two world heritage sites – the Lahore Fort and Shalimar Gardens – other historic monuments are turning to dust.

Mohammad Imran makes a living guiding visitors around historic sights like the Dhai Anga Mausoleum.

“I want to see this building in a good condition,” he says. “I want to see a restoration but I want to see it done in the right way. A lot of buildings are restored half-heartedly. It should be restored to its original shape or else there is no point.”

Imran trots out the old refrain that antique buildings should be looked after for the sake of tourism (something with which Jenkins agrees). But Yasmeen Lari, Pakistan’s first female architect and the director of the Pakistan Heritage Foundation, takes a different view.

“I’m not bothered about tourists,” she explains. “Frankly, the way things are in the country right now, tourists are not going to come anyway. Conserving our heritage is something that should be done for our own pride and for social cohesion. It’s something to understand ourselves by.

“This country is strewn with heritage,” she continues. “Turn a stone and there’ll be something there. And it should not be the preserve of intellectuals – ordinary people are interested.”

Back at the Dhai Anga Mausoleum, two workers from the mysteriously (and perhaps misleadingly) named Archaeological Department are engaged in what appears to be dusting stones. “Small repairs,” explains one, Furqan Ullah, yet there remains an air of hopelessness about the endeavour.

Ullah blames the miserable state of the tomb on his employer, the Government. This is perhaps surprising. But what in other countries would look like brave candidness in Pakistan is just the customary resignation to chronic national failure.

“In the British era,” says Ullah, “buildings like this were maintained, but since the Partition the Government has not cared about them. Our department did get some money from UNESCO, but it was spent on something else.”

But in a country where over 1,000 children die from diarrhoea and water related diseases every day, which has electricity shortages (but – let’s not forget – nuclear bombs), and which was malnourished from birth thanks to the British, isn’t architectural conservation something of an extravagance?

Yasmeen Lari says not, offering the Karavan Karachi Project as an example of how historic architecture can be a tool for education and improving quality of life.

The project began at the end of the nineties (“a disturbing time for Karachi,” Lari recalls) and involved parking a caravan in front of different old buildings in the city and inviting “the masses” to participate in a mini street fest featuring live music and games.

Lari says: “People came from all over the city to enjoy themselves – people speaking different languages, men with long beards, women with babies, people who weren’t even literate – and they were enthused. They wanted to celebrate and be proud of the place where they lived.”

But time is running out or ran out long ago for thousands of Pakistan’s historic sites. Lari sounds nostalgic as she waxes lyrical about the so-called Royal Route taken by Shah Jehangir from the Delhi Gate to the heart of the Old City.

“There was so much there,” she says. “You wouldn’t believe it. Now so much is gone.”

Many archaeological sites have vanished due to “passive” neglect, but hundreds of historically important buildings in Lahore’s Old City, as in many areas of Karachi, have been actively destroyed – bulldozed after speculators acquired the land, often via shady, ruthless means.

A little way down from Dhai Anga’s resting place on Shalimar Road is the more depressing tomb of her husband, surrounded by rubbish and the husks of busses. The tomb’s occupant, a civil engineer who built a canal from Lahore to Madhupur, 160 kilometres away, was honoured with a magnificent resting place – but in its current state the structure would not look out of place in a full blown war zone.

Lari is disturbed by the sorry state of such religious monuments (for that is what they are; the tombs contain Quranic inscriptions). “These are Mughal tombs,” she says. “We are so proud of our Mughal history, why can’t we look after the buildings belonging to it?”

“Lahore is a city which merits the most fastidious conservation,” Simon Jenkins says on hearing descriptions of the derelict tombs – and he goes on to evoke that most modern of Pakistan’s cities, the classic place without a past: “Cities that survive and prosper are not cities which destroy their heritage. People don’t visit Paris because of business; they visit because it is a beautiful city. Lahore is one of the great cities of Asia. To turn it into another Islamabad would be a complete disaster.”

Josh Loeb is a features editor at TFT

One response to “Losing Lahore

  1. We need to perserve our history, if Britishers can save our architecture why Don’t we do something. History starts with us. I see in European countries they still have old monuments more than 500 years old and people love to maintain them.

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