by Ahmad Rafay Alam

Though the first Islamic tomb-garden in India is Sikandar Lodi’s, it was the Mughals who used it to much greater dramatic affect. Aware that the founder of the dynasty has died in Kabul and that the second emperor had spent most of his time as an exile, the third Mughal emperor, Akbar, saw to it that the burial site of his father, the Emperor Humayun, made an unequivocal political statement: the Mughal was not a marauding nomad, he was in India to stay and had chosen its soil as his eternal resting place. Then, in the tradition of the great Persian and Islamic-style garden, Akbar went about ensuring the area resembled paradise.

The word paradise comes from the Persian phrase for “surrounded by a wall.” From the Semitic concept of Eden, where from a well water flows in the four directions, we have the concept of a chaharbagh surrounded by a wall enclosing paradise from the outside world.

For the Mughals and the ancestral traditions they carried from Central Asia, the garden was meant to be a paradise on earth. Standing on elevated walkways, visitors could gaze over rows of exotic flowers – evidence of the Emperor’s plenty – and reach into the branches of fruit trees for ripe apples, pomegranates or other produce. They would be amazed at the beautiful and curious birds and animals that came from the four corners of the Emperor’s realm. And they would be in awe of the skill involved in irrigating the area, water being a scarce commodity in pre-canal India; of the knowledge of hydrology involved in storing the water and operating hundreds upon hundreds of fountains; of the science involved in the knowledge of so much flora and fauna; of the political stability required to patiently oversee the growth of century-old trees. Just as Washington DC is claimed by some to have been designed to awe visiting foreign dignitaries, its affect is nothing compared to the effect any one Mughal garden has on any visitor. I was at Shalimar Gardens recently and must admit my ill-informed knee-jerk conservationist reactions against trivial matters like litter, congestion and the lack of a proper parking facility were immediately silenced by the remarkable statement that the Gardens so loudly still proclaim.

Just behind the Hammam and outside the Shalimar Gardens – on its backside, so to speak – I should mention that there is a two-story bungalow built on no more than a couple of marlas. Its owner has set up railings on the rooftop and arranged some garden furniture. From there, he has the same view of the three-tier garden with cascading waterfalls and fountains as the Great Mughals once had the pleasure to enjoy. That this is not the most prized real estate in the country is evidence of how upside down the values that inform the property markets are.

Chinese and Japanese cultures also value the concept of the garden. However, their approach is different from the Mughal tradition. Where the Mughal tradition tries to replicate paradise on earth, the Eastern tradition sees paradise in nature and attempts to replicate the latter. Japanese and Chinese gardens are examples of man-made replications of nature. You may see cascading waterfalls and layers of foliage, but these are man-made. The art and the science was in making an exact copy of what existed in nature. The Japanese garden has taken a step further and added the dimension of spirituality. Not only are the Japanese garden meant to be examples of political strength and technical know-how, they are also places of mystical and spiritual contemplation.

Gardens also have a very long tradition and history in India. Reference to magnificent palace and non-palace gardens is plenty in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Some were said to be so beautiful that they brought envy to the heart of the staunchest of enemies. But it has been said that, on account of the Hindu communion with nature, the Hindu garden was not subject to any formal or informal design. Nature was plentiful on its own and needed no replication. The desire to cultivate exotic plants and flowers still persisted, but this was either on account of religious warship or the Ayurvedic diet and did not translate to a well-organised garden tradition.

There was, however, the need for artificial waterways. Command over water and mastery of irrigation has always been premium in agricultural societies, and Hindu tradition is not shy from boasting they possess such skill. This skill, however, was manifested in ponds and water tanks. According to Meera Uberoi, who has written a superb book on gardening in India, “ponds and tanks were built not so much for irrigating the gardens but because they were considered auspicious and as catchment areas. Enclosed gardens with a definite plan and structure, such as the Persian garden, simply did not exist in ancient India.”

In ancient and Hindu India, the water tank served the same political and scientific purpose as the Mughal garden.

There is a water tank in the middle of Lahore. It was donated to the city by Sir Ganga Ram and is a close walk from his other donation to the city: the Ganga Ram Hospital. It is situated on the main road next to the Fatima Jinnah Medical College hostel in Lahore’s Mozang locality. One wouldn’t know it as the tank premises – now under the control of the Evacuee Trust Property and the Ministry of Minorities – are surrounded by a wall and have been allowed to fall into disrepair. The Fatima Jinnah College has long claimed the tank premises as its own so that it can extend its hostel facilities. The ETPB has for some time contemplated developing the land into a multi-story commercial high-rise. I even met someone who wanted to use the land for as an itwaar bazaar until the daunting prospect of having to provide adequate parking and loading/unloading facilities made them reconsider their best BBC-Food-Farmers’-Market intentions.

In modern Lahore this water tank symbolises just how far the city has come its mult-cultural, multi-religious background of less than a century ago. It’s true we hardly spare a conservationist’s thought for monumentally important things like the Fort or the Badshahi Mosque. But this isn’t about conservation. It’s about plurality. At the time of Partition it is reported that there were over a dozen cremation grounds in Lahore. Now there are none. Sikh temples and shrines have been allowed to decay until, only recently, a thaw in relations between East and West Punjab has shown some the potential and importance of restoring Nankana Sahib and providing it with a direct four-lane dual carriageway all the from Wagah Border. But that’s another story.

The Ganga Ram tank is thought of by many as a waste of space and a public service utility that has become redundant with the introduction of water and sanitation works. This is the attitude that, more often than not, fails to recognise the historical relevance of non-Muslim heritage. It is wrong. If immediate steps to reclaim the Ganga Ram tank are not taken, the people and city of Lahore will lose yet another one of its treasures. It is as important to the city of Lahore as the Shalimar Gardens, and as militancy and conservative Islam threaten the free spirit of Lahore, the preservation of the Ganga Ram water tank may be the measure to save us from ruin.

4 responses to “Gardens

  1. And speaking of tanks…the British era tanks situated in Lahore on Sarwar Road ought to be saved as well.
    MoD has put the land up for auction for commercial purposes. Its about 4 tanks there i think…beautifully made.
    I hope the land hasnt been bought and that with the postponement of GHQ construction something can still be done to save them.

    Any helpers?

  2. Link to article on water tanks in Cantt.:

  3. Yesterday’s good news: The Army has called off the construction of the new GHQ! Below is an article on the water towers:

    Let the water towers stand

    By by Ahmad Rafay Alam
    In April, the Office of the QMG Branch at GHQ issued advertisements inviting bids to develop the “commercial plots adjacent/behind Rahat Bakery area . . .[as] residential apartments/offices only.” This entire block of property in the heart of Lahore’s Cantonment was at one time the site of the Cantonment Power House and Barrack Master’s residence. Because of the restrictive nature of land use in the area, once these structures lost their utility (about the time the cantonment became civilianised), they were left by military authorities to the elements and to suffer the ravages of time. However, there are several water towers that still exist and which stand on one corner of the plots on the auction block.

    When the British Colonialist chose the present site of the Lahore Cantonment – and they did so only because they wanted the pliable jawan mind to be separated from the poisonous native tongue; they had great fear of an 1857 repeat – the land was arid and nothing but barren fields miles from the city. It was the engineering prowess of British officers working with Indian jawans and native contractors that built these water tanks and other locations across the city. These water tanks were not only part of the irrigation system of the region, they also brought drinking water to the occupants of the Cantonment. And they have played no small part in earning the Cantonment the reputation of being the most verdant part of modern Lahore.

    The structure of these brick-built water tanks is unique. They represent a high point in the brick craftsmanship found in British India. They really are beautifully proportionate structures. In the view of some experts, these water towers are “far more interesting” than any number of statutorily protected Victorian industrial sites – such as the Kew Bridge Pumping Station – found in the United Kingdom. It’s obvious that, in auctioning the property on which these water tanks stand, the QMG Branch of GHQ will be destroying a landmark in this region’s history.

    The preservation of history and culture is so marred with political undertones that it is unlikely that the Powers That Be will want to engage in debate. After all, they would no doubt tell us, these water tanks represent a relic of our Colonial past and shouldn’t be as high on the list of high priority heritage conservation buildings as, say, the Lahore Fort or the host of Mogul mosques and tombs that lie decrepit. Fair enough. Let’s assume, then, for argument’s sake, that the preservation of these water towers would be the antithesis of our cultural conservation policy, and that there is nothing significant nor historical nor cultural about the water towers. Let’s assume they just stand there waiting to be brought down. But even if we do, the water tanks still throw up other interesting issues and tricky questions.

    When land is needed for the public purpose of defence and for quartering troops, Cantonment laws permit the Federal Government to issue a notification to this effect. The areas notified are subsequently acquired and their owners paid compensation for being deprived of their property. The Constitution allows such forced takings as long as compensation is paid and the taking is in the public interest. Once the acquisition is complete, the land vests with the Federation of Pakistan and falls under the control of the executive. This is why anyone who has signed a lease for land in a cantonment will tell you that their lessor – their landlord – is the President of the Islamic Republic Pakistan.

    Despite the president’s ownership of the land, the Cantonment Ordinance 2002 vests the ownership of things like “waterworks for the supply, storage or distribution of water for public purposes” in the local government of the cantonment. This makes sense. The local government in a cantonment (the Cantonment Board under the old law) is the municipal body of the area. It would be obvious, then, to vest control of public spaces and places, like roads, parks and waterworks, in it. It allows the municipality to go about its business without constantly obtaining permission to enter onto the president’s land. This vesting of property to the cantonment municipality is subject only to “special reservation” made by the Federal Government. What this legalese means is that the property upon which the water tanks stand belongs to the local government in the Lahore Cantonment, and not to the QMG Branch of GHQ which is trying to sell it.

    But let’s suppose that the Federal Government did indeed specially reserve the water tanks built during the British Raj for commercial use as “residential apartments/offices only.” Let’s assume, somehow, that the land upon which the water towers stand “vests” in the Federal Government instead of the local government of the cantonment. Would it still be kosher for GHQ to be selling the land?

    In a newspaper article published last week, it was revealed that “the army has decided to offer its prime land in major cities for sale or long-term lease to raise funds for the establishment of its General Headquarters in Islamabad.” The penny has dropped, finally, as it has at last been said in print that our military has taken to the real-estate business to finance its operations.

    According to the news report, an official document said: “The government of Pakistan, Ministry of Defence, offers prime land for sale/lease on a long-term basis in major cities of Pakistan. This unique offer is probably for the first and the last time that prime government land is offered for investment. The Land Disposal Cell (LDC) has been established in the GHQ to generate funds for construction and shifting of the Ministry of Defence, Joint Staff Headquarters and the GHQ to Islamabad through disposal of surplus military lands and prime properties of the army spread in the entire country.”

    But let’s suppose that it’s perfectly legitimate for the armed forces to earn and spend money without any oversight or scrutiny; and that it’s constitutional and in the public interest to take land from people under the pretext of quartering troops and then use the land for high-end, high-rise real-estate development. Let’s assume that the QMG branch of GHQ has correctly interpreted the meaning of public interest and defence to include “residential flats/apartments only.” Does this still mean that the tender notice issued for bids is acceptable?

    When the Lahore Cantonment was originally planned, the everyday needs of its residents – the soldiers and officers only of the Indian Army – were meant to be satisfied by the two bazaars that bounded its north and south extremities, the Saddar Bazaar and the Royal Artillery Bazaar. The present invitation to bid for the commercialisation of a whole block of land in the heart of the Cantonment – and on the route many an automobiled Lahori uses to get from home in Defence to work near the city centre – amounts to inserting a whole new bazaar area into the Cantonment master plan.

    Sophists may argue that there are huge differences between a bazaar and the high-end commercial space being planned by the QMG Branch of GHQ. This argument is specious. The bazaars of yesteryear, before the advent of last decade’s consumerism, were the high-end commercial areas of the past. The shopping mall is 21st century South Asia’s latest incarnation of the bazaar. What the QMG Branch of the GHQ has completely missed is the proven and demonstrably harmful urban planning and environmental affects that the commercialising of such a large tract of land will have on the city. Commercialisation adds to traffic congestion, it increases the levels of air pollution and it lowers the amenity value of the residential areas surrounding it.

    Because of commercialisation’s harmful effects, our law is very clear: Any project likely to cause adverse environmental effect must undertake an environment impact assessment. This is not a clearance certificate allowing the project proponent to proceed with work. It’s a list of measures that must be taken to preserve the environment from further degradation.

    There can be no assumption made about the requirements of the law. They apply to the QMG branch of the GHQ as much as they do to any other real estate developer. In not having an EIA conducted of the commercialisation of such a large tract of land in the middle of a residential area, the military is ignoring the Fundamental Right of every citizen to a better environment and clean living space. This is not something that can be shrugged off lightly.

    In its hubris and assumption of proprietary control of all cantonment land in Pakistan, the QMG branch of GHQ is doing itself no favours. It may make a tidy buck for the construction of a new set of offices for our top brass, but in doing so it will ruin the amenity value of the area it is trying to capitalise on. Worse, it is nothing but an example of the elitism we try and pass off as real-estate development. Whether this is acceptable or not depends entirely on the elite that live in and around the area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s