Lahore – A project to save the architectural and cultural heritage of Lahore’s fabled Old City is foundering due to political instability and corruption, officials say.
The World Bank has offered US$10 million (Dh36.7m) to restore the 2.6-sq-km Old City, home to 145,000 of Lahore’s eight million population, but the so-called Sustainable Development Walled City project has become mired in bureaucracy and inertia.
Jewels of Moghul architecture have been neglected or poorly restored. Havelis, courtyard houses akin to Morocco’s highly prized riads, have been left to rot. Many of the city’s decorously carved wooden balconies, or jerokahs, have collapsed and the streets are squalid.
The city that was bought to life by writers ranging from the Moghul court chroniclers to the bard of the British Raj, Rudyard Kipling, and was once the capital of the Moghul and Sikh empires, is in a state of deep decay.
The conservation plan to save the mainly Mughal-era monuments of the city has been paralysed by a “two-year hiatus”, stated a World Bank memorandum.
The report which supports the project in conjunction with the Agha Khan Foundation, cites the political upheaval that marked the last two years of the eight-year regime of Pervez Musharraf, the former military ruler, as the cause of the project’s stagnation.
The ambitious project was first envisioned to put Lahore on a par with the Moroccan city of Fez.
Hopes have been pinned on the new culture secretary of Punjab, the pipe-smoking Orya Jan Maqbool Abbasi, who was formerly in charge of the province’s archaeology department.
“We are administering emergency first aid to Lahore’s heritage at the moment. For two years, those responsible did nothing except buy perks and furniture for their offices,” said Mr Abbasi, bemoaning the construction of shopping plazas in the Old City and illegal building encroachment.
The Punjab government passed legislation last year to stop the “depletion and degradation” of the city and intended to encourage heritage as a “potential economic resource”.
Mr Abbasi’s own office, close to the striking tomb of Anarkali, a dancing slave-girl who was favoured by two Moghul emperors, demonstrates why it is difficult to take a step in Lahore without standing on history. The tomb was used by British administrators in the 19th century as an office.
On top of the ramparts of Lahore Fort, its curator, Mohammed Afzal Khan, pointed to looming minarets of the Badshahi Mosque. Current politicians have continued to misuse use it by holding social functions in its vast prayer courtyard.
Mr Khan pointed to the restoration work that has already been done, most notably to the fort’s Shish Mahal (“palace of mirrors”) whose ceiling is made from ornate inlaid mirrors.
“The restoration of the city has started. If it is finished it will be great. But that depends on the security situation and resistance from local people, who may want to modernise their houses,” he said.
Mr Khan said the Old City is built on a loosely packed mound that has accumulated due to successive settlements since at least the second century AD, making subsidence a problem as well.
Below the fort, tangles of electricity cables splay over the labyrinth of alleys and streets. Mr Abbasi had asked the national electricity provider to sink the cables underground but he was told it would be too complex and costly.
Hidden behind a market selling rusty wheel rims stands the Marian Zamani Mosque built by the Emperor Jehangir, within whose dome is inscribed the 99 names of Allah amid a Lapis blue sky. The lower portions of its mural tile-work have been obliterated.
Not far away, the foundations of the Wazir Khan mosque, considered by scholars to be one of the “Beauties of The East”, have been undermined by seepage. The government is drawing up a rescue plan, according to Mr Abbasi.
In the Old City’s most famous district, the red-light area of Heera Mandi, the “diamond market”, is a shadow of its former self. Iqbal Hussain, a painter whose mother was a “dancing girl” or courtesan from the Old City where he has lived all of his life, described the area’s fall from grace.
“This used to be a beautiful area now it is dejected. They have been talking about conserving the area for years but nothing has happened.
Mr Hussain said the area’s prostitutes, who often came from family clans that have been dedicated to dancing and prostitution for generations, have moved out along with their pimps to Lahore’s more affluent districts.
“There was a tremendous feeling of culture. Many famous film stars and singers were produced in this area,” Mr Hussain said.
Now, he said, eunuchs and transvestites, or “hijras”, have flocked to the area from all over Pakistan and are flourishing. They often earn a living as male sex workers, living in large family groups, and give blessings at weddings and attend shrines of religious saints during festivities.
Shoaib Latif, a team member of the Punjab government’s Old City project, said that while Pakistan’s population is increasing at a rate of 2.5 per cent each year, the Old City’s population is dwindling. He has documented 150 buildings, each more than 200 years old, which have been demolished in the past two years.