By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
Picture this. You enter the Walled City from Delhi Gate and find yourself in a ‘unique’ setting — one you are completely unfamiliar with. The Mughal era buildings you see on both sides of the road wear a majestic look. The ambience, the architecture, the colour scheme, the sweetness of the music on play and the artistic illumination of these buildings are stunning, to say the least.
The streets are clean and there are shops, courtyards and pavements where traditional food and drinks as well as crafts are on offer.
You may also find small inns where you can sit back with your friends and enjoy a sip of indigenous ‘qahwa.’ A few steps away, you are likely to come across a place where you can see well-built men wrestling with each other in an earthen pit.
The biggest relief, perhaps, would be the absence of motorized vehicles and the noise and smoke that is generated thereof.
There are parts of the Walled City where the pedestrians can tread without fear of being crushed by a fast moving vehicle. For once, vehicles of all sorts are barred from entering the areas making them navigable on foot.
All this may seem like a fairy tale but, in fact, it is not. Fortunately, for the people of Lahore in particular and Pakistan in general, an ongoing project promises all this and much more. Called ‘Sustainable Development of Walled City Lahore Project,’ it was launched in 2006 by the Punjab government in conjunction with the World Bank. The budget estimate for phase one is Rs70 crore, which will be shared equally by both the partners.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture agreed to provide technical expertise and carry out surveys that cover topography, water quality, socio-economic conditions, geographical information system (GIS) etc of the Walled City.
Initially, it was a project but later, in 2010, a body called the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA) was set up under an Act by the Punjab Assembly. The main purpose of the move was to help sustain the restoration work irrespective of which party is in power.
The project suffered some delays in the past due to various reasons including shortage of funds, non-cooperation of locals, resistance by commercial interests etc. For long there was a feeling that the project will not go on as planned and may be abandoned altogether. However, some recent developments have infused hope among those involved directly or indirectly with the project.
One such development is the association of prominent bureaucrat Kamran Lashari with the project as director general of the WCLA. Having a significant track record of successfully carrying out heritage/conservation projects, many believe he is the best person to complete the task.
The project is of equal importance to all as heritage has to have common ownership, says Lashari. His point is that it is imperative for Pakistanis to have something which they can relate to with pride, especially when they are facing a crisis of identity.
He explains that the Walled City project is not about merely setting up a food street, refurbishing a monument or repairing a trail. It is about comprehensive urban regeneration where every aspect of day-to-day life will be taken into account and displayed in totality.
“If we can properly showcase our history, food, architecture, culture and traditions at one place, it would be a great achievement,” he says.
The first phase of the project entails complete restoration of the heritage architecture along a 383-metre route and 57 streets falling on the main trail. A total population of 5,951 individuals and 513 houses will benefit from this phase which will be complete by November this year.
Later, the Authority intends to start talking to donors for the next phase, says Lashari who is confident this dream will become a reality.
A major part of project money will be spent on laying of quality infrastructure for provision of gas, electricity, water and sanitation. The dangling electricity wires, which give an unpleasant look, will be concealed in pipes and the sanitation scheme will be kept underground.
Tariq Iqbal, a teacher in his early 40s, is relieved to find several encroachments removed from inside the Delhi Gate and the restoration work in progress. The WCLA has paid compensation to the encroachers along the boundary walls of Shahi Hamam and Wazir Khan Mosque and asked them to leave.
Tariq has lived here for ages and seen how unplanned commercialization harmed the architecture and the social life of the Walled City. Even though he is not fully aware of the components of the project, he is in love with the idea of being able to relive his childhood or even that of his forefathers.
He says he cannot believe his eyes when told that the Authority shall regularly organize cultural festivals, display crafts, arrange wrestling bouts, poetry recitals (mushairas), food fairs, jewelry shows etc in this part of the Walled City. The spacious court of Wazir Khan Mosque has been marked as the point for this purpose.
“We have involved National College of Arts (NCA), Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design (PIFD), several guilds and associations and are open to advice on how to bring the Walled City to its original shape,” says Lashari.
Once popular drinks such as ‘tukh malanga’ and ‘kanji’ will also be introduced to the new generation which does not know anything about them, he adds.
Besides, there are proposals about asking corporations to adopt a haveli, a heritage house or a monument.
Lashari is clear that the sustainability of the project lies in involving the residents and making them stakeholders. Once this part of the city attains the status of an international tourist attraction, they will be in a position to earn from the resulting economic activity.
Easy access to the Walled City is a major issue without solving which the very idea of making the place a tourist attraction will not materialise fully.
Lashari says he has written to TEPA and requested the organization to re-route the Circular Road from Azadi Chowk to Badami Bagh. This can be done by constructing an elevated semi-circular loop to give an alternative route to the traffic plying between these two points. Once the road between Iqbal Park and Lahore Fort/Badshahi Mosque is closed to traffic the whole area will turn tourist-friendly.
With congestion-free Lahore Ring Road lying in close vicinity, some options can also be mulled to connect the area with other parts of the city.
Secondly, he says, TEPA has been requested to study/survey the parking flow within the Walled City so as to identify areas that need to be restricted only to the non-motorized traffic. Exemption for emergency vehicles or facilitating the residents or timings could also be taken into consideration.
Lashari dispels the impression that he is being overambitious about the project, saying that there are several examples worldwide where heritage has been conserved in totality and many of them happen to be in the Muslim world — for instance, Isfahan in Iran, Fez in Morocco, Aleppo in Syria and Grand Bazar in Turkey.