Published in the monthly Herald

Hundreds of decaying historical buildings across Lahore await Attention

21 August 2012

Third story for the Herald’s annual heritage issue:

Once renowned as a city of gardens and monuments, Lahore now manifests decaying cultural heritage, rampant urbanisation and unregulated commercialisation. The monuments of Lahore, whether great or small, suffer from lax conservation efforts, if any at all. In fact, the lesser ones are in a tragic state of despair. Among these, several old heritage monuments are nearly obliterated.

Chenian Wali MosqueLucy Peck, the author of Agra: The Architectural Heritage on a recent visit to Lahore said that “she found it very depressing” because she was looking forward to visiting a couple of historic mosques. The Chinian Wali mosque, which was once decorated with kashi tile work, has been resurfaced with modern tiles, done in a crude kasha style. And the Sheranwala Gate mosque has disappeared completely except for the mehrab niche,  which is still there.” Bhadhar Kali Mandar, a Hindu temple believed to be over 2,000 years old and situated east of Thokar Niaz Beg on the southern outskirts of Lahore, is facing decay and destruction. The temple has a central building with a huge pool in the centre that was once fed by 12 wells through an indigenous drainage system. Its walls had beautiful frescoes, some of which have managed to survive over the centuries. At one point in time, this temple would host the biggest Hindu festival in Lahore.

According to Haroon Khalid, a cultural researcher, writers such as Kanhiya Lal Hindi and Abdul Latif have mentioned this festival in their works. This temple is visible from Multan Road with its plinth six feet high from the ground and the temple structure itself rising to approximately 20 to 25 feet. When Khalid contacted the archaeology department office situated in the Lahore Fort, an office representative said he was ignorant about the temple, suggesting Khalid contact the Auqaf department which, in turn, said the temple was not within its jurisdiction. Since Partition, the old temple lies abandoned and its walls have become fragile. In order to ensure the safety of those inhabiting the temple, local residents have decided to demolish it and construct quarters without the permission of any relevant authority.

Adjacent to the shrine of Sufi saint Hazrat Mian Mir is the tomb of Nadira Begum Bano, wife of the Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh, the ill-fated heir to Shahjehan’s throne and the crown prince of his Indian empire. Unlike other Mughal tombs which have been constructed in the midst of gardens, Nadira Begum’s tomb is built amidst a water tank without a dome, bearing a flat parapet on all four sides and appearing more like a pavilion. During the British Raj, the tank was dismantled and its bricks were recycled and used to build the Lahore Cantonment. During the Sikh period, the tomb was robbed of its costly marble and semi-precious stones. Today the building retains a simple and blank facade, shorn of all ornamentation.

Photographer Saad Sarfraz Sheikh having documenting the tomb for years, says it was declared a protected monument in 1956 and since then responsibility for its conservation lies with the archaeology department. In 1956, a comprehensive scheme was framed by the department for its repair and restoration. Evidently, this scheme never materialised.  (more…)

Mughal era: Lahore’s neglected heritage is a sad shadow of its glorious past

3 August 2012

The second story from Herald’s annual supplement on heritage

As the second Mughal capital, Lahore was home to emperors and noblemen during the 16th and 17th centuries. Emperor Jehangir and his wife Nurjehan were married in Lahore and their legacy survives today in the form of several monuments.

Perhaps the finest remnant of that era is the tomb of Jehangir, located at Shahdara Bagh near the town of the same name. It is said that Nurjehan supervised its construction and sought her stepson Shahjehan’s permission to stay in Lahore after her husband’s death.

The hallmarks of Jehangir’s tomb are the embellishments of interiors with exquisite frescoes, the pietra dura inlay work and the inventive use of coloured marble. The garden around the tomb also houses the dilapidated tomb of Asif Khan, Nurjehan’s brother.

Situated to the west of Jehangir’s tomb is the neglected grave of Nurjehan. The epitaph on her grave, which some say she composed herself, reads: “Pity us, for at our tomb no lamp shall light, no flowers seen/ No moth wings shall burn, no nightingales sing.”

In the1980s, when the Punjab government ordered cattle-pens to be moved “outside” Lahore, many of them shifted dangerously close to these monuments. Consequently, the main entrance to Asif Khan’s tomb is an ungainly sight. For decades, the tomb remained neglected; initial efforts at serious restoration began in 1999, signs of which are visible with new tile work completed. But it is far from over: the overall appearance of the building remains dilapidated. Other great monuments – the Lahore Fort and the Shalimar Gardens – situated at a distance of seven kilometres from each other, are grand statements of artistic expression nurtured by the Mughals. Both the monuments are World Heritage sites but United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) missions in 2003, 2005 and 2009 noted that the Badshahi Masjid and the Tomb of Ranjit Singh, although located outside the Fort, form an integral part of the fort’s physical and historical context and may, therefore, be included within the heritage site.

The Lahore Fort or Shahi Qila, situated in the north-west corner of the Walled City, was rebuilt in the period of the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1566. Although the exact date of its original construction is not known, historians have noted that the fort was destroyed several times: starting from the 11th century, when it was destroyed by the Mongols. (more…)

Destruction of Lahore’s Walled City is rampant as restoration efforts remain sketchy

31 July 2012

One of my three reports published earlier this year in Herald’s annual issue on heritage

Lahore’s fabled Walled City is now a grand metaphor for the tragic neglect of heritage. Over the years, it has turned into a business district as residents increasingly head towards the anonymous suburbia. The population of the Walled City has declined during the last two decades: every passing day witnesses the undoing of a past lovingly built over centuries.

Created by the Sultans of Delhi in the 11th century, the Walled City soon emerged as a major centre for Muslim culture in the region. During the reign of later Sultans, Lahore suffered regular invasions and pillage until, after Babur’s invasion of India in 1526 when it was ransacked and resettled. Sixty years later, it became the second capital of the Mughal Empire under Akbar and, in 1605, the fort and the city walls were expanded to their present-day dimensions. Emperor Akbar spent seven years in Lahore and his son and successor Jahangir was a proud resident of the city. By 1662, Lahore was reportedly surrounded by a 15-foot high wall that had 13 gates for entry. Brick by brick, the wall withered away over the next three centuries. By 1947, it had completely disappeared.

Lahore’s 13 gates and the walls survived in their original shape until the 19th century. During the Sikh period, these city walls were repaired and maintained. An outer perimeter wall was also built. Much changed after 1857 when the British demolished almost all the gates in order to de-fortify the city. Some were rebuilt later in simple structure — except for Delhi Gate and Lohar Gate which were somewhat more elaborate. The Shahalmi Gate was gutted during the horrific communal riots of 1947 and the Akbari Gate was demolished for repairs but never built again. Out of the 13 gates, only six – Bhaati, Delhi, Kashmiri, Lohari, Roshnai and Shairanwala – survive. The majorit are in a sorry state of disrepair.

While the Pakistani state weaves fiction around Muslim ascendancy and proclaimed Pakistan a fortress of Islam, its ruling classes have displayed a callous attitude towards the country’s physical heritage.

Rampant, unplanned commercialisation has taken place I areas rich in architectural heritage. In 1950s, the Lahore Improvement Trust (now known as Lahore Development Authority) endeavoured to undertake well-planned commercial development projects but its attempts were far from successful. During 1970s and 1980s, nearly 29 per cent of the residents are estimated to have left the Walled City.

During the last two decades, the Walled City has become even more commercialised, polluted and damaged. (more…)

The enigma that is Pakistan (book review)

30 July 2011

By Raza Rumi

Anatol Lieven’s new book is not just a contemporary account of Pakistan, it also attempts to present an alternative narrative of what is often referred to as the worlds most dangerous country. Lieven worked in Pakistan for several years for The Times and is currently a professor of international relations and terrorism at Kings College, London. His approach, therefore, is a curious mix of hard- core research and journalistic reporting. The two intersect, disagree and at times oppose each other.

After exhaustive research and speaking to scores of Pakistanis, Lieven is quite clear that Pakistan does not deserve the oft-repeated verdict of being a failed state or the prediction that it is going to is integrate. He focuses on Pakistans robust society fissiparous and troubled as it is practising the art of resilience as an article of faith.

This is why the author, like many others, is struck by the inherent strengths of Pakistan, which are an antidote to its failures. Lieven also debunks several myths, especially those related to the scary image of Pakistans military-intelligence complex. This is, perhaps, a point of departure in his narrative that makes his work a little unpalatable for hard-nosed Pakistan bashers. Some, in fact, have criticised him for what they see as veiled admiration for Pakistans armed forces. (more…)

The tragic story of Urdu

29 July 2011

By Raza Rumi

What makes translating Urdu literature a rare indulgence has also kept it closeted from global appreciation.

Ralph Russell, the legendary British scholar of Urdu literature, whose tireless efforts to explore the Byzantine layers of Urdu will always serve as a reference point for global Urdu-walas, once summed up the eternal dilemma of achieving a perfect translation of Urdu literature into English. He pointed out that the work of Indian and Pakistani translators suffered from a lack of command in either language. “The English-knowing products of what in India and Pakistan are generally called ‘convent schools’ have acquired their nearly (but not quite) perfect English at the cost of losing full command of their mother tongue,” he wrote in 1996.

This is not to say that translations of Urdu literature have not been accomplished. In fact, there are many 20th century writers whose works have been translated by competent men and women. Key examples are the translations of the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai. Their poignant and non-conformist writings have found a wide readership in predominantly English-reading Indian middle classes and western readers attempting to understand the nuances of South Asia’s literary output. The contribution of The Annual of Urdu Studies – edited by Muhammad Umar Memon and published every year from the US – has been immense in this regard. Some writers and poets whose works have been translated include Abdullah Hussein, Patras Bukhari, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ghulam Abbas, Hajra Masroor, Premchand, Qudratullah Shahab, Intizar whose contribution and devotion to the translation of Urdu literature remains unparalleled and who has provided fine examples of literary translations, leaving out no major contemporary Urdu writer. His academic journal, The Annual of Urdu Studies, continues to publish translated works from Urdu every year.

Literary magazines are a great introduction to young and fresh voices in Urdu. One can observe a constant process of experimentation in language and expression. Short story writer Ali Akbar Natiq, one of Urdu’s most important new voices, and Mohammad Khalid Toor, who is critical newly- rediscovered voice, have been introduced to readers by Urdu literary magazines. (more…)

Regressive governance (book review)

26 July 2011

“…the pasture of stupidity is unwholesome for mankind.”– Ibn-e-Khaldun

 Pakistan’s ‘crisis’ of governance has now acquired an axiomatic status. Local and foreign experts have been grappling with the precise nature of how the Pakistani state has transformed over the past decades. In particular, the state’s inability to turn into a citizen-responsive, accountable entity is a major tragedy of our times. Ilhan Niaz’s award-winning book, The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan 1947-2008, is a significant narrative on the philosophical and historical dimensions of governance or lack thereof. Perhaps the most impressive part of his endeavor is the fact that his is an indigenous analysis, emanating very much from a Pakistani scholar who has chosen to rough it out in a public sector university.

The book uses a wide range of declassified records available at the National Documentation Centre in Islamabad and, therefore, posits a fresh perspective on both the political history of Pakistan as well as how the culture of exercising power in South Asia permeated the insular, mock-Weberian state created by the British. In this respect, it is worthwhile to say that Niaz has also ventured into exploring the marked regression of Pakistan’s ruling elites – something that few studies before his have attempted. As he puts it, the state apparatus has over time become arbitrary, proprietary and delusional. (more…)