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Save Palmyra From ISIS’s Rampage

 

Photographs of Palmyra by Felix Bonfils, Myron Bement Smith Collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives.  Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Photographs of Palmyra by Felix Bonfils, Myron Bement Smith Collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have placed on view a relic from ancient Palmyra in Syria. In addition, the galleries are displaying images of 18th century engravings and 19th century photographs from its archives. In the wake of Daesh or the Islamic State’s offensive in Syria, this exhibition has attained a symbolic significance. Being held in the capital of the world’s only superpower with a questionable Syria policy, the display reminds us of what is at stake.

It was exhilarating to be connected with this rich past of humanity and at the same time extremely devastating to remember that we live in a world where our ancient treasures can be wiped out while we look on helplessly.

Palmera2

Haliphat – a limestone funerary relief bust on display at Sackler- stares at you with an intense expression. Her two fingers on the chin represent modesty and virtue. For a moment it seems like a reflection on what is happening in Palmyra today. Halpihat has been dated back to 231 C.E. The almost-alive figure displays Roman and Aramaic artistic styles, reminding us of how Palmyra was the bridge between the East and West.

The Islamic State reportedly has planted mines and bombs in Palmyra. It is unclear if ISIS intends to destroy Palmyra or is using the threat as a strategy to deter attacks by Iraqi forces. Nevertheless, our collective heritage under grave threat. […]

The Hindus of Pakistan

A seminal book on the Hindu temples of Pakistan should be read by all Pakistanis.
Katas Raj
Kataas Raj
Temples in PakistanJournalist Reema Abbasi and photographer Madiha Aijaz have done a remarkable job of travelling across the length of Pakistan and documenting the state of Hindu temples. The regions that comprise Pakistan are central to the evolution of the Hindu religion and its various offshoots. For instance, the Indian subcontinent derives its very name from the River Indus. In the ancient Sanskrit language, the river was known as “Sindhu”. The Persians gave it the form “Hindu” and through successive generations the land finally came to be known as India, with various forms being derived from this root. Similarly, the shrines in Punjab and Balochistan are perhaps as old as Hinduism itself.

Reema writes at the start of the book – Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience – that her endeavor focuses on “Pakistan’s fraying social order and the sad prospect of it bringing about its own destruction”. In recent decades, the country’s minorities have come under severe attack from extremists and the state has often seemed indifferent or worse, culpable. Reema’s concern is not misplaced. In 1947, the non-Muslim population was nearly 23%. Today it is around 5%. Granted that the separation of East Pakistan caused a major decline in this number but we are all aware of Hindus, Sikhs and Christians migrating abroad. In fact, it has become a class-based exodus. The relatively privileged are the first ones to leave, and sadly, for the right reasons.

[…]

Conversation with Mushir ul Hasan on my book

Last year, my book was released in Delhi. The video and transcript of the discussion have been uploaded now.

Mushir ul Hasan: I’m delighted to be associated with the launch of this book; however, I believe that the subtitle of the book could have been a touch different. ‘The impressions of a Pakistani traveller’ – immediately creates an […]

Hundreds of decaying historical buildings across Lahore await Attention

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.  […]

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

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. […]

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

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

walled cityLahore’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. […]

Moenjodaro might have been washed away

I just read this message (pasted below) from the Director of the World Heritage Centre on impact of Pakistani floods on the Archaeological Ruins at Moenjodaro, Sindh. While millions are suffering this is also a huge tragedy. The response of the UN is a little disappointing – yet another damage assessment when water recedes. While rescue and relief efforts continue, UN must also arrange for a small team of locals to visit the area and suggest immediate and urgent measures to get something done. By no means I am suggesting that this should take precedence over saving human lives but this issue also deserves urgent attention.

In addition to their dramatic consequences for the affected people, to which the World Heritage Centre […]

August 13th, 2010|Arts & Culture, History, Pakistan|4 Comments