Do we really want to save our ancient Walled City?

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Oct 20 , 2013

The time has come, belated as it is, for the people of Lahore to finally decide just in what shape they wish to retain their ancient Walled City. Do they even want it in the first place? This is the first question.

One dares to take up the issue because one has great hopes from the young educated population, definitely not from the utterly corrupt political and bureaucratic spread, for in these hopes there is no money to be made. In my view, the silence of the honest is an even greater form of corruption. If this sounds radical, then my contention is that our readers have absolutely no idea just what has happened, and what awaits the Walled City of Lahore.

For starters there are no longer any walls left. Brick by brick our trading classes have dismantled our heritage. Of the 13 famous gateways to the old city, only six remain. Of them, last month a trader knocked down a portion of Sheranwala Gate and its two lions. When the new Lahore Walled City Authority (LWCA) officials approached him, the son of the ruler rang him up to warn of serious consequences. So get this straight. Our rulers and their corrupt bureaucrats are, in essence, enemies of our heritage.

To bear a grudge against the inefficient and the corrupt is a complete waste of time. So let us get down to the business of thinking and understanding what has happened, and what the issues are at the moment. Today, let us return to the basic structure of the Walled City and start a debate, the vigorous the better, as to what should be the final shape of our Walled City. How would we want to structure it? Do we really care about our Walled City and the heritage it represents? If the answer is in the negative, like a lot of extremists wish, then it is best to let the traders of the Walled City expand and completely kick out all original residents.

Already 70 per cent of original Lahorites have left and their callousness is such they have never cared to look back at what they have left. The oft repeated claim of ‘originally belonging to old Lahore’ is a pathetic cry to hide abdicated responsibility. Over the last 30 years the population of almost 200,000 who lived inside the Walled City has shrunk, as those who managed to economically improve their standing moved out. The expanding wholesale culture no longer has any relevance to the original population.

In their place have moved in Afghans in large numbers. I loved the various versions of Punjabi spoken around every gate. If this seems incredible then I suggest all such doubters visit the Walled City themselves. I suggest you enter Bhati Gate, walk along the main bazaar for 200 yards and then turn right. Now follow a north-eastern route and head towards Rang Mahal.

In the old house where Allama Iqbal once lived just see who lives. In the shop next door Peshawar’s ‘naans’ are sold to the new ‘migrants’. The language spoken will tell you the story I wish to narrate. It is a fact that the traders of the Walled City of Lahore have managed to bring about a disaster never experienced on such a scale on any human habitation, save the savage bombings in the Second World War.

Even in that war Hitler refused to bomb Cambridge and Churchill in return refused to allow the bombing of Heidelberg. But then Lahore is another story. The traders have converted almost 70 per cent of the historic and old buildings into shops, godowns and factories. The remaining 30 per cent stands at risk and are fast falling. Heidelberg and Cambridge do not interest those whose sole aim in life is money, not history.

As the rules of the new Walled City authority are being framed, rather slowly for my liking, the plunder continues. A case filed in the Lahore High Court against the commercialisation of the entire Walled City has yet to be heard, and I am talking of two years having passed. Lest you do not know all of Gulberg also stands commercialised. The promise of ‘a peaceful, calm residential colony’ has been forgotten. In illegality lies money and our rulers are apt at that. Faced with original inhabitants of old Lahore who have turned their backs to their heritage, the setting was perfect.

But what should we do about the 13 original gates of Lahore we claim wrongly to have, not to speak of the 14th gate punctured through from Naya Bazaar next to Shahalami. Why did bureaucrats allow that sacrilege, in which a legendary well of old Lahore was demolished and filled up so that a road could help traders ferry goods into a residential area? A research last year tells us that 87 per cent of traders working in the Walled City live outside it. So to expect them to care, let alone claim to be stakeholders of our heritage, holds no ground.

But then let us return to the gates. Out of the original 13 gates, only six survive. The entire wall that ran around the city is no more. The debate is “should we rebuild the entire wall and the missing seven gates?” This will mean that the original structure will, not entirely but in substance, be back in place.

Here I would like to introduce a moot point. Remember, we are not ‘conserving’, we are rebuilding it anew. Let me repeat: We are not conserving, we are rebuilding. In strict conservation terms, as followed internationally, this is not ‘conservation’. But then in history, our city walls and gates have been rebuilt a number of times.

The biggest destroyers were the British who after the experience of 1857 decided to ‘de-fortify’ all major walled cities in India, including Lahore and Delhi. These so-called civilised rulers knocked down major portions of the Lahore Fort as well as the eastern, northern and southern portions of the wall of the old city. Portions of the western wall we have seen in our school days. Now it is no more. Except for Roshnai Gate, nothing was spared.

What do we do now? There is a proposal to rebuild Taxali Gate, and a multinational corporation is willing to foot the bill. On my part I am all for ‘rebuilding’ but as close to the original structure last lost. There is one painting, and a photograph of the lost gateway to go on.

Will the people of Lahore contribute to this huge effort? Will the ‘original inhabitants’ who have turned their back on their heritage help buy a few bricks to fund this effort? Why not debate the issue of conservation and rebuilding? Our aging experts have failed in their cynical analysis of who is good and who is bad.

Our hope now lies in our educated young. Let me repeat the intention of this piece: Do we want to save our ancient Walled City from complete destruction, or should we, in utter silence, just let traders complete the demolition?




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