The man who could help revive old Lahore

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Dec 17, 2013

It is but human to miss the obvious. The oldest and probably most grand and magnificent historic monument of Lahore is its ancient fort. History tells us it had mud walls nearly 3,000 years ago. Then Emperor Akbar got it rebuild along with the walled city in burnt bricks in 1566 AD.

It is a tragedy that this finest of Mughal monuments in the Subcontinent is slowly, under official eyes, crumbling. It is embarrassing to take any visitor there, especially on a Sunday, for on that day the cleaners have an ‘off day’, and right up to the stairs of the Badshahi Mosque it is rubbish galore.

Inside the fort the walls and roofs of all the numerous smaller monuments, each exceptionally important in their own right, are crumbling. Take for example the absolutely exquisite Naulakha Pavilion, a marvel of architecture without doubt. Its fine marble slabs are joined without any masonry, and the marble pillars and walls were once adorned with precious stones in floral designs. Almost all the precious stones have been knifed out.

The ‘toshakhana’, which the British in 1849 described as the ‘greatest treasure trove in the entire world’ provided Queen Victoria with her finest jewels, among them the Koh-e-Noor diamond. Sadly, the degradation has only accelerated. It is now up to the present generation to stop the rot, plan a future and reverse it, in the process conserve and restore it to its glory.

I write this piece for a very specific purpose. The Lahore Walled City Authority grew out of the Lahore Walled City Project, which was an effort of the World Bank which saw in the degradation a massive chance to change Lahore for good. They put in money on the premise that the government equals their contribution. The government then approached the Aga Khan Trust for Culture to put in half of that expected of them. The Trust agreed on the condition that they would spend their money themselves and provide world-class expertise.

Mind you the Aga Khan Trust for Culture works all over the world on conserving similar old cities with a great Islamic heritage. Lahore had finally got luck for Aga Khan the city also held a special fascination, for his grandfather loved the city too and was involved in the founding of Pakistan. The present Aga Khan supported the World Bank effort provided the Punjab government and the people of Lahore also pitched in. I have no qualm in stating that the Punjab government never came up with what they had promised, save opening a posh office and buying four-wheel drive vehicles. As far as the people of Lahore are concerned, our famous civil society went numb.

But the Aga Khan went ahead with a ‘demonstration project’ in the shape of the Gali Surjen Singh undertaken inside Delhi Gate. The results were astounding and this made the Punjab officials stand up. Instead of getting their act in place, they started pestering the Aga Khan Trust personnel, virtually forcing them to flee Lahore. This was reportedly done because of the immense influence the trader community of Lahore enjoys. Now that this trading class has knocked down over 70 per cent of the buildings of old Lahore, there is a ‘muted’ effort to save what remains.

But then the correct ingredients, it seems, are finally falling into place. In this entire episode the print media must be given credit for reminding its readers of their ‘undeniable’ history. The Punjab government now just cannot afford, as traders’ influence diminishes and political parties become relatively more organized, to ignore a crumbling old Lahore. The international community was always willing but our apathy dampened their zeal. The Aga Khan Trust had been chased away, not once but twice, only to return under considerable pressure from within Lahore and its emerging civil society.

Finally, it seems, the people and the government are getting their act together. The Lahore Walled City Authority is in place even though it has little ‘authority’ and an even milder bark. That is why the Aga Khan’s current visit to Pakistan is very important, for he has shown such a keen interest in saving monuments in Lahore and other cities if everyone participates. He has the expertise as well as the financial muscle and influence to kick start matters. The question is how will we handle him this time?

I also write this column because this is the correct time to launch the ‘Lahore Fort Project’, and mind you my feeble calculations, assisted by the English Heritage Board and the University of Cambridge experts, tell me that this is a $50 million project.




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