Harking Back: Two major plans can restore Lahore to its glory of old

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Dec 7 , 2014


Can Lahore ever be fully understood? My answer would be a well-considered ‘No’. There is a reason for this answer, and that lies in the fact that the city as a whole is more than the combination of its parts.

Now this might seem like one of those vague fashionable sweeping statements, which I will confess it does sound and look like. But then I have reasons to say so. The reasons lie in the past, reasons that the present holds and reasons, most importantly, that could lie in the future, that is if we wish to grab the opportunities that presents itself. This is going to be a ‘fast forward’ piece mainly because of editorial restrictions on length of my piece. This is what makes journalistic ventures so very different from academic journeys.

Briefly, Lahore can be broken down into five epochs -- pre-Islamic, the Islamic, the Sikh, the Colonial and the Pakistan eras. The pre-Islamic era is before the Afghan invader Mahmood from Ghazni in Afghanistan defeated the Hindu Shahi ruler Jaipal and put the city to loot, rape and pillage. In this era no Muslims existed in Lahore. It was a Hindu city with a fair sprinkling of Buddhists and Jains. The city’s mud-brick walls ran south to north east of the present Bazaar Hakeeman, and west of the present Shahalami Bazaar joining at Chunna Mandi. The ruler just before this conquest in 1021 AD committed ‘johar’ outside Mori Gate. In those days rulers were ashamed of their failures. This was the original ‘ancient Lahore’. An excellent paper on the sociology and architecture of this ‘space’ has been written by S. Saeed of the University of London.

The shape of the city remained like this till Akbar the Great came to power. The reason for his coming to this city was the Rajput tribes of the Punjab who were giving the Moghal’s a tough time. Very little is researched about this period, for the Moghal Empire started to weaken from this period onwards. To fortify his Muslim armies he expanded the city, moving the fire-brick walls outwards on the western and eastern sides. In the new spaces Muslim armies resided, with the cavalry and horses from Central Asia, inside Mochi Gate to the east and infantry to the west inside Bhati Gate where Bhat Rajputs lived. This was the new ‘walled city’, the one we have grown so fond of.

The third period is the Sikh period in which Lahore was considerably damaged, and no new spaces created, except that the Lahore Fort was repaired and new spaces created within the fort premises. A few other ‘havelis’ also came up, ones that exist even today, though most have been knocked down after 1947. The Sikhs under French influence expanded their military cantonment southwards, building the current Civil Secretariat and a few military barracks. The real expansion came within the 98-year period of the British, who built with immense imagination and vigour the new cantonment and the new ‘Colonial Lahore’. Most of Lahore today is what the British left in 1947. They, most importantly, built schools and colleges and universities and other institutions that created a new ‘brown sahib’ class that helped them to rule efficiently. The mere fact that I am writing in English is a by-product of that effort.

Come 1947 and the Pakistan era started. Some experts think that the present culture of Pakistan is the product of the ‘claims mentality’ of fraud and corruption. The law and order situation never took hold and the Lahore of old was slowly damaged beyond repair. In its place the new Lahore expanded horizontally. Today the ‘planned’ forces have planned colonies, and the rest a mix of semi-planned and unplanned colonies. Their growth is unrelenting. Today the Lahore of 2014 is a very different place.

But this odd description of Lahore also has hope. There are two possibilities that are being looked at, and my view is that if they are undertaken, the glory of ‘old Lahore’ can return to a city of tolerance that is increasingly becoming intolerant. This piece is about these two possibilities.

The first is that the Punjab government is studying the possibility of building a new ‘walled city’ on the western bank of the river Ravi (or what is left of it) between the motorway and the Saggian Bridge. This will manage to host all the markets that today exist within the old walled city. To the north a new bus and truck stand will be built. This will free the old city of the terrible assault of traders on our heritage. It will also lessen the traffic burden on Lahore. This will encourage the wholesale traders and also kick start a tourist trade. What could be better than this? When work on this begins I cannot predict.

The second major undertaking likely is for the entire area between the Secretariat and the museum and the Revenue Department and Tollinton market all be converted into one massive traffic free zone and handed over to several educational institutions like the Punjab University, the NCA, the Oriental College, and other educational and new IT institutions, with the main Secretariat being a massive Punjab Archives and Library. This can easily be the finest work undertaken in Lahore since the British came. I do know from very reliable sources that a plan on paper has been reviewed. The problem is to find and built new premises for our bureaucrats. Even that area has been chosen.

If these two undertakings can happen, which is only a matter of political will now, it will transform Lahore like never before. With entrepreneurship and learning getting priority, what better can Lahore hope for? Maybe, maybe, in the days to come this will mean a new era for our city. Maybe, maybe, Lahore will again be more than the some of its parts.

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2014




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