HARKING BACK: Huge wall mural and mystery of the missing monuments

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, December 14th, 2014

One of the world’s largest, and surely most exquisite and beautiful, wall mural is on the massive northern face of the Lahore Fort. It is humongous in size, a massive 450 metres in length and 70 metres in height. Yet it is falling apart, decaying because of neglect, officially perpetuated criminal neglect.

It is sad that our rulers are not punished for the criminal destruction of our national heritage. To blame ignorance is to suggest innocence. Bureaucrats can explain anything, in the end bringing matters to a ‘lack of funds’. Last week I went to the Lahore Fort and was appalled at the state of this finest of burned-brick forts in the world. It is virtually crumbling, and over the years the Department of Archaeology has made sure its destruction was hastened. The record of the entire happenings of the discovery of the Indus valley civilisation, the bedrock of Pakistan’s ancient civilisation, lies rotting in locked stores laid waste by rains over the ages, not to speak of termites and, worse still, human neglect. If this is not a national shame what else is?

The very first monument all Pakistanis, and those living in Lahore in particular, like to show their visitors is the Lahore Fort. This represents thousands of years of Lahore’s culture and heritage. It is the post from where the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation saw humans pass eastwards to, much later, form the Gangetic Civilisation, just as Sialkot did to the north and other smaller cities to the south.

I write this because we must be aware that from the old mud-brick fort, built first well over 3,000 years ago, was destroyed and rebuilt time and again, ravaged by the Afghans, the Mongols, Taimur and Shaikha Khokhar and others, and rebuilt by Balban, Shah Mubarak and then finally in 1566 in burned brick by Akbar the Great. After the fall of the Mughals it was again damaged which Maharajah Ranjit repaired. The British also damaged the fort’s southern ramparts after 1857 in the name of security against a possible siege.

But after 1947 the decay has been slow, and the poison of neglect has taken its toll. As I walked through the ‘Hatti Darwaza’ I noticed that walls of the entrance were oozing salts, and that the rot had set in on the ‘black wooden bridge’ which led to the decaying Royal Kitchens. Both are in a terrible state, more so the kitchens. Just opposite them is the newly-constructed hostel of the Archaeology Department, which within six years developed cracks and has now been abandoned. It was poetic justice in a way. Which rule or law of heritage protection allowed them to build such a huge building within the Lahore Fort? I am pretty sure they will never be asked to explain, or shot dead as they are in China for damaging ‘national heritage’. Different societies have different traditions.

As I moved through the fort lawns of the Devan-i-Aam, or should I say walked through the ruins of the fort, to the south is the Old Walled City whose walls have all been knocked down. No surprises there. The air is rife with the smell of industrial glue which the slow wind from the city blowing northwards brings. Leather and plastic products are made on an industrial scale in the ‘protected’ one-walled city, which in turn leads to historic buildings being knocked down to be replaced by concrete buildings with three-storey deep basements. The invariable finding of pottery and other utensils hundreds of years old are thrown away in the rubbish bins, or better pieces of brass sold in nearby Kinari Bazaar for a few rupees.

The walls to the south were destroyed by the British, who sloped the edges in such a way that intruders could be shot dead if they attacked, and if there was a rebellion within the fort, they could easily escape. Clever chaps and history be damned. After 1947, the fort was used to host wedding parties and State Guest parties. This was the new Pakistan. When the world woke up to the damage, they banned such activities and let it literally rot. That smell of decay can be felt at every turn.

Once the Department of Archaeology had had enough, the fort was just ten days ago, handed over to the Walled City of Lahore Authority. With the advance team sent to take over I sat and watched in a virtual stupor the destruction before our eyes. We then walked through the Lahore Fort buildings to the east. As we made our way through a small gate before us lay an entire colony of houses for the employees of the fort, a massive housing colony. Who allowed them to build these houses, and who paid for it?

Beyond the huge empty dusty grounds and next to a huge ancient ‘pipal’ tree (in this lies another story) a new mosque has been built and loudspeakers adorn the minaret. Who allowed them to build the mosque and who paid for it? Which sect does the mullah belong to? Why is this entire area of a few acres cut off from the public? What happened to the beautiful Mughal-era pavilion that existed where now stands the mosque? What happened to the exquisite quarter of Akbar’s wife where now exists the over 40-odd houses? I had so many questions to ask that those accompanying me must have been worried that they in some way to blame. No way, I reassured them, one department is leaving and the next is coming in to take over. Since 1947 seven changes have taken place in the fort alone. In Pakistan nobody is to blame for anything.

As we walked back through the small gate before me lay the entire dusty fort and its exquisite monuments. I asked the slick tourist officer how was the Sheesh Mahal doing? “It’s OK and fenced off, because portions of the roof are caving in”.

Gosh, I could have swallowed my tongue. I told them that the last time I wrote about the Sheesh Mahal was when the Islamic Summit banquet was hosted there by the late ZA Bhutto, and an eager young governor called Mustafa Khar painted the exterior with enamel paint floral designs. Khar was furious. I met ZA Bhutto and he took me to one side and said: “Excellent story Majid, bad timing”. I could see he was surrounded by small people destroying a massive legacy. I moved on through the carnage towards the impressive mural and Sheesh Mahal and much much more. Watch this space next week.



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