As Sheesh Mahal slowly collapses, no call for help exists

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Dec 28, 2014

The neglect that the Lahore Fort has faced at the hands of the Archaeology Department of the federal government, and then of late the Punjab government, is there for all to see. The decay and collapse of probably Pakistan’s finest historical monument is nothing short of a national disgrace.

Last week I visited the fort and described the ‘criminal destruction’ of the exquisite wall mural on the northern face of the fort wall. It was disturbing to see precious monuments knocked down to build 40 odd living quarters for employees and yet another pulled down to make way for a mosque. The nearby historic Soneri Mosque never occurred to the authorities, for the pressure from an ‘extremist’ mullah to overwhelm our heritage could not be resisted.

There I stood at the small entrance gate, locked to visitors, and watched the fort monuments. Behind me was the exquisite ‘haveli’ of Kharak Singh. This is where the first office of the Archaeological Survey of India, founded in 1861 under Sir Alexander Cunningham, was set up. From 1902 to 1928 under Sir John Marshal the Ghandhara Civilisation discoveries took place and the record kept here. From 1944 to 1948, Sir Mortimer Wheeler sat in the Haveli of Kharak Singh. This is an exquisite piece of Sikh era architecture and was one of the most well maintained of the historic monuments in the fort. Today its condition is beyond description.

I entered the main hall and it is clear that this portion is from the Mughal era. I checked old maps and found this area marked. In the Sikh era this was built upon, and they did a splendid job of mixing Mughal and Sikh architecture.

Sir John Marshal writes: “It is an honour to even work here, with great care taken not to disturb the original scheme of things.” But no such honour was bestowed by our present-day bureaucrats.

As one enters the main room to one side in a small room they have plastered white tiles on the old Mughal walls that were once decorated with floral designs. This they have converted into a bathroom. The ancient walls and floors have been dug to fit in sanitary arrangements and as one walks beyond the badly maintained room, one can see a small electric motor fitted to the floor to draw in water. By any standard this is a crude arrangement. One really wonders what sort of the Department of Archaeology Punjab has, one that has not done any work of significance.

I moved through to a side room where the rare record of one of mankind’s greatest civilisation’s discovery lies. In heaps of dirty files and tied up with plastic cords. Most of the record of this era has been heaped in huge dumps in side rooms. The cupboards, all British era by the looks of them, have broken glass and some even with broken doors. Neglect and a complete lack of respect for what they contain is evident. As I walk through in almost every room an employee or two of the Archaeology Department lounge around with no work to do. The handing over of the fort to the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA) has brought about a silent tussle, with the former refusing to give up major portions of the fort to them to conserve and manage.

I will dwell on the fort and not the tussle, save quote just one example to give the reader an idea of what the takeover is bringing forth. The WCLA is discovering that many employees drawing salary do not exist. A few died years ago. But like the old fort they also do not die, for “some invisible phantom” draws their salary. Mind you this is a minor problem from the ones created by the outgoing department.

To check out the significance of this record left to decay just like the ones of the Punjab Archives in the Secretariat which still lie decaying in an old horse stable, I sent off an email to a friend who heads the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, and I would like to reproduce here a portion of his short reply: “It seems that one of the greatest records of how the Indus Valley Civilisation was discovered is surely going to decay and be lost. This will be an irreparable loss to all of us who study your ancient civilisation”.

As I walked through the virtual ruins of this building, it seemed that little bothered anyone. The four odd new employees of the WCLA sent to take over sit shell-shocked at what surrounds them. They spend their time recording conditions as they existed when they took over. As they move about guards of the old department follow them to report their movement. It is an amazing disgrace, this rivalry and an example of how government should never work.

I moved away from this madness and walked towards the eastern rooms of Jahangir’s quadrangle. They had a fencing stopping visitors from seeing them. Why this was so I have absolutely no idea. These room have more rooms in their basement, and these are all locked. As I walk past them one can see a huge hole through the wall. Gosh, who did this? Maybe some employee wanted fresh air, or a water connection. Things are bizarre at this place. In one room an office has been set up where two men sit sipping tea in the cold winter afternoon. I suppose they are working hard before they leave for their living quarters built behind these rooms.

I move towards the Emperor Jahangir’s ‘khawbgah’ and before me is yet another world. It is clear from the changes that Sikh and British era changes exist, with one room having been used as a Roman Catholic prayer room in the early period of colonialism. The roof of one of the three outer rooms has a gaping hole.

But I move on towards the western rooms of this quadrangle. The less said about them the better. Through a narrow passage we are in the Diwan-i-Khas and area known as Shah Jehan’s ‘khawbgah’ and beyond to the Khilwat Khana, for below are the secret dungeons that remain closed. Within lie many a mystery, ones that we will explore next week.



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