Harking back : ‘Paradise lost’ and rushing for another $6m

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, May 03, 2015

Last week I got a call from the Punjab government’s Directorate General of Archaeology wanting me to attend a meeting of the Steering Committee on Lahore Fort and Shalimar Gardens. I must confess I never knew that I was a member.

The very next day these faceless bureaucrats sent me a huge official file on the proposed reasons why they wanted Rs767.69 million instead of the Rs300 million approved in 2007 in the PC-1 for restoration of the Shalimar Gardens. Of this amount over the last eight years (till March 30, 2015) they have managed to spend only Rs141.7 million. The PC-1 of this ‘project’ was approved by a set of committees and work started, so they claim, in March 2007. Priests and bureaucrats have an endless appetite for money, says Machiavelli in his classic ‘The Prince’.

Why would a government, known for its gross insensitivity to the culture and heritage of Lahore, suddenly spring to life, order three separate committees to meet in the month of March 2015 alone, and then for the chief minister (trust him) to also form a fourth committee to supervise work. Does the reason lie in the demand for an additional over Rs600 million ($6 million) to a favoured ‘contractor’? Or is it because the clueless directorate general of archaeology have been served notice by Unesco reminding them of the ‘distressed’ state of the Lahore Fort and the majestic Shalimar Gardens, and that this could lead to a massive cultural downgrading of Pakistan.

The meeting is to take place tomorrow (Monday, May 4) to rush through approval of this massive amount of money. As I had absolutely no clue to this massive financial implication, I thought it would be dishonest to go to a meeting to blindly rubber stamp so much money. Bureaucrats, I presume, have no qualms in obliging rulers. Once they retire they become pious.

So in the company of a renowned architect and conservation expert, a person who knows every brick and corner of the Shalimar Gardens, I set off to see this once exquisite garden on Saturday afternoon. I know its history reasonably well, so we made a good team. We both paid our tickets (the guard tested my Punjabi lest I was a foreigner, which test I passed with a choice Lahori sentence). What we saw I describe here. I hope my views are kept in mind when this placid ‘driven’ meeting approves an additional $6 million.

Our first stop was the ‘Aram Gah’. The original plaster was removed in 2007 and then plastered anew. So technically they destroyed the monument. This was major tampering and destruction of a monument. In China two persons have been hanged for this crime, which it is. Now in 2015 that very new plaster has all cracked up, and at parts is falling. If this is not failure and a gross violation of the basics of Unesco’s conservation principles, then what is?

The outer pavement has been destroyed because the archaeology contractor had built a soaking lime pit next to the structure. The inner doors of the ‘Aram Gah’, which is to the south, are the ones removed from the ‘Shahi Hammam’ situated in the middle of the eastern wall. The main walkway to the middle has all been uprooted and rebuilt with new bricks. So far we saw that the front of this once exquisite garden has been rebuilt, and rebuilt very shoddily.

We walked towards the western turret and found that it had been knocked down and rebuilt. So even this is not authentic. The red stone imported from India is a pinkish stone as against the original red sandstone that was used. The contrast is just too garish. We walked through this western door to see the original Mughal era water storage tank foundations. Through high thorny bushes we walked and climbed the old staircase and reached the top.

The British-era water tank stands in disrepair and the new water tank has filthy water stored which a pump outside fills. In the inner western wall lie all the original 400-year carved red stones of the Shalimar Garden, a veritable treasure, which have been removed from all the major structures. With time they will all disappear and be sold to foreigners. This is conservation heresy and clear proof that the entire Shalimar Gardens has been destroyed by a set of bureaucrats who have not the slightest clue to the value of heritage and its integrity. In its place is proof of this set of new buildings.

Both of us were very upset and we moved towards the main structure in the middle of the garden. The first thing missing was the ‘Laila and Majnoo’ set of trees that were planted by the Mughals as representing the reunion of these lovers in ‘paradise’. These sets were planted all around the main tank. The main structure itself was damaged when its original lime plaster was removed in 2007 and in its place a new layer put in place. That entire plaster is now cracking and falling apart.

To the water tank we walked and it is, without doubt, a green cesspool. The correct word is ‘filth’. None of the fountains function, unless there is a VIP visit, and that there is electric power for the motors. Originally water from a well located to the western side functioned and all the fountains and the canal water ran well. That system is no longer there, especially when the present set of rulers destroyed the famous and unique natural water filter in order to widen the GT Road that runs to the south.

All around illegal structures have come up, and from the walls of these houses people can see everything that happens inside the garden. In the revised PC-1 that will be approved on Monday (tomorrow), an additional sum of Rs214 million has been set aside. The residents all have stay orders. I predict inflation will eat up that amount when a third revision PC-1 is approved in the near future.

The two ‘baradaris’ to the east and west of the main water tank are in new cheap red stone, a creation after the marble was removed. The roofs of both have new concrete supports and when it rains both leak. But the greatest tragedy that has not been mentioned in the ‘bureaucratic file’ is the cracks that have appeared in the one-block serrated marble waterfall. This is a one-and-only such piece in the world. What can one say?

This is a world wonder that is cracking because people run up and down it. In the main waterfall room the five fountains at the base have three marble tops missing, a very recent theft that no one has reported. I can go on and on of what has befallen our Shalimar Garden.

In my books, as also in that of the conservation expert, this garden has been effectively destroyed and is being rebuilt. This is not the Shalimar Garden of old. The new shiny brick walkways and the newly-plastered structures with brand new turrets using red stones of two hues, clearly shows that the integrity of this Unesco World Heritage Site has been badly compromised. I have just touched the surface of what has befallen this exquisite heritage site of Lahore.

The question is should I attend this meeting of sycophants on Monday. My friends saying I should to register my complaint. If they get this massive sum of $6 million, they will completely destroy what is left and build a new shiny garden. This is not conservation money. It should not be allowed. But then my journalistic sense also tells me that I should not be part of this crime of approving so much money, which our readers are well aware will end up not in the garden.



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