Lahore has a number of historical monuments that have earned the coveted title of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. Lahore Fort is one of those. Sadly, it could also be counted among the ‘endangered’ sites.
The Fort is as old as Lahore. Upon Hassan Nasir’s death in its torture cells, on November 13, 1960, the Lahorites had wondered about the ways in which the Fort, built to protect the citizens, was being used.
Being a fort as well as a palace, or residence for the royalty, the edifice was time and again subject to tumultuous happenings. Akbar’s sojourn here was the longest — from 1584 to 1598. He replaced its adobe walls with proper fire burnt bricks. Later Emperors Jehangir and Shahjahan built it in red sandstone, added marble pavilions and quadrangles, turning it into more of a residential unit than a military structure. The water fountains and some greenery added serenity to this lofty abode catching the northern breezes from the Ravi. How the water was hauled to such great altitude without a water tower or Persian wheels is a marvel. Also, Sheesh Mahal’s network of water channels is a masterpiece of liquid-state physics.
No damage was done to it when its gates were opened to Ranjeet Singh but some harm was done during the Sikh civil war. The British had a virtual walkover when they annexed the Punjab. Some of the British soldiers scribbled their names on Diwan-i-Aam’s pillars, but it retained its regal glory and its pavilions, embellished with pietra dura and mirrors, were still worth seeing.
Such is its mesmerizing effect that after the Partition, time and again government functionaries have found it fit to entertain local and foreign guests here. One such occasion was when Karim Aga Khan was feasted here despite the fact that no permission had been granted by the then director of archeology, Dr Mughal. (The havoc wreaked on this site was recorded in an article I wrote for The Pakistan Times, dated December 4, 1984. The protest fell on deaf ears. The damage done to the ceiling of Sheesh Mahal was noted by my teacher Sir Bernard Fielden who was later invited to investigate the reason for the sagging of the roof. My article had come in handy.)
Time and again important functions have been held here. On one occasion, a lady, the wife of a high-ranking official, had the stone floors of Diwan-i-Aam polished with a very sticky wax that must have melted during the hot summers. The permanent damage done to the geological contents of this Fatehpur Sikri stone is beyond the imagination of the dilettante. During Musharraf’s time, a helicopter landed in front of Diwan-i-Aam. There’s no helipad for that. The flying machine, like that of Imtiaz Uppal (my classmate who died in an air crash when his helicopter collided with the minaret of a mosque), could have crashed anywhere and destroyed the perforated marble.
More recently, a sports car was allowed to test speed and maneuver amid the marble pavilion and other architectural elements. The car could have skidded.
Of late, apparently deliberate attempts have been made to destroy the built heritage. As noted earlier, three income generating monuments of Lahore, namely the Shalimar Gardens, Lahore Fort and Jehangir’s Tomb, have been handed over to the Walled City of Lahore Authority. The caretaker chief minister lacks authority or mandate for such a decision. Moreover, he doesn’t have even elementary knowledge about heritage buildings. The Department of Archaeology, on the other hand, has been deprived of all income and assets.
The Conservation Society of Lahore, decided to visit these monuments one by one and to dig facts. Our October 14 visit to Shalimar Gardens was a great eye-opener. The gross violations by the WCLA are there for all to see and audit. Our findings have been reported in an earlier dispatch.
Next, the society members decided to meet up at the Lahore Fort. Unfortunately, the day we were supposed to visit the monument, news was doing the rounds that a ‘flying machine’ would land in front of the Diwan-i-Aam, and a ladla guest would disembark from it and dine with his supporters. Ignoring all restrictions, his convoy took him to the park named after our national poet where he addressed people of his ilk. The Archaeology staff later protested over the gross violations and the damage done to the site.
The Conservation Society, Lahore, postponed its fact-finding visit to the Fort by a week. On October 28, our meeting was supposed to take place at the Diwan-i-Aam, at 11 a.m. It turned out to be quite a job to clear the stables. The network of overhead bridges with complicated U-turns designed to hide the beauty of the bulbous domes of the Badshahi Majid were making it difficult for one to drive to the venue.
The parking lot was more of a maze of horseless carriages meant to charge fees from even the cars passing through it. We weren’t allowed to approach the Fort entrance. Thousands of visitors, both adults and children, were trying to ‘invade’ the Fort. With great difficulty we managed to get permission on the phone to up the ramp. With nobody to give way or pay heed to the headlights and continuous honking, and narrowly missing the overloaded electric buses intent on head-on collision, we drove up the ramp. By the time we reached the’summit’ the engine of my Mazda 1300, which has been serving me since 1974, started to emit smoke from every cavity.
As we halted, we took out a banner announcing our support for the Palestinian children to register our protest to the world. We were stopped from taking photos.
I parked the car in a rather remote place that had only a few obsolete vehicles which once belonged to the Archaeology Department.
We were headed towards the Lahore Fort Library that I had periodically visited when I was working on my thesis for a Master’s in Fine Arts, titled Domes at Lahore, under the supervision of the legendary Wali Ullah Khan.
The library wasn’t there. The books had been carted away in the inclement weather. The building itself was in the process of being demolished. British bricks, measuring 9×4.5×3 inches, were lying around with the sand and the Portland cement to be used over time.
In violation of many UNESCO instructions, a heritage site had been treaded upon by a family of materials. No Mughal or Nanak Shahi terra cottas could be seen around. What they were up to was for all to see.
Ever since this piece of tangible history was converted into a money-making facility, all sorts of efforts have been made to milk it. One has to buy tickets to visit the various galleries. Some activity was observed over the roof of a gallery. We learnt that an eatery was to be built there.
Under a vault, a jester in mock-Mughal costume, was making a fool of the powers that be. Many places had been dug up without planning. Many trees had been felled to create more open spaces for ‘income generating’ events. The horror of horrors was witnessed in front of the Diwan-i-Aam where during the imperial times no mortal could dare tread. The highest grass plot was being dug up to create water channels. The water would ultimately drip down to the lowest of the ancient masonry.
Commercialisation of the historical edifice was also seen in front of the world famous gate built by Aurangzeb. Lo, they are building a restaurant and presumably a hotel on the side of the main gate of the Fort. Quite obviously, free hand has been given to the appropriators of cultural property. The Society members, including Muhammad Javed, Rizwan Altaf, Prof Asma Hassan and Dawood Ilyas, were flabbergasted noticing the harm being inflicted on tangible history. It was decided that we would next pay a similar visit to the tomb of the only Mughal emperor buried in Pakistan.
Note: Week-long annual celebrations at the House of NANNAs shall commence from November 27. These will culminate in a grand show of classic cars and motorbikes on December 3.
(This dispatch is dedicated to archaeologist Asim Dogar)
The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of the NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at email@example.com