My recent trip to Lahore focussed on the past, present and the future of “The Greater Iqbal Park”, an exclusive area encircling rich historical treasures like Iqbal Park (Minar-i-Pakistan), Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque, Hazuri Bagh and Ranjeet Sigh’s Tomb.
For the last four to five years, there had been much talk about the well-conceived project that was aimed at converting the whole area into a greater fenced park by making it a vehicle free zone — a daring step by the Punjab government to save the prestigious architectural assets from environmental pollution, heavy traffic and, above all, the filthy and embarrassing encroachments. But, sadly, the project has not seen the light of the day yet and the situation is still miserable.
Since childhood, whenever I visited the Lahore Fort and the adjoining landmarks, I always found their grandeur, texture and beauty deteriorating and my last visit was not an exception. The shady trees and the green lawns have gone bald and give a real ‘ancient’ look now.
The glamour of the past has been replaced by the pale, dim and dusky reflections emerging from the shabby, distorted and fast decaying structures that are mere dungeon houses now and are not for public visits due to the lack of security and lights.
The rapidly growing heavy traffic, due to the presence of the biggest bus stand of the country in close vicinity, is playing havoc with the structures, material and the rich stones of the great chambers. Moreover, this archeologically precious and culturally valued district is surrounded by heavy machinery-based workshops, furnaces and boilers, recycling plants and scrap market where iron, steel, plastic and rubber tyres are moulded and melted. If that is not enough to tarnish our globally recognised heritage, an army of encroachers, including fortune-tellers, barbers, vendors, etc. is found on the footpaths.
Honestly speaking, the spot has always been highly significant amongst the masses as a major bus stand, junction to change routes and a shopping site for buying second-hand items; and has hardly been acknowledged for its actual glory and historical worth. It is painful to see passengers, coming from far-flung areas of the country to change buses, urinating alongside the boundary walls of the national monuments. It is highly embarrassing for us to take a foreigner there for a visit. It’s a criminal negligence by the local, provincial and federal governments.
It is also agonising to see that nearly all the walls, roofs, doors, windows and domes are being subjected to the torture of bearing frustrated people’s morbid sentiments in the form of their unwanted ‘creative writings and sketches’ like “N loves S” and “Shahid and Ghazala made for each other”, along with drawings of hearts and arrows.
Oriya Maqbool Jaan, a great intellectual, writer and historian and the former Project Director of the Walled City Restoration, once said to me, “The British and Raja Ranjeet Singh destroyed such valuable assets by using them as residencies, stables, jails and offices. But it is we who are causing the most damage to our precious heritage.”
It is painful to learn that more than 70 per cent of the rare paintings and highly valuable artefacts are decaying in the stores and are not displayed to the public. Likewise, more than 50 per cent of the area including Sheesh Mahal, museums and many vaulted chambers, corridors, rooms and basements are prohibited zones for common visitors. Only foreign delegations and VIPs are given the privilege to appreciate the hidden beauty of these historical sites. I miss my childhood days when certain attractions like museums, Sheesh Mahal and Ranjeet Singh’s tomb were open for everyone.
The officials told us that the reason for this injustice was that they did not have a proper security system and other arrangements to handle the general public in some areas. They were right; I did not find any guards at any spot or corner, nor any surveillance cameras. Moreover, absence of light and proper guidance has also played a vital role in making the place look haunted.
A special team from Unesco visited the Lahore Fort and the Shalimar Gardens on April 29 this year to evaluate our governments’ efforts in maintaining these two sites that are included in the World Heritages list, and to check whether or not the funds provided by Unesco were being spent duly. If they find any signs of corruption or negligence, they will remove the sites from the World Heritage list and stop the funding. May the Greater Iqbal Park project materialise soon.