A person without memory has no identity, likewise people without heritage. Over the course of 30 years, living and travelling in what was once called North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), I have seen a number of wonderful heritage sites — Buddhist remains in Swat, wonderful fort and museum at Shabqadar, the old British colonial Munda bridge in Abazai, the fabulous mosques in Kohistan and Dir, the mosque and fort in Chitral, the Kalash defence towers in Jinjeret Ku plus the archaeological wonders of Peshawar.
Unfortunately, they are now all at risk. Concerned citizens are doing their best to preserve these sites, whether through press-releases, newspaper articles, press conferences or litigation. For example, recently FHT along with Citizens for Clean Environment became involved in a law suit against destroying the green belts of Peshawar such as in front of Islamia College.
This also pertains to the great mosque in Spin Jumaat, where a red line for demolition is clear to all.
A couple of weeks back, we were informed that the historic Khyber Pass would become the new highway from Afghanistan through Pakistan to Central Asia. Anyone who knows the Khyber Pass, knows that it is full of historical sites, such as the tunnels of the railway, which was built at the beginning of the last century; there are cliffs with the insignias of various regiments that served in the area, there is also a fort at Mitchener’s Point. To build a modern highway engineered by the National Highway Authority (NHA) there leaves one incredulous.
A couple of weeks ago, I was astounded to receive an email with an attachment photo of Shahi Masjid, Chitral, with a huge hole below its minaret, caused, believe it or not, by dynamite — all in the name of restoration. As usual, no one accepts the blame for this sacrilege and as usual the local administration turns a blind eye.
In Chitral, professionals had been asked for their expertise for the restoration of Shahi Masjid and an enormous sum of money was quoted. This has resulted in the dynamite debacle. Is this expertise?
What does it take to preserve heritage?
Some years ago I met up with an old friend, Adil Zareef, whom I had not seen for a long time. The meeting took place at the Mughal Bridge Peshawar. Sarhad Conservation Network (SCN) of which Adil was a member, was celebrating restoring an old pillar of the bridge which had lain on the grass for many years. A few years after this SCN and Frontier Heritage Trust took a stay order against the demolition of Muhafiz Khana. The interior of Muhafiz Khana was overflowing with historical records all to do with Excise and Taxation Depatment. The old colonial building, with its high ceilings and long fans was maintained by a few lowly baboos, whose dress seemed to be as old as the colonial period.
Take, for example, the defence/watch towers in Jinjeret Ku, the only ones remaining in the Kalash valleys (Jinjeret Ku was Kalash till 1920s and the people there still speak Kalasha language). A conversation with the right person did wonders. The right person in this case was the Finnish charge d’affairs. She willingly donated money for their restoration. On the completion of the project she came to the valley to inaugurate their opening. She was brave enough to climb the very difficult wooden steps.
In 2011, with the cooperation of various people and groups such as SCN, we accessed the Vintage Car Club to find specialists for restoring the two antique fire engines in the old fire house in Gor Khuttree. With our know-how and the keenness of the then Secretary of Culture, Azam Khan, we presented a PC-1 to the Provincial Government, which then donated the funds.
One of the things that I have noticed in the preservation of such things is the keenness and pleasure of the people engaged. All of us, involved with the restoration of the fire engines, including the museum people, thoroughly enjoyed the venture. And, we were not the only ones. When we transported the fire engines from their place of temporary residence to Gor Khuttree, all shining with bright new red paint, people along the way stood transfixed. One gentleman nearly got run over trying to photograph us! When we reached the Old City, we were followed by numerous children.
In other words, enthusiasm, determination, awareness and cooperation between groups and people can help save our heritage. Perhaps, all the historical sites, in what is now KPK, should first be examined by various civil society groups, who carry the enthusiasm and determination to preserve the history of this province.
The other factor is that when development takes place in Peshawar, such as the recent construction of flyovers (many more to be built), so much of our green belt is destroyed along with historic buildings. Recently, the Chief Justice of Peshawar High Court declared that it was illegal to cut down even one tree, and the perpetrators would be punished as if they cut down the whole forest.
Every day I receive emails from friends and acquaintances who have come across some new horror regarding development and destruction of some precious buildings or parks or green belts.
Civil society hopes that the Provincial Government will take notice of this horrific plan for Gor Khuttree, the dynamiting of Shahi Masjid in Chitral and the destruction of the green belt and trees in Peshawar. For city dwellers the green belt and the trees are a necessity and keeping them safe should be done with ‘religious’ zeal.