Requiem for a city

A rapacious market for antiques threatens a historic city in Sindh

The cool evening breeze carried the fresh scent of peepal leaves through the air, a group of friends seated on a charpoy were sipping tea, sharing stories; horses could be heard trotting through town among reverberated sounds of laughter in the distance. All the sounds one heard came together in harmony: There was no noise.

This is how an old resident of Shikarpur recalls the ambiance around Lakhi Darr, one of the eight entrances to the walled city that now stands as a testimony to the ravages of time.

Shikarpur of memory actually goes way back in history. The walled city was built over the centuries at a time when Shikarpur was at the confluence of great empires – the Mughals to the North and East, the Safavids to the West and the various Afghan and Central Asian kingdoms to the Northwest. It was renowned for its architectural splendor and its men of arts and letters. Its residents, Hindu traders, Afghan merchants and Muslim landowners all contributed to its infrastructure and striking architecture.

It was during the Durrani rule, which included much of what is now central and northern Balochistan, that Shikarpur became an important financial centre, says Illahi Baksh Soomro, a native of the city and a former speaker of the National Assembly.

   “Sindhi merchants, having established colonies all over Asia and Africa, kept close links 
      with Shikarpur and added to its prosperity and civic opulence,” he says.

Naseem Mughal, another resident of Shikarpur and the author of Shikarpur Heritage: An illustrated journey through history, says the city was “known for its literary figures, high quality education and grandeur of its palatial buildings, gardens, food and amiable citizens”. He also explains that the historic part of “Shikarpur was built in a circular form” with eight entrances - Lakhi Darr,
Hazari Darr, Hathi Darr, Sivi Darr, Khanpuri Darr, Karan Darr, Wagno Darr and Naushero Darr. These gates have now all succumbed to deterioration.

Inside these gates lived the rich and the famous in their havelis or mansions which, according to Dr Anila Naeem, the co-chairperson at the Department of Architecture and Planning at the NED University, Karachi, are the “most significant building type [in Shikarpur]”. These havelis formed “almost eighty per cent of representative traditional built environment, creating the essence and spirit of historic Shikarpur,” she says in her monograph, Shikarpur, Inventory mapping of heritage properties.

   “This heritage site is one of the few that reflect Sindh’s true habitat and history, having 
     unique brickwork, architecture and a water supply system. What stands out is woodcarving 
     and elaborate ornamentation on doors barriers and windows,” 

says Hameed Akhund, a former provincial secretary who is known for his work on promoting Sindhi culture, history and heritage.

At a walking distance from Lakhi Darr, there is the famous Dhak Bazaar, or the covered market. Built in 1780-90 under the rule of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, this bazaar was constructed with a unique criss-cross wooden ceiling, designed to allow light and wind to pass through. Even when it is crowded, those walking through its narrow and crowded lanes get plenty of fresh air and quite a bit of light throughout the day.

At any given time of the day, the bazaar, that stretches between Stuart Ganj neighbourhood and Bhitai Bazaar, experiences hectic buying and selling at hundreds of its shops, selling goods of all sorts from food and clothing to steel utensils and electronics. It is perhaps the only part of old Shikrapur that has been maintained over the decades.

The other fully extant building is the redbrick Clock Tower near Lakhi Darr. It was built by two local Hindu businessmen, in memory of their father, Seth Hiranand Nandramdas Bajaj, in 1935. The rest of the city is crumbling and is falling victim to rapacious exploitation of its heritage.

Though the speed of the decay has really picked up in recent times, Shikarpur’s decline as a centre of finance, trade, arts and literature started after the British took over Sindh.

    “Post 1860s, the focus gradually shifted to Sukkur and Jacobabad which superseded 
      Shikarpur as administrative and military bases respectively,” writes Naeem.

Then came the partition in 1947 and most of the Hindu residents of Shikarpur migrated to India, leaving behind their elaborate mansions which landed in the hands of Muslim refugees arriving from other parts of the subcontinent to the newly created Pakistan. Bit by bit Shikarpur started to lose its glory, with the plunder of its heritage assuming the status of a niche market.

The new residents failed to understand the significance of what they had inherited and replaced a significant part of that heritage with the so-called modern structure – boxes of brick and mortar sustained with tons of reinforced concrete. Often the money for these structures came from selling parts of old buildings as antiques.

In 1970s, another wave of change hit Shikarpur. Anyone with a degree would leave the city which did not offer any white collar jobs. Consequently, many families started to move out to other places in search of better economic prospects. Some of them, indeed, transported a large part of the fixtures at their Shikarpur homes to their new abodes, as is the case with Mughal. His house in Karachi is a tribute to Shikarpur: From doors to antique tape recorders to projectors and clocks, everything carries an air of nostalgia.

All these factors together have culminated in a situation where Shikarpur seems to have fallen victim to its reputation as the repository of a rich and exquisite architecture. In an acknowledgement of that, and in order to put an end to the destruction of heritage,

     The city has been included in the 2008 and 2010 World Monuments Watch  List of 
     “100 Most Endangered Sites” published by the World Monuments Fund. In 2014, it 
     has made to the list for the third time in less than six years.

The Sindh government, too, has put the city on the list for the sites to be preserved and protected. “Recognising its importance as an historic town, the Department of Culture, Government of Sindh, through a notification in September 1998 declared ‘Shikarpur Historic Town’, a protected heritage under the ‘Sindh Culturual Heritage Preservation Act 1994’” writes Naeem. “But these mere notifications have not proved sufficient to curb the pace of destruction resulting in loss of a unique historic environment,” she adds.

“No one is stopping the demolition of the old buildings in Shikarpur. If the local government had been vigilant, it would have been able to put an end to it,” says Akhund who now runs a provincial endowment fund for the preservation of culture and architecture in Sindh. “The government and the residents are all involved in plundering Shikarpur’s heritage. They gift heritage items plucked from houses in the city to their friends or sell them to make money,” he tells the Herald. “Funds are being allocated for preserving the city but nothing is being done.”

According to him, the demand of antiques is so high that these things are not only smuggled from Shikarpur to other cities but have been smuggled outside the country, having even made their way to the Christie’s, an auction house currently said to be the world's largest.

   “Windows and doors, among other things from Shikarpur, are being auctioned at
    Christie’s,” says Akhund. 

No one is stopping these things from being transported to other places, either by road, air or sea, he adds.

He then narrates an incident not wholly strange in this saga of the plunder of heritage.
“Once during the early 1990s, I spotted an antique pillar from Shikarpur at an antique store in Hyderabad. I asked the shopkeeper about it. “This will be shipped out of Pakistan,” he told me,” Akhund discloses and says that he informed the Antiquity Department and also proceeded to file a police case about the smuggling of the pillar. “You can’t imagine the number of calls I received that day, asking me to drop the idea of registering the case,” he says, suggesting that those involved in smuggling antiques out of Shikarpur include some powerful and influential people.

The resulting disaster is too obvious to miss. The narrow alleys of the walled city that were meant for pedestrian use are now over-crowded with food stalls and vehicles, including cars, motorcycles and donkey carts. The whiff in the air is of raw sewage and gasoline fumes, not of tree leaves as was the case in the past.

Even though Shikarpur has suffered large scale demolition over the last many decades, traces of its unique architecture and urban planning still enthrall the visitors. The buildings that still stand sport elaborate brickwork, distinct carpentry and exquisite balconies. The clock tower, for instance, stands sturdy though all draped with the flags of religious political party, a testament to how the present is taking over the past – in a seemingly ugly way.

“Preservation is not being done,” laments Yasmeen Lari, Pakistan’s first female architect and the founder of the Heritage Foundation Pakistan. She tells the Herald that her organisation has the “resources and quick affordable solutions to buy us time to restore the heritage” but “no one is coming forward to learn the process” to carry it out at places like Shirkarpur.

Among all the heritage buildings in the city, one place that continues battling for survival is a school built with the efforts of one Wadhu Mal in the early part of the 20th century. Once called Hopeful Academy but now known as Government High School Number 2, it is located opposite the historic Ganesh Park.

The school originally had a spacious double-story limestone structure adorned with patterns, carved stone frames, arches and accents to accommodate 1000 students. Apart from the exquisite exterior, its halls have their unique architectural character. The Latif Hall, named after the great poet and Sufi saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, has wooden beams carved in the shape of animals. The hall’s interior, though, is losing its uniqueness after grey marble tiles have been used to cover its walls, visibly mismatching with the rest of the structure.

At least 900 students are currently studying at the school which may no longer successfully stop the assault on its historic building. The local engineer at the education department is adamant to tear down a block of the building that houses the computer lab. His excuse being that he wants to build a better structure instead. The demolition work has already begun.

Those working inside the block say the new structure is not needed. “The building faces no threat of decay. We were holding our classes there,” claims Dewan Dasnakpal, the headmaster of the school.

Though he agrees that the block “may need some retouches here and there,” it certainly does not need rebuilding. The irony is that the man responsible for hearing to what the headmaster has to say is exactly the man who wants to demolish the building – the engineer.

Sharmila Farooqi, advisor to Sindh chief minister on culture, takes the responsibility of putting all this right.

   “There have been lots of complaints about people stealing bricks from heritage sites. 
    Action has to be taken keeping these complaints in view,” she says.

“This is precisely the reason why the Sindh Cultural Festival has been planned, aimed at taking urgent measures for the preservation of Makli, Bhambore, Ranikot, Moenjodaro and Chowkundi and seeking the attention of international donors for the purpose.”

In her list, however, there is no mention of Shikarpur. Whether the omission is intentional or otherwise is difficult to say but one thing is certain: If no effort is made to preserve the architectural heritage of Shikarpur, soon there will be no historic Shikarpur to speak of.