We live in times when ‘heritage’ is a word our trader-rulers avoid. For that matter ‘culture’ makes them, like Hitler, go for their guns. Lastly, ‘conservation’ yields them no profit, so that is best avoided.

But in these ‘Dark Ages’ that Pakistan is passing through, we must never forget that Lahore is the one city, so say the experts, where over 40 per cent of the historic monuments in the entire sub-continent of the Moghal era are located in, or around. What we have done to Lahore is another story.

Last Tuesday I set off to see some excellent work underway by the Walled City of Lahore Authority, with the assistance of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture with the financial backing of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Islamabad.

As I entered Delhi Gate the first monument to the left is the ‘Shahi Hammam’ – The Royal Baths. I remember bureaucrats until recently used this place for ‘very special’ parties. It was even ‘rented out’ as a ‘wedding hall’.

Our bureaucrats have insulted our finest monuments in every possible manner their ‘minds’ could conjure up. Since the creation of Lahore’s new ‘walled city’ authority, and I say this from personal experience, our bureaucrats are trying hard to fail their efforts, with our chief minister cancelling nine important meetings on Lahore since he was recently elected.

I am not surprised. To his immense credit, the prime minister seems much more worried about old Lahore.

Back to the Shahi Hammam which needs to be described. This is an early 1630s bath in the tradition of the Turkish and Persian style. I remember once while hitchhiking through Turkey in the 1970s as a student, I used one in Erzurum. Oh, the hot steam virtually peeled my skin and almost broasted me like a chicken.

Then a huge wrestler dragged me by the neck, put me on a hot marble slab and slapped my tired naked body into shape. I came gasping, and in one piece, but felt that I was floating on air.

Imagine the days of the emperor Shah Jehan and a tired guest after riding for days from Delhi getting ‘prepared’ to enter the Lahore Fort to meet royalty.

They were probably treated as I was in Erzarum. In nearby guesthouses they slept, and in the evening listened to storytellers in the huge ground opposite the mosque of Wazir Khan as the caravan traders settled down around a fire.

It surely would have been a scene dreams are made of, and that is why Lahore remains, even today, a special city.

However, Hakim Ilmuddin Ansari, the Governor of Lahore in those days, built the huge intricate Shahi Hammam in 1634. He was granted the title Wazir Khan, a name by which he is, and always will be, remembered.

Until very recently even our experts did not know how this amazing ‘hammam’ functioned. The rooms and the openings certainly did point out to a very intricate ‘bath’, the likes of which none other exists in the entire sub-continent.

Then it was merely a ‘hammam’, not some grand fort or mosque that the pious should worry about, let alone our ‘scholars’. It was completely ignored, probably ‘violated’ is a better word. With time, shops overtook the huge amazing complex, portion of which the British turned into a school, while the remaining became a dispensary and government offices.

Then once the authority was set up they started to think about this monument, and it was a small proposal for a grant to the Norwegians that set things rolling.

They insisted that the world’s finest conservation organisation be used, and hence the Aga Khan Trust for Culture came in. What emerged is amazing, and I would request any sensible schoolteacher in Lahore to take their youngsters to see just what has been discovered.

The Aga Khan experts set about trying to discover the secret of the functioning of this unique bath. They found British era bricks blocking them at every step, almost a deliberate attempt to block out our past.

As they dug up the floors, all relatively recent cements additions, they discovered a massive and exceptionally intricate network of heating spaces, watercourses, heat conservation brickwork, steam inlets, cold-water sprays, and spaces for massages, resting rooms, and other such constructs.

As they dug a 20-feet deep well for water disposal, at 17 feet they discovered a water inlet channel which fed the entire bath. With every passing day new discoveries are bursting forth.

My view is, and this is what the international rules of conservation say, that these amazing discoveries be conserved as they are being uncovered and in the shape they are in. No attempt should be made to recreate a new bath.

That would be criminal.As the process of discovery continues inside Delhi Gate, I hope the people of Lahore also donate towards a fund that will see this great undertaking to its logical conclusion, for it is slow painful work that costs a lot.

It is about time we acted for the sake our heritage and our culture, conserving it for our children and grandchildren, and their children.


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