AS I step into the glorious red-brick building, I’m struck by the aesthetics: elegantly crafted windows, castle-like balconies, opulent galleries and domes letting in the sunlight to shimmer on the several lancet arches. The enchanting dance of light and shadow highlights the traditional Islamic architecture of the Lahore Museum. With every step, I’m drawn closer to the relics of different civilisations — the artefacts and repositories of centuries-old treasures.

On one of the benches in the Islamic gallery, Maliha Noorani, an assistant professor at the National College of Arts, and her trainee guides are engaged in final pre-tour preparations. Some students are pairing up for a group presentation while others prefer to work alone depending on area of expertise. According to NCA student Maham Mansoor, training as a museum guide “has been a great learning experience. Yesterday, we had more than 150 visitors including a small group from Germany. Interacting with the general public sometimes leads to some very interesting historical facts being unfolded.” Noor, another NCA student guide who is from Hunza, tells me: “I knew nothing about our cultural heritage before I joined these tours as part of my course ‘Weaving narratives’. It is sad that we choose to remain largely ignorant about our rich history.”

In the current times of extremism and fundamentalism, the Lahore Museum with its Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Islamic galleries stands as a symbol of co-existence. Talking to me, Ms Noorani says: “The guided tours, introduced by the NCA in 2013, are an attempt to instil in young minds the values of co-existence, a shared history and common humanity.” Using story narratives, the young students delve into the art history of the exhibits of the museum collection. Depending on their audience, they talk in English, Urdu, Punjabi or Pashto.

Our tour begins at the Gandharan Gallery with 15 passionate museum visitors. The spectacular hall houses myriad Greco-Buddhist artefacts and Gandharan antiques. The guides brief the visitors about the Indus Valley Civilisation and the art pieces on display. The main features here are the Dream of Queen Maya, a Buddhist stupa, the Miracle of Sravasti and what is considered the soul of the Lahore Museum’s collection, the statue of the Fasting Buddha. “The statue dates back to the Gandharan period in the 2nd century BC,” the guide, Tahir, informs us. “Found by Colonel H.A. Dean at Sikri, it was donated to the museum in 1894.” An impatient voice from amongst the audience calls out: “This statue draws attention because it is one of the first representations of Buddha in human form and it has also travelled for exhibitions in Japan and Sri Lanka.” “Yes, true, but also because it reflects our rich artistic heritage,” replies Tahir.

As we move towards the Hindu gallery, there is a noticeable shift from the bronze and sandstone used in Buddhist art to the terracotta and coloured stone used in Hindu art. At least 20 more people join the tour. About a statue of Lord Hanuman, Noor says: “He was popularised by the poet and author Tulsidas. Here, Hanuman is depicted as supporting a mountain in one hand and a mace in the other.” “Why?” asks an audience member. “The mace symbolises strength and the ability to destroy evil forces whereas the mountain symbolises Hanuman’s power to overcome obstacles,” she responds.

Before we head towards the Islamic Gallery, the narration about Lord Shiva is followed by an interesting question-and-answer session. The Islamic gallery exhibits metal pottery, jewellery, weapons, embroidered textiles and carpets from the Mughal era. A rather hectic conversation begins when one man asks, “Why is Mughal clothing inspired by Hinduism?” It’s inspiring to note how well the guides are trained to deal with curious visitors.

The scores of relics produced in the 18th century testify to the refinement that was the common denominator of Mughal art. Also on display are some Islamic inscriptions dating to the 7th century. The most prominent feature are the astrolabes. “Though the instrument had its origin in ancient Greece, the Mughals adopted it with great enthusiasm because of its ability to determine the prayer times,” says Hasan, our guide now. I overhear a visitor’s rather hilarious remark as the guide talks about an antique Mughal lota (vessel): “Itna khoobsurat lota kis liye istimal hota tha? (This lota is so fancy, what was it used for?)”

The tour culminates in the Miniature Paintings’ gallery, a great draw for international tourists, with its three walls of paintings by prolific painters including Rabindranath Tagore, Allah Buksh, Abdul Rehman Chughtai, Shakir Ali and Sadequain. We have to tilt our heads to look at the mural painted on the ceiling by Sadequain.

At the end of the tour, one of the visitors, Atif, says: “I have come to visit the Lahore Museum with my family from Jhang. I am happy that I unexpectedly joined the tour because otherwise, there is no visitor-friendly information available or on display.”

Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2014

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