INTERVIEW: Archaeologist and author Khurshid Hasan Shaikh

Published September 25, 2015
Mohammad Ali/White Star
Mohammad Ali/White Star

At 87 years of age, archaeologist Khurshid Hasan Shaikh bespeaks a life well lived, marked by a passion to explore and understand the world at large. He served at the federal Department of Archaeology and Museums from 1952 to 1988, been part of various commissions and committees set up by the Pakistan government, and served as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) expert in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in 1985. In recognition of his services in the field of archaeology Shaikh was awarded the Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 1993.

Following his dream to undertake not only archaeological practice but its writing and publication in an effort “to appreciate the work done by our noble an-cestors”, Muslim Architecture in Pakistan: Aspects of Public Welfare is his fourth book with a fifth one currently under publication. In this interview with Books&Authors, the author reflects on his professional journey, the importance of archaeological research and writing, and comments on the administration of archaeology and museums.

What sparked your interest in studying archaeology at a time when this was not a very common profession? And what took you to the University of Rome?

In the good old days even the vacant posts in the main federal government secretariat and its attached departments were filled through competitive examinations conducted by the Federal Public Service Commission. I appeared for the examination in 1951 and was thereafter appointed to the [Federal] Department of Archaeology. The job was not much to my liking. The department was still in its formative stage and the environment was rather dull. The situation changed when French archaeologist Raoul Curiel was appointed by the government as the director of archaeology.

He established contact with eminent scholars like Pir Hussamuddin Rashidi, Dr Riazul Islam, Dr N.A. Baloch, and Mumtaz Hasan. Rashidi used to take me to sites such as Makli, and Hasan encouraged me saying that a literary person becomes immortal in a way because of his creative work, something you cannot achieve even if you become a senior bureaucrat. I gradually became interested in archaeology and decided to study Islamic architecture.

My link with the University of Rome was made possible courtesy the Italian archaeological mission, which had been working in Swat since 1956. The heads of the mission (Professor Tucci and Dr Faccenna) were appreciative of my professional know-how and it was on their suggestion that the government of Italy conferred upon me the Knight of the Order of the Italian Republic. This was followed by a diploma in archaeology at the University of Rome.

You were a civil servant and served the cause of archaeology. Can you comment on your experience?

The Department of Archaeology’s main functions were the conservation of historical monuments and archaeological sites, and the exploration and excavation of ancient sites. Monuments are the living epitaphs of our history and as such serve as an important link with the past. The conservation of monuments is multidisciplinary and inter-professional. Many experts such as archaeologists, architects, art historians, town planners, archaeological engineers, etc, are involved in the planning and execution of conservation works.

No doubt some of the archaeologists at the Department of Archaeology had acquired some experience in conservation work; however, this little experience was lacking a background in the principles which should govern conservation. This resulted in work carried out with not enough scientific or historical accuracy. As per international practice, the conservation of historical monuments should be entrusted to architects and archaeological engineers.

Historical monuments have a value not only for architectural study, but as evidence of the history of people and nations too. These monuments should therefore be fortified without altering their original features. The standard practice formulated by Unesco should be followed, according to which monuments should be consolidated rather than repaired, repaired rather than restored, and additions and renovations should be avoided. The Department of Archaeology generally lost sight of these principles. Some of the conservation measures adopted by the department caused greater damage to monuments than would have occurred had they only been maintained.

The Department of Archaeology which I served has since been decentralised in the wake of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, and the responsibility for the preservation and protection of historical monuments, and archaeological sites, now lies with provincial governments.

My experience has shown that the government of Punjab did not bother to follow the universally accepted principles of conservation. In 1986 the Lahore Development Authority started restoration of Kamran’s Baradari, without the consent of the federal Department of Archaeology. Several ancient structures were demolished during the project.

The government of Sindh has entrusted the protection and preservation of historical monuments to two or three non-specialist departments, where people who are not from the profession are looking after the monuments. The conservation work does not conform to the universally accepted principles of conservation. The conditions in other provinces are not much better.

What is the potential for improvement in this field in Pakistan?

It is really shocking that historical monuments placed on the World Heritage List on account of their universal importance are entrusted to the provincial instead of the federal government. No serious work in the field of excavation and exploration is being done by the provincial governments, and whatever little research work was being done by the federal government is now at a standstill.

In all fairness this work should be done by the federal government. Even the National Museum of Pakistan which serves as a showcase of the nation’s heritage, and other important museums like Taxila Museum and Mohenjodaro Museum, have been transferred to the provinces. These should be taken back. The federal Department of Archaeology should be revived to take care of these responsibilities.

Can you elaborate on some of the work you did for archaeology, conservation, and museums outside Pakistan?

In 1985 I served as a Unesco expert in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to advise the respective governments as to how the Buddhist monastery at Paharpur and Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat [Bang-ladesh] and the Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka could be preserved best.

What was the motivation behind your book Muslim Architecture in Pakistan?

During the course of my employment, I had observed that utmost attention was given to the exploration and excavation of pre-historic and proto-historic sites. Second priority was given to the study and care of Buddhist monuments and sites. Unfortunately, adequate attention was not given to the study and conservation of our vast Muslim architectural heritage. Therefore, I had made up my mind to compile research publications on various facets of Muslim architecture after my retirement. Regarding my book, the motivation came from the fact that baoliyaan [stepwells] and caravanserais in particular are in a dilapidated condition and are likely to collapse.

What are some of the lessons you would like the reader to learn from the book?

Respect and care for safeguarding our cultural and architectural heritage is essential. There is a complete lack of awareness about the significance of our heritage among the public. For example, the baoli at Gunjial was demolished to make space for part of a house, and the baoli at Wan Bhachran was being used as a trash pit.

Systematic educational campaigns need to be launched by the government to inculcate appreciation and respect among the public. Regular courses, seminars, exhibitions on the history of art, ar-chitecture, environment, and town planning would be useful for encouraging public involvement in preservation.
The second message I want to give the government is to take immediate steps for salvaging public welfare works, and to follow in the footsteps of earlier Muslim rulers like Sher Shah Suri and take positive steps for public welfare by providing basic facilities and amenities.

Can you tell us more about the process of research for your book?

I had seen about 80 per cent of these public welfare works during the course of my employment. When I decided to undertake this project I studied all relevant books available on the subject. Thereafter I chalked out a programme for study and documentation spread over two years. Each year I had to spend about a month in the field.

Do you ascribe to the ‘cabinets of curiosities’ model of museology as initiated by the British, or do you choose the ‘new museology’ paradigm in your study of history and archaeology?

The primary purpose for the establishment of museums in the subcontinent during colonial rule was to preserve antiquities and works of art. The concept of museums serving as a visual centre for education was developed later. Due to advancement in technology, new techniques and methods for better display have been introduced the world over but we are still following the old systems.

What is your advice to our institutions with respect to archaeology and museology? And what is the importance of studying history and archaeology for today’s generations?

In museums, the catalogues of objects on display or in reserve collections are generally published for the benefit of research scholars. This is rather disappointing. Archaeology does not mean mere treasure hunting. The archaeologist’s purpose in the digging of ancient sites is the acquisition of knowledge based on his observations, documentation, and interpretation of the excavated remains vis-à-vis the cultural material unearthed. To understand the present, one must delve into the past and interpret it accurately. This important aspect has been lost. 

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