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Harking Back: It’s time to reconstruct Lahore’s lost walls

Published Aug 14, 2016 07:16am

The other day as I sat down scanning for information about what other ‘walled cities’ looked like and their scale compared to old Lahore, it came as a surprise that my beloved city was nowhere among the world’s top 100 walled cities.

The names of Hyderabad, Multan, Bhera and Peshawar stood out and were marked “in need of conservation”. In the case of Lahore the document stated: “Wall no longer exists.” Now this is not what we all grew up to believe about Lahore. Today the fact is that our ‘walled city’ has no walls, and hence, to be honest, we should stop calling it a walled city. I remember last year visiting Italy and seeing how they had rebuilt a number of their old walled cities which had been destroyed in the Second World War. Of particular interest was that near Siena, where we had gone to see their annual horse race, in full regalia costume, which has been run for over 600 years. Old cities with walls, be it Spain, China, or Malta or even in faraway South America, are invariably developed as major tourist attractions. It goes beyond doubt that tourism rakes in many times more money, and goodwill, than any amount of business or trade can in a confined space of a walled city.

That is why the time has come for every person interested in the future of Lahore to think, and to act, on a solution to counter what has happened to our city’s old walls. First a bit of history about the walls. For thousands of years Lahore and its fort had huge mud walls, which with time were demolished by invaders, only to be rebuilt as new rulers settled in. Come Akbar, the Mughal emperor and his troubles over high taxes imposed on Punjab’s peasants, who invariably revolted, led to the City’s walls and its fort being rebuilt in burnt bricks for the first time from 1575 AD onwards using starving Punjabi labour wanting a free meal because of four years of famine.

Even this solid brick wall was damaged, even neglected, over time by the dwindling Mughal Empire. Maharajah Ranjit Singh had it rebuilt with a protective moat outside from 1817 onwards. Come the British in 1849 and they decided, because of the 1857 War of Independence, to knock down major portions to prevent future sieges like the one they experienced in Delhi. The southern portions as well as major portions on the west and the east were knocked down. The moat was filled up and converted into a garden. The Lahore Fort’s southern portion was demolished and a cascading set of defensive stairs built, to be defended, or even attacked from outside if the case arose. This is how the fort stands today.

But even then the city’s walls were, largely, intact. That is till 1947 occurred and a new breed of aggressive trader classes took over the old walled city, demolishing its ancient buildings and rebuilding cemented warehouses and shops. A new sub-culture set in forcing the original inhabitants to move outside to the new faraway colonies that were sprouting.

Inside the old walled city the need for the constant movement of goods and people in and out of old Lahore, without doubt, saw the old walls as posing an obstruction. Plus in the reconstruction effort they needed free bricks. Slowly the walls disappeared. Today, the walled city of Lahore has no walls at all.

So what should be done? This is a question that we must all discuss and come up with a viable solution. In the world of conservation, it is correctly stated, and Unesco documents uphold this, that to protect what is left is the first critical step. Rebuilding ‘minor’ portions to save the “integrity of a structure” is also a very useful add-on when undertaking a conservation project. In the Shahi Hammam project inside Delhi Gate, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has used this technique, though sparingly. The trust is, without doubt, probably the best equipped with excellent manpower in the world in conservation. Their contribution to Lahore is immense.

But should all the walls of old Lahore be rebuilt, and new gateways constructed? In the world of historical site ‘reconstruction’ there are strict rules to be followed. Firstly, that evidence should exist that such a wall existed in the first place. Second, the materials, all of them, used in the original wall should be replicated. Thirdly, the reconstruction should uphold the cultural values that existed when the original structure existed. All of these are important parameters. Let us try to answer them in this brief piece.

In the first instance we all know that such a wall existed. So the case for rebuilding definitely exists. In the second instance we know that in the recent works at the Shahi Hammam, and before that in the exquisite Gali Surjan Singh project, as well as at other places in Lahore, the small brick in lime mortar technique has been undertaken with immense success. All the building techniques of old have been tested and one can say with confidence that if such a wall ever does rise, it will certainly be much more beautiful than those built in years gone by.

Now comes the most difficult decision, and that is of saving the cultural values that once existed. The current situation is dire enough. My argument for rebuilding is that in a culturally balanced society a business first and business last approach has chocked our ancient culture. As original inhabitants move out and Afghans flock to live in abandoned houses, a massive assault on the culture of Lahore is silently underway. Hence a balanced solution is called for. Either one officially declares the entire old (once-walled) city as a trading area only and all historical buildings knocked down for new concrete plazas, or a percentage restriction on trading space be made legal. No other possibility exists. At the moment traders have the upper hand for whom the people and their culture does not matter.

In the past in this column it was suggested that a ‘New Walled City’ be built across the River Ravi between the Saggian and the Motorway bridges, which should, if the land is available, and in this case it is, be bigger than old Lahore and a modern warehouse city with wholesale retailers of every sort being protected in this New Walled City. To assist the truck and buses stations should be built next to it, shifting such operations from Badami Bagh and from the illegal one coming up on both sides of the Saggian Bridge.

This will truly help business to grow massively, and will free the old and ancient city of the chocking stranglehold. This will meet the three conditions of ‘reconstruction’ and will also bring in a lot of tourists. Lahore will be the winner in a massive way, of this there is no doubt. The point is can our rulers see the business, cultural and image benefit such a change will bring about. You all know the answer.

Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2016