Of heritage & development

March 30, 2017


A NEWS item recently informed us of the Indian authorities’ decision to shift Tipu Sultan’s armoury near Mysore to a new site, about 100 metres away, so as to clear the path for a rail track. Did this report have any lesson for the Pakistani administrators responsible for heritage affairs?

India is now ruled by a party that has little respect for Muslim contribution to its cultural heritage. The saffron brigade is not suspected of any love for Tipu Sultan. The urgency of expanding the railway network cannot be denied. Besides, the armoury is a simple work of masonry. It is unlikely to be considered a significant construction, particularly in south India, which boasts a large number of archaeological monuments.

Yet, instead of demolishing the building where Tipu Sultan stored his weapons and gunpowder, it was decided to preserve it, thus confirming fidelity to the principle that while undertaking development civilised countries cannot ignore their obligation to conserve their heritage.

Older people might be able to recall the international effort made in the 1960s to lift the massive twin temples comprising the Nubian Monuments in Egypt and relocate them elsewhere. This was done in order to save them from getting submerged in Lake Nasser, the artificial reservoir that was created as a result of the Aswan Dam’s construction. In England a project that appeared to threaten Stonehenge was kept pending until it was proved that the monument was not at risk. Numerous other examples show that it is wrong to ask any people to choose between development and heritage, because the only sane option is to ensure that development does not harm heritage.

Neglect of historical monuments speaks of the authorities’ distaste for culture.

Compare this worldwide concern for conservation of people’s heritage with the situation in Pakistan. International experts’ concern over the threat to the Shalamar Gardens, a World Heritage Site, has had no effect on the promoters of Lahore’s Orange Line Train project. Unesco has been asking the Punjab government to allow its mission to make an on-site survey, but the government is reported to be keen on delaying the crucial inspection until the case pending before the Supreme Court is decided. If these reports are true, the provincial authority could invite censure for blinking at a serious threat to the world’s heritage.

This lapse into philistinism is not a new disorder. The administration has a long record of neglecting heritage. Before independence, the Pakistan territories had been put on the world heritage map by Marshall, Wheeler and Bannerjee, and the people took pride in their inheritance of the Indus Valley Civilisation of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. Later on, the Italians came to explore our past in Swat and the French dug up Mehergarh and added another 5,000 years to the Pakistani people’s history.

For some time, indigenous experts kept interest in heritage alive. Dr Ahmed Hasan Dani discovered the Kharosthi writings on stones in the Northern Areas. Dr F.A. Khan explored Kot Diji and Bhambore, and Dr Rafique Mughal started excavations in Punjab. But for many years now, interest in heritage conservation has steadily declined.

Our record in maintaining and conserving historical and cultural monuments is extremely poor. No worthwhile research has been done on Harappa and Mohenjo Daro for years. The interest shown in conserving Gandhara art noticed in the early 1970s has all but died down. No Pakistani is known to have followed Alexander Burnes’ journey of discovery along the Indus. The monuments at Rawat that should have marked the beginning of a journey along Alexander’s march to Multan are fast disappearing. One does not know of any plans to ascertain what lies buried under the scores of mounds in Punjab that were earmarked for exploration decades ago.  

Except for the preservation of the Tollinton Building (though what to do with it is still not clear) and the Aga Khan Foundation’s efforts to conserve Shahi Hammam (on a second attempt) and remove some of the encroachments in front of the Wazir Khan Mosque, the neglect of monuments in Lahore itself speaks of the authorities’ distaste for culture. The way Noor Jahan’s tomb has been rebuilt over and over again is a scandal. Equally deplorable is the ruination of the Lahore Fort’s painted wall and the damage to the Sheesh Mahal. The neglect of the marvelous Rohtas Fort is a long, painful story.

Quite unforgivable is the neglect of Hindu temples in Punjab and the magnificent monuments in Tharparkar, especially in the Nagarparkar sector. The conservation of these heritage sites and their inclusion in the national narrative is a duty the state can ignore only at the risk of being branded uncivilised. The fact that some of the monuments belong to the pre-Islamic era makes no difference. Heritage cannot be divided by belief. The Muslims have not disowned the pre-Islamic monuments in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Turkey and North Africa.

If by some twisted logic the Muslims of Pakistan wish to write off certain parts of their heritage, despite their being more important than Tipu Sultan’s armoury, they have no right to force their views on the members of the non-Muslim communities. The state’s duty to conserve what these citizens consider sacred or significant in cultural terms is unexceptionable.

Perhaps there is a need to disabuse the mind of the state’s authority regarding its concept of development, for it still seems wedded to the theory of increasing the country’s economic potential without enriching its human capital. Otherwise, the rhetoric about agricultural progress could not have excluded the right of tenants and landless cultivators to own land. Low priority to the poverty-stricken people’s right to education, medical cover and a decent standard of life, lack of respect for their national languages, their folk arts and their heritage is ingrained in the ruling elite’s mindset, and it blatantly disregards the people’s identity, culture and heritage.

The worst part of the story is not that Pakistan’s heritage might be lost — more worrisome is the possibility of the people being cut off from their soil, their culture, their history, and from one another.

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2017