Last week this newspaper carried a photograph of one of the damaged minarets of the mosque of Wazir Khan, the magnificent Shah Jehan-era monument that is a World Heritage site and was said to be the finest in the sub-continent.
That one picture describes in detail what we have done to Lahore. It is silly to blame the government or the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA) alone for this miserable sight. The people of Lahore, especially the ever-intruding traders in the old walled city, as well as the so-called intellectuals of this city, are much more to blame. The traders most so for seeing heritage as a hindrance in their business expansion, irrespective of what the laws lay down. The politician-trader rulers of recent silenced all opposition to them. Then we have the so-called intellectuals who are equally to blame for talking endlessly and never doing anything worthwhile.
The media in its own mellowed manner does show the damage sometimes, not that our rulers and their bureaucrats care much. But if you show them that there is money to be made in heritage, then watch them in action, mostly phoney that it is. Such is the lay of our land these days.
The photograph shows that the minaret’s dome is peeling off. Mind you these days the mosque is being ‘conserved’. The major damage to this exquisite monument has been done over the last 20 years, when the affairs of monuments were handed over to an ‘intellectual’ bureaucrat. He immediately started digging up the mosque’s courtyard and rebuilt the water disposal system that had stood the test of time, which works out to over 375 years. He used cement and plastic pipes, two ‘lethal’ materials that are banned in UNESCO conservation rule books for such precious monuments. The rule is to conserve with the original materials, not damage with corrosive modern inventions. But then cement and plastic ruled over his mind and his passive ‘underlings’ actually praised his efforts.
This bureaucrat I met for the first time nearly 15 years ago when he held a briefing ‘function’ inside the now beautifully conserved Shahi Hammam. He had got the walls whitewashed and the food was served in the main hall. It till then was used as a marriage hall. Imagine. In terms of conservation this is blasphemy. Next to me sat an amazed Intizar Hussain Sahib, that revered writer, who only once during the entire proceedings uttered a word in my ear. “The literate illiterate rule our land”. That said it all.
But then this very newspaper made a lot of noise and the big chiefs of the World Heritage responded and sought an explanation. You might not believe this, but no reply was sent to them from his office. Ultimately, foreign agencies collected the amount needed, and with the Aga Khan very worried about the damage, work started. What you see today is the concern of mostly foreigners. Mind you a few highly educated Pakistanis working for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) led the campaign to save the Shahi Hammam. I suppose when you live so far away, the heart craves for an ideal Pakistan.
Let me return to the mosque of Wazir Khan. After a detailed survey it was discovered that the south-western minaret was tilting outwardly by approximately 4.7 degrees, which any architect worth his salt will tell you can collapse if an earthquake of over 5.6 on the now outdated Richter Scale hits Lahore. Mind you the worst earthquake to hit Pakistan was the 1945 Balochistan one at 8.1, while Lahore experienced its worst one on 28th September, 1827, at a massive 7.8 when the walled city was almost flattened. The list of over 6.0 in Lahore is very long. So it is a matter of time only.
The idea is not to scare, but to make readers aware that we must speed up the conservation of our finest monuments to meet any eventuality. But to think that conservation is done with cement and plastic pipes is to actually speed up the damage. It must go to the credit of the WCLA that they have managed to get the front courtyard of the mosque cleared and now the stage is set to put into action the conservation plan as officially chalked out by them.
The mosque of Wazir Khan, completed in 1641, is known for its ‘Kashi Kari’, not to forget the intricate fresco embellishments. For the last 19 years this mosque has been saved from our bureaucrats by the patient intervention of the AKTC, not to forget monetary contributions by the governments of Norway, Germany and in a small measure the USA. Naturally, no progress in this field, monetary or otherwise, is possible without the Government of Punjab monitoring, let alone intervention. The last government planned a total of 12 ‘high level’ meetings in three years, all of which had to be postponed. Such remains the level of interest shown by our rulers and our bureaucrats, with the present lot being no exception.
After the success of the Shahi Hammam project, which followed the ‘Demonstration Project’ of 13 houses in Gali Surjan Singh inside Delhi Gate by the AKTC thanks to German funding, the government began to see the utility of saving the old walled city. This led to the Shahi Hammam and now the mosque of Wazir Khan. This is not to exclude a similar project on the outer walls of the Lahore Fort, where the world’s largest picture wall is being ‘restored’. There using the ancient art of tile making and colouring, an expertise level is developing that will be of immense use in the Wazir Khan project and the entire walled city.
All these excellent developments are part of the ‘Shahi Guzargah’ initiative that originally started with aggressive intervention of a World Bank chief in Pakistan, a man who used to walk the streets of the old city only to lament the damage and the ignored history of Lahore. One hopes that the present dispensation will take up this impressive tourist-attracting city which has the potential to earn more money for Pakistan than the entire profits of the traders who are out to destroy it.
It would also not be a bad idea to reactivate the Calligraphers Bazaar in the porch of the mosque, where in days gone by leather book binders, paper decorators and calligraphers put together the classics which today can sell for anything up to a million US dollars. A few of the world’s leading museums have samples of these books which left Lahore with camel caravan destined for the Central Asian bazaars. They are called ‘Lahori’ classics. Amazingly the women of the old city used to beat reeds from the River Ravi banks into paper, which ended up in the Wazir Khan Mosque’s Calligraphers Bazaar.
Just to remind that UNESCO’s ‘World Heritage Site’ status was granted to the mosque in 1993 after experts predicted that the damage to the site had exceeded all acceptable levels. It took another 14 years before a partnership between the Punjab government and the Aga Khan Trust was struck. In 2009 work started on a two-year intense survey of the mosque alone. Another four years later further mapping of the mosque was done in a US Aid-LUMS project for a full 3D mapping.
Mind you serious conservation work takes time, for to conserve and restore the damage of centuries of heritage takes years of painfully slow processes. Imagine the effort and time need to bring back the walled city back to life as the world’s finest tourist resort. For this the government must have faith in science and conservation processes. Probably one is asking for too much.
Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2018