Mughal-i-Azam II

Updated 17 Jan 2020


The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

MORE than four centuries later, the proposition of a marriage continues to invoke the most vicious opposition in Akbar the Great’s fort in Lahore. The controversy this time surrounds the permission given to the holding of an event in the area of the old royal kitchen. Heads have started to roll.

The fort’s protection and maintenance is the responsibility of the very active and much-hailed Walled City of Lahore Authority. On Wednesday, the WCLA gave marching orders to two officials “for failing to monitor” the event. The allegation is that while permission had been granted for a get-together of the corporate, under this cover, the organisers had been guilty of holding a wedding function — specifically a mehndi night. This, we are told, was against rules that govern the fort, which is a Unesco-protected heritage site.

The event was held on Jan 10 and there was outrage as the footage of the night was aired by one channel after another, each one crying out that this was a crime against heritage. The sense of betrayal at the ostentatious treatment of selected royalty that the common man has to deal with was overpowering. The deluge drowned all the explanations that were offered, such as the one which tried to remind enraged Pakistanis how certain areas in and around the fort were allowed to be used for private events.

The WCLA had initially resorted to the law to act against the private party that had organised the event. But lately, the media has drawn its share of the blame from the head of the authority — who has lambasted the “electronic media for creating panic through wrong reporting”. He was unhappy at how the media had first reported that the most precious Shish Mahal was the venue of the private party.

It would be interesting to find out just how frequently the premises have been rented by the modern-day elite out to match the grandeur of Akbar’s durbar.

The walled city chief has bared it all in the wake of this latest controversy regarding the protection of our heritage. He says a ban on events such as corporate dinners could lead to the fort degenerating into a place where only wild grass grows and stray dogs thrive.

The WCLA restored the royal kitchen after a period of 50 years. And the question has been asked: what action was taken against those responsible for keeping this place deserted for 50 years?

The permission for responsibly holding private get-togethers is rooted in the more recent formula that encourages those in charge of maintenance of important sites to look beyond conventional ways to raise revenues. It was decided long ago that the entry fee alone could not provide the managers with sufficient on-the-spot resources for the upkeep of such sites. Renting out certain parts of the prized premises against an adequate fee is considered an acceptable way to generate some much-needed extra income.

Along with the royal kitchen, the picturesque Huzoori Bagh that separates the fort from the Badshahi Masjid is another area designated for private functions. These areas have been used for elaborate events, even for the shooting of films and songs, etc. But despite their status as places within the protected compound where these activities have been allowed, there have been loud enough objections.

There have been news reports (and protests) about how the holding of these corporate or other events can leave their mark on precious heritage sites. For example, more than a decade ago, a storm was raised over the nails that had been drilled into the old walls around the Huzoori Bagh for the staging of an event. The affront against history was forgotten as other things took over.

That was some government function, if memory serves one right. The urge within official circles and the corporate world to take their celebrations to the royal area would be much bigger now since the practice appears to enjoy greater acceptance worldwide.

It would be interesting to find out just how frequently the premises have been rented by the modern-day elite out to match the grandeur of Akbar’s durbar, even if in the areas they are restricted to. It would be fun to know just how much they are willing to pay to get within earshot of the forbidden parts of the palace. It must cost them a little more than the cramped shaadi hall whose owners have the cheek and the financial acumen to name their humble non-alternatives after the great Mughals.

It’s only the first query that takes time; after that, there is a steady stream of questions begging answers. The most basic one here is about exemptions and exceptions. Here the authority is adamant on two counts. One, it gave permission for a corporate event only and, two, the event was to be limited to certain lesser parts of the fort complex, at a distance from the more important areas such as the Shish Mahal. The point is: can anyone guarantee that these limitations would be strictly followed?

The case at hand proves that violations can easily creep in once the debatable rule of exceptions is applied. There can be no guarantees that the guests who find themselves transported to Mughal surroundings would be able to resist the temptation to venture a little deeper inside the forbidden zones where the real princes and princesses once frolicked.

That’s a most fundamental realisation that comes with creating exceptions — that the frontiers will be pushed and at some stage the unwanted, non-elite and unworthy elements would find a way in. Like the wedding guests who by the look of it all lack the manners that qualify the corporate invitees to partake of royal hospitality.

The chirping mehndi participants must indeed take offence at this comparison where they have been declared inferior in manners, and culture, to the stiff-necked corporate crowd, on Allah knows what basis. A venue fit for a corporate dinner should be good enough for holding a wedding ceremony. They must contest the latest roar emerging from Akbar’s fort ... ‘ yeh shadi nahin ho sakti’.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2020