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Cultural heritage in ruins

February 02, 2012

AT the ruins of the first and second cities of Taxila, Sirkap (1st century BCE to 2nd century CE) and Sirsukh (2nd to 5th century CE), it’s business as usual. The pushy minders tell you that you may do still photography and no filming, hoping that you’d oblige them somewhat to relax the unwritten rules.

Their protégés try to sell you fake stone-carved figurines, swearing they just dug it out from the ruins the day before. Ditto at the spectacular and the world’s biggest Dharmarajika stupa (2nd century CE), located not too far from the two cities of Taxila.

Drive a few miles further on to the Jaulian monastery (3rd century BCE to 3rd century CE), one of the finest Taxila sites, and much but the landscape changes. You have just crossed over from Punjab into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, even though the last mentioned remain prohibited words in this part of the province. Instead, huge signboards welcome you to ‘Suba Hazara’.

At Jaulian, the minders are respectful and welcoming. They volunteer to take you around and explain the significance of every niche and various parts of the monastery. Those selling fake figurines are kept out of the historical site, and may only approach you once you are outside the precincts of the protected area. They are not half as pushy as the ones you encountered in Punjab.

The Taxila World Heritage sites, like historical monuments elsewhere, have been devolved to the provinces after the passage in 2010 of the devolution of powers from the federation to the federating units under the 18th Amendment.

Punjab had pushed for the move during the Musharraf presidency; it had set up its own archaeology department and taken charge of many monuments as early as in 2004. The other provinces were only lukewarm to the idea, arguing they did not have the capacity nor the resources to build capacity to handle the project.

Later, under the 18th Amendment, the historical monuments were rightly handed over to the provinces. However, teething problems remain in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh, where few employees minding the historical sites and monuments know what’s happening, and who to approach for redress of their complaints or for making improvements.

Ask the employees posted at Chaukandi, Bhambor and Makli in Sindh, and they’ll tell you that nobody cares. Moenjodaro’s is perhaps the saddest case, but even the Shahjahan mosque in Thatta is falling apart.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa the archaeology department employees have not been paid salaries for months. One of the walls at the Jaulian monastery in Taxila damaged by the monsoon rains in 2010 and 2011 remains unattended.

The provincial governments concerned need to own and care for their heritage in a proper, systematic manner. Silly unwritten rules that do not allow filming at the outdoors sites during daylight need to be clarified so as not to discourage the few who visit these sites. Alas, if only the dead could protest.The writer is a member of staff.