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Endangered heritage

January 06, 2013

THE Indus Valley Civilisation, stretching over the area that today constitutes Pakistan, is probably the oldest known to mankind.

From the remote northern reaches of the Hindu Kush mountains to the Indus River delta in the south, and along the vast expanses of land on both sides of the Indus and its tributaries, exist traces of a rich past going back in antiquity.

Without doubt it is the largest ancient civilisation in the world, and yet no place else on earth is such amazing heritage under more threat than in Pakistan.

The earliest known ‘food-producing’ era (7,000-5,000 BC) was Mehrgarh in the ‘kachi plains’ of Balochistan. This is the oldest known ‘settled village life’ habitation, where crops were produced, skins tanned, copper mined and metal worked.

Life at Mehrgarh existed till 2,600 BC. It was roughly in  this time period (3,300-2,800 BC) that the Harappan cities along the Ravi came about. Mohenjodaro and other Sindh cities by then were busy trading towns.

Experts believe that the cities of Multan, Hyderabad, Lahore and Peshawar came about in this time period. Numerous smaller towns like Bhera sprouted up. All of them were on major trading routes.

Immensely rich that Pakistan is in its heritage, there seems to be a reluctance to accept this heritage. History in Pakistan, it seems, starts from the time the Afghan invader Mahmud of Ghazni pillaged the areas that are Pakistan and beyond. In hundreds of years of Muslim rulers, foreign invaders cemented the mentality that all cultures alien to the invader did not deserve consideration.

Pakistan, it could be reasonably argued, was born out of such a worldview. From this, right or wrong, flows the undeniable fact that culture is a low priority of Pakistani life. But then what is culture?

The poet Faiz summed it up succinctly when he said: “Everything that exists on the ground is our culture.” This is exactly what Unesco’s World Heritage Convention states, warning that human intervention, as well as natural causes, is destroying the heritage of the world, and needs to be reversed.

No place else is this more relevant than in Pakistan. We rightly vent anger and dismay at the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan in Afghanistan, yet what is happening in Pakistan is even more dire.

Mind you, before Pakistan came into being, the British also destroyed a lot of our heritage in the name of modernisation and security. The rest they stole for their museums in the name of ‘human progress’. Such are the ways of rulers who have no accountability.

But we must be concerned with what is left. Here it must be pointed out that the Indus Valley was the place where Hinduism and Jainism emerged, and Buddhism flourished. From the Hindu Kush to the coast of Makran, from the mountains of Afghanistan to the plains of Punjab, thousands of monuments exist that were once part and parcel of our lives.

Today they are fast disappearing. Even ancient sites like Mehrgarh, Harappa and Mohenjodaro are starved of funds to preserve, let alone conserve.

As they shrink and get damaged by human intervention, Pakistan is losing its immensely rich heritage. That we do not love and cherish our past is surely reflected in our regrettable condition today. Without a past and a woeful present, one shudders to think what the future will be like.

One can dwell at length on the plight of cities like Multan, Hyderabad, Lahore, Peshawar and even smaller towns like Bhera. Lahore’s walled city today is 70 per cent commercialised, with all its ancient walls knocked down to make way for commercialisation. When the Aga Khan Trust for Culture intervened, the trader-politicians of Lahore literally chased them out.

On the rebound, a former prime minister requested the Aga Khan to help conserve old Multan, and it goes to the credit of the Ismaili leader that he obliged.

One hears that the Punjab rulers are now making life difficult for the researchers in Multan. A potent combination of mercantile and religious interests is keeping the conservation of our past at bay. Of this there is no doubt.

Take a small town like Bhera, the place where Alexander clashed with the local ruler called the ‘Puru’, or Porus in its Latinised version.

Mind you Porus defeated the foreigner, even though respectable Western historians follow the Greek description of how their leader fared. But then Bhera remains an exquisite walled city that is disintegrating. Ancient Hindu temples have been knocked down and the houses of members of a religious sect have been reduced to ashes. The once old centre of power is today a ghost town.

As an example take the condition of the magnificent Lahore Fort. It is slowly disintegrating because of neglect. Sadly, Unesco is only moved if ‘officially’ approached. The official world does not want Pakistan to have too many endangered sites, and in that they manage well.

Pakistan, the world and Unesco are losing out to such manipulation. Experience tells us endangered sites are saved when the ‘relatively richer’ sections of society stand up to save their world. To take from Pakistan is easy and has reduced the country to ruins. It is time they gave something back. The government one should not rely on. Only then will the future seem worth the fight.

The writer is a senior commentator with a focus on heritage and economics.