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Public heritage, private property

January 23, 2013

ISLAMABAD, Jan 22: The future of public access to the Unesco-listed Dharmarajika Stupa, threatened by private construction and disputed between the Department of Archaeology and a property-owner, now depends on an upcoming demarcation by the Assistant Commissioner of Taxila.

The Dharmarajika Stupa, three kilometres from the Taxila Museum, was established by the Maurya emperor Ashoka in the third century BC around relics of the Buddha.

It was, at its height, most likely a university, given the size of the stupa and the ruins spread out over 102 kanals, according to the late Dr Ahmad Hassan Dani, an expert on Central Asian and South Asian archaeology.

Today, the stupa is surrounded by military installations and their residential quarters. Access, however, has been more directly threatened by the development of a private orchard nearby.

Deputy Director of the Taxila Museum Irshad Hussain told Dawn: “Construction of a wall and a gate by a private owner has blocked the only passage to this world heritage site.”

The owner, Brigadier Mohammad Muazzam Ali, purchased the land from other private owners and built an orchard.

According to caretakers on his property, construction on a home began a year and a half ago; the wall was put up roughly five months ago, and the gate around two months later.

The concrete footpath that led visitors to the stupa now lies at least 20 feet inside Brigadier Muazzam Ali’s gate, inaccessible from the main road.

This construction, so close to a world heritage site and popular tourist destination, has not gone unnoticed by the government.

On a visit to the site last year, Director-General of the Department of Archaelogy and Museums Islamabad Dr Fazal Dad Kakar accompanied National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza and Speaker of the Indian Lok Sabha Meira Kumar to Dharmarajika Stupa.

“It was very embarrassing for the department to see the house coming up so close to the ancient site,” he said, recommending that the Department of Archaeology, Punjab, the custodians of the site, should “take every measure” to remove the obstructions to public access.

The dispute between the brigadier and the government has been ongoing.

According to Director of the Department of Archaeology Samiul Haq, “past meetings between the owner, museum staff and personnel from the Revenue Department’s Project Management Organisation, who authorise construction in the area, were not fruitful.”

A museum caretaker at the stupa added:  “Less than a month ago, the signpost directing visitors to the site was ripped out of the ground and tossed across the road.”

Brigadier Muazzam Ali’s staff deny this allegation.

A spokesman, Kaiser Asher, responded that the museum staff themselves removed the sign.

In a written response to questions, the brigadier claimed that the gate and wall were built “to protect [his] property against miscreants,” and added that no one has been or will be in the future refused access to the stupa through his property.

He said employees of and visitors to the Taxila Museum were using the passage through his lands without any restrictions.

The problem of public access to this site, one of the 19 Unesco World Heritage sites in Taxila, may at last be nearing resolution.

Director Samiul Haq explained that the office of the assistant commissioner, Taxila, has now been asked to demarcate over a kanal of land inside the boundary wall which is government property but claimed by Brigadier Muazzam Ali.

Irshad Hussain of the Taxila Museum added that the matter should be resolved when the demarcation is done in two days, saying, “The assistant commissioner is on board. If the private property has encroached on government land or access to government land, the wall and/or the gate will have to be demolished. In the worst-case scenario, the department will go to court to resolve the matter.”