Fighting for life

 
May 16, 2021

Should the past serve the present or should it be treated as a relic truthful to the age it belonged to?

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Once again, the famous Roman Colosseum is in the news. This time round, it is for the purposes of conservation and/or restoration.

It will be put back into the shape that it originally appeared to the people sitting in the arena as they roared and yelled while watching the gladiators fighting till death. Probably sometime back the floor of the Colosseum, where the action took place, was ripped apart or dug up to show to the 20th Century tourists the labyrinths of tunnels and underground passages where the gladiators and the animals awaited their turn to die. They would appear suddenly as the iron gates opened for them to be thrown into the arena to the roar of the crowd. The wild animals, too, were unleashed through the gates to be set upon them for a gory spectacle in line with the bloody expectations of the elite and the general public alike.

There have been many theories around restoration and conservation. How should one deal with ancient buildings? Similarly, there are many theories about how to deal with the past –should it serve the present or should it be treated as a relic truthful to the age it belonged to?

Intangible heritage, too, is up for grabs as it is mostly oral in character and its transmission from one person, one memory and one generation to next leaves sufficient room for it to be altered. Some alterations are deliberate while other are not. It is in the fitness to narration that slight changes result from the person’s traits, his mind, his memory and his embedded prejudices. Over a period of time, the slight changes become big and wide enough to be significantly different, at times to be the very opposite of from where it all started.

It is very difficult to tell if the tangled heritage is truly reflective of the way it was built or of the times that it is supposed to represent. On many sites of historical monuments, changes have been made, some recorded others unrecorded or lost to history. So, at many of these sites, the efforts to restore them to their original shape and size and purpose are only of limited value because the original drawings and the plans are not available and the references may be anecdotal from a long journey.

In Lahore, for example, it is documented that the baradari in Hazuri Bagh was actually moved from Jahangir’s Mausoleum and placed plonk in the middle of the area between the Lahore Fort and the Badshahi Masjid. Ranjit Singh was probably responsible for this vandalism. He enjoyed sitting in the baradari while inebriating himself. It may be added that the Alamgiri Gate was either added or became important only after the Badshahi Masjid was built more than a hundred years following Akbar’s expansion and reconstruction of the fort. The main entrance was probably on the other side, the huge gate that lies in a state of disrepair on the road that leads to the market overflowing with tyres, rims and iron scrap.

It is also known that the Shalamar Bagh’s main entrance was from the river and it was laid out at several levels, probably seven, and the king or the monarch sat at the highest level. However, when the British colonial rulers realigned the Grand Trunk Road, the entrance was shifted to the highest level. Now, visitors enter from where the king enjoyed and dallied in a recreation of the seventh heaven. As we then go down to the other levels, of which only three survive, the lowest is in a state of neglect and disrepair. Only two levels are in some reasonable state of maintenance. The reversal of the order has not bothered the powers that be because the river has moved further away from the entrance of the Shalamar Garden. There have been massive encroachments as well. Many adjacent houses use its walls as their boundary wall. Some are built high enough to overlook it.

If one approached the river from the Shalamar Bagh, there is Jahangir’s Tomb on the other bank. The plan of the two monuments becomes very clear and aesthetically comprehensible compared to the disconnect which the alignment of the roads, encroachments and the population sprawl has inflicted upon the city. Its current environs have distorted everything and the heritage appears to be disjointed, not planned and laid out.

Some of the wrongs have been the result of apathy, a lack of understanding, insensitivity and above all a lack of resources over the years. The latest, the Orange Line Metro Train Project has totally blocked the view of the Shalamar Gardens and dwarfed it so that it now appears to be any ordinary medieval structure. The damage that it may cause to the building is yet another story that only time will unfold.

Over the centuries, many changes have been made deliberately; many have been forced by circumstances. Their reversal is very difficult because it would mean challenging the vested interests as well as dealing with the genuine problem of displacement and evictions. It may create a human catastrophe of such dimensions that politicians shy away from it. They are firefighting all the time in any case without a longer perspective in view.

Recently the Egyptians president saluted the parade of the 22 royal mummies of the Pharaonic Era in a state ceremony as they were taken from Tehrir Square to the newly-built Cairo Museum celebrating the glory and longevity of the Egyptian Civilisation. It was seen across the world as the Egyptians certified their long history that may have run counter to our apocalyptical understanding of the ‘firowns’ as the epicentre of tyranny and exemplary oppression. Perhaps the president sees himself as the present day ‘firown’, wielding absolute power in the belief that this is what the country needs.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.



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