Heritage in peril

January 8, 2023

Dr Ajaz Anwar looks back on the year 2022 that proved to be no good for the city’s historical sites

Heritage in peril


The year 2022 was no better than the previous one, though big promises were always in the air. Again, the new one — i.e. MMXXIII anno dominos — too seems to offer no big deal. The future generations are likely to see what ugly shape our heritage, God forbid, may transform into.

Epidemics and floods too played a huge role here. But our negative attitude and no — or wrong — planning were the main downsides.

It began with the role the provinces were given thanks to devolution, for which they had no expertise and weren’t ready. National and provincial cultural places were affected by factors mentioned above. Some of the monuments and cultural districts have national status. Mohenjodaro suffered due to flood water which in some places is still affecting the terracotta foundations. This is, in fact, a world heritage site, which means that it belongs to the whole humankind.

The Sindh government does not have enough qualified staff and financial resources to manage the site which has been affected by rising salinity. Here, water simply evaporated leaving behind alkaline chemicals which further weaken the foundations of the heavy walls. According to recent press reports, the local administration is unable to restrict the visitors especially during the weekends. Live load trampling the fragile structures, especially the damp ones, must be discouraged.

While the UNESCO celebrated a hundred years of discovery of the oldest planned humankind settlement, there has been no feeling of pride locally and no fanfare. Harappa, which was discovered earlier due to the bricks stolen and used by the contractor in laying railway track near Montgomery, has fared better in comparison. In fact, the earlier name for this civilisation was Harappan Culture. Indus Valley was the name given to it after John Marshal carried excavations at Mohenjodaro in 1922.

According to my mentor, Wali Ullah Khan, who happened to work there, Marshal was never knighted.

The museum at Harappa has its finds displayed much better along with informatory labels. The large vessels for storing water/ grain have been displayed in purpose-built showcases. One such ware has images of migratory birds painted over it. The pottery in red, grey and yellow has been exhibited illustrating a way of life lost long ago. Unfortunately, this site has been vandalised for fire burnt and terracotta objects. The locals too have encroached upon it time and again.

The Lahore Museum is the oldest in the country, and was originally called the Central Museum. According Dr Dar, all artifacts were deposited to the nearest museum; thus, this has the earliest finds from the Indus Valley and Gandhara civilisations.


Coming back to the happenings about Lahore in the previous couple of years, it seems a chapter from the horror genre of movies. The alternative airport of Lahore, named Walton, where Jinnah landed for his first visit after 1947 and which was used by the flying club, was levelled along with many nurseries to usurp the land for high rises.

The restriction for heights of buildings too was done away with in order to facilitate the highest concrete monster in place of the Omnibus depot.

More was in store for the think-tanks of the city. The Ravi Urban Development Authority, or RUDA, announced a new city that would likely eat away all the green fields as far as Sheikhupura and Sharqpur. Fish farms, dairy farms, rice fields, vegetable and poultry farms are destined to be parcelled into plots for housing schemes. Beef and mutton producing animals would be ejected by hundreds of thousands with nowhere to find shelter or fodder. People struggling for food security would be looking for crumbs. Certainly, not all these edibles can be procured from neighbouring countries. The fruits, including the guava, would become an archaeological find.

Much to the dismay of the protesting farmers and journalists, the plan seems to have been expanded to include some land grabbers and real estate speculators. In fact, files are being sold to the hopefuls.

As a lollipop, it has been promised that in the process the dirty water drain that the Ravi has become over time as a result of the Indus Water Treaty would be treated into pristine clear, potable water.

Parallel to it, the Lahore Master Plan 2050 has been inaugurated with much pomp and show. Whatever went on at closed door meetings, touted as ‘public’ hearings, remains secret. There seems to be no clause or guarantee for protecting heritage sites as there is no mention of demolition permission or certificate for old buildings.

Here comes the litmus test for the role of civil society. The Lahore Conservation Society, or LCS, founded by Khawaja Zaheeruddin, is long lost. Its Rip Van Winkles have yet to wake up from their deep slumber. The society held its last AGM over 16 years ago. It had a brilliant history. Saving Tollin’ton Market in 1997 was its singular big achievement. Earlier, the Punjab Special Premises Act was a big success, though some of the buildings declared protected have disappeared - Chinian Wali Masjid, Koocha Chabuk Sawaraan among those. The list was never updated and, hence, Tollin’ton has never been declared protected because many still see it as a commercial goldmine.


Islam does not allow building a mosque on someone else’s land. One of Lahore’s oldest shrines, the tomb of Pir Shirazi, in Paaparr Mandi, has been encroached upon by a mosque built on cramped space and the prayer leader has built his residence over it.

Islamia College, Railway Road campus has its entrance encroached upon by the adjoining mosque. The tomb of Musa Ahangar on McLeod Road has a standing stay order, yet its open side is being used as a mosque. Maryam Zamani’s prayer leader has yet to vacate the living place he’s built in its courtyard.

Lahore Fort, which is on the World Heritage Sites list, is currently being vied by three contenders, namely the Walled City of Lahore Authority, Aga Khan Trust and Archaeology Department. The last was favoured by Dr Mahmood Hussain, the former chairman of Architecture Department at the University of Engineering and Technology. He was thus never invited to any follow-up meeting. The work being carried out at the monument is nightmarish.

Shalamar Bagh’s stage being lower now than the adjoining houses is frequently inundated by untreated sewerage.

The Metro bus was never challenged by the civil society; hence, the Orange Line came about. Countless houses were demolished along its elevated route. Conservation quacks got projects to ‘restore’ the damaged historical districts.

There are some officers and members of the public who like this make-up. They think that all that glitters is good. Consequently, Chauburji was refurbished with computer generated tiles to make it look like Mian Bai’s.

Still, one shouldn’t give up hope. As Mahir Ali said in his recent weekly column in a paper, “Hope never dies.”

(This dispatch is dedicated to my teacher Sir Bernard Feilden, DG ICCROM))

The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at ajazart@brain.net.pk

Heritage in peril