A fact-finding visit to Shalimar Gardens

October 22, 2023

Dr Ajaz Anwar says that Conservation Society’s recent visit to the World Heritage site was “an eye opener”

— Image: Supplied
— Image: Supplied


mid all sorts of news breaking the internet, the Conservation Society, Lahore, decided to visit the various sites that have been ‘surrendered’ to the Walled City of Lahore Authority. The World Heritage site Shalimar Gardens, the prototype of Baroque Garden Extravaganzas, was picked up for a visit last Saturday.

Stakeholders and interested parties, both on-board and from other camps, had been invited to join us. The idea was to seek ground realities and assess site limitations and the excesses committed by the dictatorial authorities.

Among those especially invited who showed up for the visit were Prof Asma Hassan, Rizwan Altaf, Saeed from Wildlife; and M Javed, a retired bureaucrat. The time — 11 in the morning — seemed ideal. The breeze was gentle and the sun mild, especially at the Gardens.

We were in for a few horrors. For one thing, the messy parking lot had an exorbitant fee. The entry ticket which had a five-digit serial number was for Rs 20 only. The amount was non-refundable once “soled.” A Chinese girl, like all foreigners, had had to pay Rs 500. But the main source of income for those occupying the place must be in letting out the site for photo ops as well as private parties and functions. Where this money goes to is a matter for speculation. The Archaeology Department has been deprived of the income the site generates.


The main gate of Shalimar Gardens remains permanently barricaded. We found that it is several steps below the traffic infested road. The tower that provided water to the Gardens was dismantled in the 1990s when the road was widened. More havoc was done when the Orange Line Metro Train moving over the pillars shook the monuments despite the objections raised by the UNESCO.

This unique landscape masterpiece, built in 1642, has suffered a lot over the centuries. But its current plight is even more pathetic. This place once had horizontal expansion and was surrounded by lush verdure (as witnessed by this scribe in early 1960s). Designed by Ali Mardan Khan, it has three descending stages. Naeem Bajwa, a geologist, once told me that the design had been dictated by the topographical slope.

Folklore has it that the Garden once had seven stages, but that is only a myth. The lower stages would have been submerged by the River Ravi. Mian Iftikharuddin’s ancestors were entrusted with the keys to the Garden during Shahjehan’s reign. He was the founder and majority share holder of the Progressive Papers Limited. A decade of The Pakistan Times was celebrated at the Garden (I had the unique opportunity to attend it, albeit as a child) on February 4, 1957.

Pakistan’s leading newspaper was usurped by the dictator Ayub Khan, and its owner died fighting the case in the court years later. Shalimar Garden lost its trusted ‘keeper.’ Just outside its walls, beginning at the eastern side, brick structures started raising their ugly heads in connivance with the local goons who also had become legislative members. Gradually, the encroachments narrowed the mandatory 200-foot gap because they couldn’t care less. Sewerage from the abutting houses overflowed into the third or the lowest stage of the garden. More on that later.

Behaving quite like Nizam Saqqa, the caretaker chief minister of the Punjab has entrusted all these wonders of hydrology to the sworn enemy of archaeological sites. Our visit was therefore an eye opener.

Dozens of mature trees had been felled to make space for holding photo ops and bridal functions which apparently attract money to the WCLA. There was an influx of luxury cars at the World Heritage Site, from several ‘secret’ entry points. A bright graduate of the NCA proudly explained how he had got the assignment to document a bridal function.

As Prof Hassan, our only female member, mingled with a team of ladies doing their own recording, she was told that all the permissions these people had got were verbal and no written receipts of payments made were available. The various crews belonging to different companies had found it convenient to commute on motorbikes without number plates. The riders, too, had no identity or names. It was a bunch of fearless intruders.

There were venders of cookies and the like, selling the products in plastic packs to be thrown around and finally land into the larger tank into which the world renowned cascade used to descend with its rippling sound.

Other vendors were found selling balloons and footballs.

The second stage was a vast wilderness. Gone were the cypress trees as well as the flora painstakingly propagated by the horticulturalists of the Mughal era. Fauna too had migrated. Huge trunks of the freshly felled trees were lying about. Some labourers carrying executioners’ axes were seen patrolling the place, as if looking to cut down more providers of shade. In fact, they were challenging the soul of Babar who would lament the lack of greenery in the dusty land.

The ‘executioners’ huddled together upon our arrival and refused to share their orders with us. All they disclosed was that they had nothing to do with the Authority and were only daily wagers.

There is a possibility that the site will be put on the endangered list. But does anyone care?


Under the only shade beside the tea shop, a large group of permanent employees of the Archaeological Department were huddled on chairs which they vacated for us the minute they came to know about us.

A lively discussion followed. We learnt how they had been denied entry into their own offices where they had served for years. Their files and records books had been thrown out; their income generating assets had been taken over; and they could not even buy the basic cleaning brooms.

They showed us around the monument, while pointing out the various parts and explained their historical importance. Now it was a ‘no-go area’ for them. They were like Gazans on their own territory.

After filming the violations and interviewing several intruders, we thought it fit to visit other sites over the coming weeks. The dedicated ex-staff accompanied us to the parking lot to bid us farewell. We had brought a huge banner which said, “Save Shalimar.” They had an even bigger banner that flashed the flag of Palestine and an appeal to save the Gazan children from Israeli brutality.

Together we raised our protest, loud and clear. Surely, the American colony in the Middle East has all the backing of Europe; the Crusades mentality of the Middle Ages has not gone away. Ayub Khan should have committed our troops into the 1967 war.

It was decided that the CS would visit Lahore Fort next.

Stop press: The interim chief minister of the Punjab, emboldened by the support of the powers that be, has approved the expansion of the WCLA’s mandate across the Punjab, as if Lahore is now a whole province. Historical and ancient structures of the province have been entrusted to a ‘dilettante.’ This is certainly not election mode, and not within the mandate of the interim government.

(This dispatch is dedicated to the staff of Archaeology Department who must be wandering around as Gazan refugees)

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

A fact-finding visit to Shalimar Gardens