Authority in question

January 19, 2020

The mehndi event held recently inside the Lahore Fort has sparked intense backlash at the abuse of space of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, besides exposing the workings of the WCLA

“The WCLA has frequently held events at the Fort and Hazuri Bagh which include cultural shows, Sufi music performances, dastangoi events, and corporate dinners at the Royal Kitchen, but no pop music concerts. The same rules apply on private event organisers.”

Earlier this month, images and video footage of an elaborate mehndi ceremony that was held inside the Lahore Fort went viral on social media, sparking intense backlash against the workings of the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), a semi-government organisation that looks after the restoration and conservation of historical buildings and monuments in the city.

Important questions were raised as to WCLA’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) regarding holding cultural events at a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site; and the response of both the Authority and the government in the wake of the event.

In the eyes of experts, conducting or sanctioning such commercial events is a gross violation of the rules of UNESCO and the Punjab Antiquities Act, 1975.

Royal Kitchen, constructed during the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan some 400 years ago, is located inside the Lahore Fort, behind the stately Alamgiri Gate. It was here that food would be prepared, along with a wide variety of drinks and sweets, for royal family members and their guests. The Fort was looked after by the Archeology Department until 2012, when the management of the Lahore Fort was handed over to the WCLA, following an amendment in the Walled City of Lahore Bill, 2011 by the Punjab Assembly.

The Lahore Fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its “outstanding repertoire” of Mughal monuments, in the year 1981.

There are two major issues that need to be addressed prior to any discussion on the international obligations applied on World Heritage Sites, and the provincial laws formulated to look after historical buildings. Firstly, under which authority does the WCLA issue NOCs (no objection certificates) for any commercial events in the premises of the Lahore Fort? Secondly, what are the punishments in case any violations are reported?

According to Tania Qureshi, a WCLA spokesperson, “In June 2019, a seven-member Heritage Conservation Board (HCB) empowered the WCLA management, by approving a reuse plan on conservation, the Royal Kitchen inside the Fort, and improvements by generating revenue.” (Under Section 9 of the Walled City of Lahore Authority Act, 2012, the Heritage Conservation Board may advise the government and WCLA on conservation of heritage and related matters.)

“Since then, the WCLA has frequently held events at the Fort and Hazuri Bagh which include cultural shows, Sufi music performances, dastangoi events, and corporate dinners at the Royal Kitchen, but no pop music concerts. The same rules apply to private event organisers.”

Qureshi says that the Authority charges Rs500,000 from a private company interested in holding a permitted event.

She also claims that the organiser of the event in question “misled the [WCLA] management, by submitting a request seeking permission to hold a private dinner.”

Renowned architect Nayyar Ali Dada, who is also a member of the HCB, is of the view that the “purpose of giving approval for cultural events is to keep the Fort alive for tourists. Hence, the Board is satisfied with the limited use of the Royal Kitchen as a restaurant or eatery.”

Regarding the mehndi event, Dada says the WCLA management should have responded in time. “To keep the monuments safe from any damage is the prime obligation of the Authority which has been compromised in the recent (wedding) event, due to inefficiency and carelessness,” he says.

Qureshi rejects the criticism, saying that the “staff approached the organisers and requested them to stop the ceremony as soon as they were informed that the participants, including women, had begun mehndi rituals at the Royal Kitchen. But no one paid heed to us. Even the Tibbi City Police Station staff could not help the situation when they were called.

Rule 2 in UNESCO’s Manual for Activities states, “Commercial exploitation for trade or speculation is not acceptable because our heritage should not be seen as an economic resource available to be used in trade or speculation.”

“Now the guarantee money of Rs100,000 has been confiscated as a punishment, and an FIR lodged against Major (retd) Asjad Nawaz Cheema, owner of the company that organised the event,” Qureshi adds.

The Lahore Fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its “outstanding repertoire” of Mughal monuments, in the year 1981.

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The FIR may have been lodged but there are huge gaps there. For instance, the FIR was lodged two days after the event took place. The application says that the WCLA staff approached the organisers at 11pm, but it also says that the mehndi ceremony had started much before that time. Nowhere does it say that the police witnessed the proceedings.

Further, there is no mention of the violation of Section 45 of the WCLA Act 2012 which clearly states that a “person who willfully causes damage, or allows damage to be caused to any heritage property in a zone of special value shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine which may extend to one million rupees, or with both.”

When approached, a police officer declared, on condition of anonymity, that the registered FIR “appears weak.” He called it an eyewash “because nothing in the FIR is mentioned about the law and the presence of police at the venue.” The provisions mentioned are general and easy to handle.

Conservationists, heritage lovers, and experts have meanwhile come down hard on the WCLA. They are up to challenging the Authority’s legal right to permit anyone to organise such events on the premises of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Rule 2 in UNESCO’s Manual for Activities states, “Commercial exploitation for trade or speculation is not acceptable because our heritage should not be seen as an economic resource available to be used in trade or speculation.”

A letter by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) is said to have been dispatched to the WCLA management and the provincial government asking about the legal footings for permitting any commercial activity at the Lahore Fort. The letter quotes from UNESCO’s rules, the Punjab Antiquities Act, 1975 and the Punjab Special Premises (Preservation) Ordinance, 1985.

Architect, Imrana Tiwana a conservationist, and a member of ICOMOS, says that the inclusion of any monument in UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list means that the place now belongs to the whole world, and nothing ought to be done that violates UNESCO’s rules.

“The WCLA has not only violated UNESCO’s Rule 2, but also Clauses 22 and 23 of the Punjab Antiquities Act, 1975 and Clause 11 of the Punjab Special Premises (Preservation) Ordinance, 1985,” she says. “And, the Authority presents itself as custodians of heritage buildings.

“Unfortunately, apart from organising commercial events and letting others to do so, the Authority has committed the unlawful act, tantamount to destroying the Fort, of building an upscale café inside the Royal Kitchen. Therefore, we demand that the management must pay for it rather than create scapegoats like the Fort in-charge Bilal Tahir and its marketing director, Asif Zaheer!”

Tiwana calls for constitution of a committee of experts that should replace the HCB. She also stresses the importance of a national-level investigative committee to look into all kinds of violations being committed at the World Heritage Sites and to catch the culprits.


The author is a staff member and can be reached at

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Lahore Fort mehndi event and WCLA: Authority in question