Protecting what we have

March 1, 2020

On January 28, 1984, upon the invitation of Khawaja Zaheer-ud-Din, a group of eminent citizens belonging to diverse disciplines and pursuits gathered at his residence at 36-T, Gulberg II, and the need for a conservation society was floated. I was also invited because of a full-page article, titled ‘Lahore and face-lifting,’ I had published in Pakistan Times.

— Image: Supplied

On January 28, 1984, upon the invitation of Khawaja Zaheer-ud-Din, a group of eminent citizens belonging to diverse disciplines and pursuits gathered at his residence at 36-T, Gulberg II, and the need for a conservation society was floated. I was also invited because of a full-page article, titled ‘Lahore and face-lifting,’ I had published in Pakistan Times.

After a series of discussions, viewing of diapositive slides, and field tours, broad outlines for conservation strategies were chalked out. The name Lahore Conservation Society (LCS) was agreed upon. Its aims and objectives included preservation of the traditions of the city. These included built heritage, flora and fauna, local festivities etc. In fact, their canvas was so wide that everything related to the city had to be conserved, saved from decay to be handed down to posterity. It was realised that we were only custodians.

Dr Pervaiz Hassan, an eminent environmentalist, helped chalk out a constitution, and got it registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1861. Col Ejaz Nazim, a noted horticulturalist, was a great help in defining the flora. IA Rehman, the legendary journalist, helped in drafting various press releases and holding press conferences at the Lahore Press Club that operated from different temporary locations until a permanent abode was built at Simla Pahari.

Architect Tanvir Hassan served as the LCS secretary till her departure for higher studies in the UK, following which Dr Zafar Umar took charge and set the tradition of meeting on the last Wednesday of every month — which has continued to this day.

In our meetings, lectures with slides on projector (it was pre-PowerPoint days) were delivered, followed by critical discussions and Q&A sessions meant to thrash out ambiguities and share knowledge. On many occasions, the problems faced by locals were taken up. It sometimes required a visit to the problem sites. We made one such visit to Sheikh Musa Ahangar’s Tomb on McLeod Road. It’s the oldest monument in Lahore, surviving in original shape. Its adjoining mosque had been demolished to build shops and a prayer hall on the roof. A visit to the site by the LCS members put the nefarious designs to a halt.

As news broke out about the gradual parceling of land around the Royal Necropolis in Shahdara, a fact finding visit was organised. The western and northern walls were found encroached upon. The wrong-doers would not permit the violations to be photographed, while the ‘archaeologists’ remained dormant. The following day, I went around on my motorbike, shooting the trouble spots with a tele-lens-equipped camera before anyone could spot the intruder. The Ravi bridge already declared ‘dangerous’ provided a safe escape route.

The images or ‘shoots’ graphically illustrated the rampant encroachments that helped the journalists attending the subsequent press conference held at the LPC, then located in a narrow alley behind the historic Lord’s restaurant. Among the reportages, the most belligerent was by Zeno, dated July 27, 1984. That put an end to further violations. The press conference called to raise objections to the pedestrian bridge erected in front of Chauburji was misunderstood by the attendant journalists. Many opposed its removal, and the suggestion that underground passages would be more convenient for the elderly was shot down. However, after my two articles in Pakistan Times came out, the bridge was removed and a roundabout was built close to the monument.

I also criticised a banquet held inside the Lahore Fort in ‘honour’ of Aga Khan. No more of such events ought to be held at this World Heritage site. Recently, the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA) allowed one, which could put the Fort on the Endangered List. We did not object to the handing over of the Fort to the WCLA, and converting of Iqbal Park into a money-generating apology for Disneyland. They are now eying the Royal Necropolis.

Imrana Tiwana of Lahore Bachao Tehreek (LBT) took a bold step in challenging the Lahore High Court block demolition that was ultimately rebuilt on the orders of the then Chief Justice of Pakistan Rana Bhagwandas. Thanks to Tiwana’s efforts, the Lahore Canal was declared a heritage park.

However, felling of trees is reported time and again. Unfortunately, the LCS did not take notice of the Metro Bus project, which emboldened the powers that be (read mafia), and gave birth to the signal-free corridor and the Orange Train. It was never the policy of the Society to move court. The cases for the above projects were won in the high court but eventually lost in the Supreme Court. Tens of thousands of the Partition refugees were willing to take on the bulldozers, but we failed to provide them leadership.

As more problems came up, some people termed LCS as “anti-progress” or regressive. It was even nicked “conservative”. They do not realise that the city is fast losing its charm. When the LCS team, which included Maxim, visited the Waris Road water tank, the locals could not comprehend the implications of building a plaza there. Fortunately, the plan remains stalled, at least for now.

The Matti Haveli could not be saved because a lack of timely action by the members. However, Tollinton was saved, on the strength of the protest marches and press conferences we held from time to time. But it was mainly due to the stay order obtained by Haji Fazal Karim, the fifth generation merchant who died recently aged 97, pursuing his case for the last 27 years (he was written about in a detailed dispatch previously). It was in his honour that the last Wednesday of the month meeting was held on February 26 at the ‘restored’ Tollinton, from exactly the area where Haji Sahib supplied vegetables and fruits to the “Great People to fly with” and the delegates of OIC Summits. It was presided over by his granddaughter Sumaira Shoaib and LCS President Kamil Khan Mumtaz, and facilitated by Prof Dr Murtaza, the NCA principal. The meeting was attended by many lovers of Lahore. It was decided that the Society be given a fresh impetus.

Now that many of the original 103 members, including its founding members, have died and some have left the country while others have lost interest, fresh blood should be inducted. Besides, it is suitable that the tenure of the office-bearers is restricted to two years, as originally envisaged.

The Punjab Special Premises Act, 1985, which was the single biggest contributor to the LCS, should be strictly enforced and more monuments be placed on the protected list. In the meantime, the tradition of holding monthly meeting be carried on.

It was decided that a gathering be held at Tollinton on March 25, the last Wednesday of the month, at 2pm to visit archives at Anarkali’s Tomb to be facilitated by architect Maqsud Malick.


This dispatch is dedicated to architect/town planner late Khawaja Zaheer-ud-Din.

The writer is a painter, the founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and the former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Note: Free art classes at the House of NANNAs on Sundays. No age bar. Benches are provided. Bring your own lunch.

Lahore Conservation Society: Protecting what we have