Past glory: Going, going, gone…

Published in Tribune Magazine. March 24, 2013.

Shalimar Garden, barren and derelict.

Lahore, the cultural capital of the country, owes its majestic aura mainly to history — a history that spans across many centuries and many eras. But it’s the Mughal influence that remains undeniably the strongest. A trip to Lahore is therefore incomplete without a pilgrimage to the remnants or Mughal glory.

Unfortunately, remnants are exactly what they are. The lack of maintenance leaves one bitterly disappointed at how these monuments have been neglected.

fort 01

Visitors leave behind their marks

My earliest memories as a child are of visiting the Badshahi mosque and the Shalimar Gardens. Of course, there were times when the fountains at Shalimar Gardens wouldn’t run or the Lahore Fort was too dingy for aesthetic appreciation. But I recall that I would always leave these places with a sense of pride in the history of this city, and the entire subcontinent.  There was always a hope for improvement.

But as the decades sped by, that hope is gone. The state of the Mughal buildings has now deteriorated to such depressing lows that even history buffs and archaeologists have given up. One is forced to write about it, not because of an urge to criticise, but out of love for Lahore’s lost grandeur.

Go to the Fort and you’ll discover that more than half of it is now closed to the public, and that a considerable area has been converted into offices. The fountains in the Shalimar Gardens haven’t worked in years. In fact, finding any water in there at all there is a stroke of luck, unless you happen to visit during the monsoons. The compound of Jahangir’s tomb is another story entirely: you are strictly forbidden from wandering off into the gardens or into Asif Khan’s tomb at the opposite end. These places now teem with addicts and it is highly likely that you will get mugged if you stray beyond the ‘safe’ zones. That’s not all…if you venture to the Badshahi mosque, be prepared to get harassed by people asking for donations. In the Wazir Khan mosque in the Walled City, you will have to pay a handsome amount in ‘unofficial fees’ in order to see the structure in its entirety. Meanwhile, Noor Jehan’s tomb has been practically reduced to a cricket ground for the locals of Shahdara.

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No Entry

The structures still have a lot to offer. Even in the face of sheer neglect, they have a way of making you fall in love with them. But the renovation being carried out here is so slow or ill-directed that it actually seems pointless. That is why visitors may end up being more cynical than impressed, knowing that if instant measures are not taken, these majestic reminders of the Mughal era will be a thing of the past.

It’s sad, really, that a city with such character is being denuded of its precious charm so brazenly. And it’s even sadder to be a witness to such neglect and vandalism — that too, not in some far-off corner of the country but in this cultural capital!

Who is to be blamed for this fiasco? The people of Lahore are certainly guilty. They are guilty for not paying any regard to the dignity of these sites, for throwing garbage everywhere and for covering centuries-old walls with inane graffiti.

But an inactive and uninterested government is the main culprit here. If the whole of Lahore can be dug up for the mass-transit project, and all the modern parks can be maintained so primly, is it too much to ask that the government pay some heed to these heritage sites as well, before they deteriorate to the point of no return? Giving credit where it’s due, the provincial government has done some good work at other fronts in the city. But that doesn’t compensate for their gross negligence of these places.

The caretakers of these sites have become rather glum. A cleaner at the Fort summed it up rather philosophically, ‘When the present is s so gloomy and the future so bleak, who cares about the past?’ A visitor to Shahdara Bagh expressed his cynicism more practically: ‘Roads, parks and buses are always the better options for a government to work upon. That is because history doesn’t get you votes!’

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