The history of Punjab’s capital city of Lahore, is replete with lore and legends, many of which have an aura of mystery surrounding them. If archeologists were to excavate the area that lies outside the walled city in any direction, they will find layer upon layer of architectural remains – houses, palaces, gardens, tombs and even fortifications, buried deep under suburban development. These layers represent the bygone grandeur of a city witness to countless sieges, battles and invasions, side by side with pageantry and pomp, ritual and ceremony, life and death and each of these layers represents an era just waiting to be uncovered and protected as our heritage, no matter how pagan.

A serious lapse in our character is the ostrich like tendency to destroy old monuments in a bid to close our eyes (and minds) to a part of our history that does not resonate with our beliefs. We have no hesitation in erasing structures predating the advent of Islam in the region or even those that represent the two centuries of colonial rule. We do this without cognisance of the fact that these buildings are an irrevocable part of our history and nothing that we do in the garb of zealotry or patriotism will ever alter this fact.

I have vivid memories of a Mughal building dating back to the reign of Emperor Shahjehan, near the Mughalpura Level Crossing, close to the railway line running from Lahore to Wagah and beyond. It was surrounded by lush green fields and was accessible through a dirt road. A similar structure stood next to the outer limits of Harbanspura Cantonment. Both these buildings were constructed on pentagonal platforms at least three to four feet in height, accessible through steps on each side. A towering five sided arched pavilion topped by a circular dome stood in the centre of the platform. One could still see the remnants of beautiful representations of flowers and Persian inscriptions on the exterior and interior of the structures. The interior of the dome was decorated with geometric patterns much of which had vanished. What caught the eye was a gallery that ran around the interior of both structures and was accessible through a nerve testing narrow staircase. It was during a recent visit to Lahore that I decided to revisit these places and was horrified to discover that I couldn’t find them. Either they had been demolished by the houses that now cover the area in a dense mass or in a remotely optimistic hope, their access had been blocked, which meant that very soon these would be no more.

Lahore’s Mall Road (known commonly as The Mall) was lined on both sides by beautiful buildings representing a mixture of native and colonial architecture. On my way to school, I remember passing a white single story structure representing classic Grecian design. This housed the newspaper called the Civil and Military Gazette or C&MG. Outside one of the rooms facing the Mall, a plaque told visitors that it was here that Rudyard Kipling carried on with his duties as Assistant Editor of the paper. Now I wouldn’t think much of anyone, who does not now who Kipling was. For these innocently ignorant modern day Lahoris, let it suffice that Kipling and Lahore are synonymous – something that is reflected in his dispatches and stories about this city in particular and undivided India in general (Readers may like to read the celebrated novel ‘Kim’ to get a better idea of what I am saying). Alas the CMG building was pulled down and replaced by an ugly glass fronted shopping plaza.

A similar fate was suffered by the old houses inside the walled city. These houses had awesome decorative facades depicting the diversity of their owner’s faith. Wooden ‘jharokas’ and carved wooden balconies ran on every floor of these homes overlooking narrow ‘gullies’ and paved ‘maidans’. Many of these facades are now gone, replaced with modern windows.

I can go on and on with such tales, where the menace of commercial greed and so called modern development has destroyed history and its amazing representation through beautiful buildings. I know many overseas and local Pakistanis with origins from Lahore and its walled interior, who are willing to take on restoration of their beloved City, it is now up to the administration to locate these individuals and offer them their unstinted support.

 

The writer is a historian.