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They call him “Lahore ka Khoji”

Syed Faizan Abbas Naqvi is a part-time teacher and a full-time nomad; an adventurer devoted to the cause of preservation of the city’s history, art, culture and built heritage

They call him “Lahore ka Khoji”
Religious diversity is one of the key focuses of Naqvi’s historical research.

In her book, Remnants of a Separation, author and historian Aanchal Malhotra says that “memorialisation is not a passive practice but an active conversation.” When it comes to Lahore, many have taken up the spirit of these words to preserve the grandeur and majesty of a rich heritage that was coloured through the ages by many civilisations, conquerors, charlatans, kings, and colonisers. One of the standout stalwarts fighting to preserve the history, culture, and heritage of Lahore is a young, self-funded historian, named Syed Faizan Abbas Naqvi.

Known online and to his thousands of fans as “Lahore ka Khoji” (The discoverer of Lahore), Naqvi is a part-time teacher and a full time nomad, an adventurer devoted to the cause of preservation of the history, art, culture and built heritage of Lahore beyond ethnic, religious, and class divides. He has written five books about his different research projects related to the subject, and countless articles, essays, features, research papers, and booklets. What he is most proud of is making the wealth of knowledge about Lahore and greater Punjab accessible to masses in local languages. Through his efforts in the last one decade, Naqvi has built a stunningly complex archive that is run through his organisation, the Lahore Shanasi Foundation.

When we go back a little in time to his earliest influences and his journey, we find out that his unwavering passion for history, discovery of art and culture, his logical reasoning, and “Khoji” skills came from the best possible source: his mother.

In a recent conversation (which has been edited and translated here from beautifully descriptive and conversational Urdu) Naqvi shared his journey from being “normal Faizan” to “Lahore ka Khoji”.

Starting with his personal providence, Naqvi said: “My mother’s side of the family came to the city via Amritsar and the Indian village of Ghamrain which was near the city Ajnala. It’s situated on the opposite side of Narowal. During Partition, my paternal grandfather moved to our ancestral village of Walaniya Wala near Chiniot. From there the twain met in Lahore, and I was born.”

Raised by a long line of highly educated teachers was a boon. “My mother was a teacher in the Lady Kinnaird School,” he continued. “She holds a masters’ degree in History. As a child, I used to read all of her history books. The dates, descriptions, and characters, which were all real people, were more fantastical than any fiction. I was enamored by history. That’s where it all started.”

With more than 4,000 books in his home library, Naqvi developed and still maintains a relentless passion for reading and research. As he grew up, he got into the habit of archiving printed material as well, which started from trying to conserve his paternal grandfather’s old religious tomes. When the books at home ran out, Naqvi turned his sights towards collecting reading material about the history of his country and city from other sources. The cheapest and surprisingly most comprehensive source proved to be the weekend book bazar that was held near Anarkali on Mall Road in Lahore.

“I found a book about the history of Lahore in 2009 from there,” he recalled. “It had been published by an NGO working on the conservation and history of Lahore. I read it from cover to cover, and because of my interest I became a member of this NGO. From there on I started research on the old buildings, history, and geography of Lahore. I was still a student, but this also became my focus, and quite senior people started to notice my devotion to Lahore and its history. One year later, when my teacher Rao Javed Iqbal’s book on history of Lahore was published, he signed his autograph to “Faizan — Lahore ka Khoji.

“My fate was sealed. I registered myself on different social media sites under this name. I started posting about my work on the history of Lahore and photographs of long forgotten nooks and corners of the city on these [social media] accounts, and started getting more and more followers. People who are interested in the glorious history of this city know me well by this name and my work.”

“Cellphones and the internet have killed the spirit of exploration. All I want to say to the younger generation is that your land is known by the way you live, just as much as you are known by the land you live in. Know about it!”

In his parallel life, Syed Faizan Abbas Naqvi was becoming a famous person, historian, and archivist whose work was being praised by veterans in the field. And in his real life, his educational journey continued. He holds an MSc in Mass Communication, an MA degree in History, and an MA Punjabi degree. He plans to extend his studies to MPhil. He is presently working on three different books which are all available to order from his Facebook page and that of his Foundation. His on-ground projects continue and he shows no signs of slowing down, despite many hurdles.

“Lahore is the type of city where traces of history linger on in every street and corner, sometimes undiscovered and sometimes in plain sight,” he enthused, when asked about the most intriguing things he had found in his searches.

“Some of the more gut-wrenching things I’ve found are traces and mentions of the shared communal spaces and traditional festivals that were held in them to celebrate the religious and socio-cultural diversity of this magnificent city.”

Religious diversity is one of the key focuses of Naqvi’s historical research, especially because so much of it has been lost over the ages. For Naqvi, the claim by many of Lahore being intolerant to diversity is a laughable notion: “Lahore was a microcosm of the world, with people of many religions, castes, creeds, and ethnicities. In my explorations, I have found mandir, churches, gurdwaras and temples. I’m sad to report that 99.9 percent of these have been demolished, changed, taken over by mafia, or simplyy destroyed in the name of ‘conservation.’ But comprehensive research about them exists in my archives. People from all walks of life are welcome to access these {archives} and see for themselves.”

The archives are shareable and researchable by all. Students, researchers, and journalists can utilise this precious resource by paying a minimal amount that goes towards maintaining the projects of Lahore Shanasai Foundation and other related ventures of cultural and heritage conservation.

According to Naqvi, “Lahore had three grand Jain temples, but all have been lost. There were around 40 gurdawaras but only three are functional now. Traces of some have remained, the rest are lost to the ravages of time and human greed. There were more than a hundred traditional Hindu mandirs but only two are active, and the rest are, quite literally, history.”

While discovering remnants of the past always provides a new sense of wonder to Naqvi. He is sharply aware of the fact that the continuous disregard for preservation of it all hasn’t been kind to monuments built and left behind by people of other religions.

“It’s not just limited to monuments built by the non-Muslims. Mosques, inns, houses of learning, bathhouses built by Muslim Nawabs, Governors and Ministers were destroyed or altered brutally to be taken over by land mafias. The tombs of many Muslim saints and scholars were similarly destroyed and taken over by groups that would exploit them for monetary gains. Bearing witness to this slow but steady decay is crushing, but there is no other way. I do my work to make everyone aware, so they cannot claim they did not know about these things happening.”

To make sure his work creates this awareness to rally support for the cause of heritage preservation in Lahore, Naqvi conducts guided history walks, talks, speeches, panel discussions, conferences, study circles, and is always willing to engage with inquisitive people through his social media. He also promotes people taking charge of their own learning and going beyond even what he suggests to see the city and our heritage from fresher perspectives.

Naqvi considers Iqbal Qaiser, Muhammad Naeem Murtaza, M R Shahid, Dr Ghaffar Shahzad, Dr Anjum Rehmani, Kamil Khan Mumtaz, and Dr Ajaz Anwer as his mentors, and tries to emulate their generosity of spirit.

“I feel the priorities of the younger generation have changed significantly in this day and age,” he said. “Cellphones and the internet have killed the spirit of exploration. All I want to say to the younger generation is that your land is known by the way you live, just as much as you are known by the land you live in. Know about it!”

As a parting note, Naqvi was pensive about the role of the government and civil society in conserving and preserving the built heritage of Lahore: “Development is necessary for a society to evolve, and Lahore has seen a lot of it in the last decade or so. But any sort of development that bulldozes our irreplaceable historic heritage is no true development at all!

“Government offices in possession of archives lock up their goods whenever I show up. It’s as if they fear any knowledge being shared freely with public. That attitude has got to change. Generosity of spirit and access to information have to be the order of the day if we want to see any progress in a public-private conservation partnership.”

In the same spirit of discovery, Naqvi has now extended his research, and works in 28 districts of Lahore. His findings about the history, archaeology, and built heritage of these districts of Punjab shall be published in a book soon. Recently, he also gathered history lovers in Gujranwala and helped them establish the Gujranwala Heritage Foundation. In Jhelum, the Jhelum Heritage Foundation is also his brainchild. Work helmed by him in other cities continues, and includes Uchh Sharif, Chiniot, and Deepalpur. And he is doing this through personal funds, donations from friends, and whatever funds he can generate from his books and access to archives.

“It’s not just about money, it’s also about the drive to save our virsa (heritage),” he added. “We erroneously believe that the government will do everything, which it does not and it cannot! Volunteering, attending local cultural events in smaller villages or on the outskirts of our cities to learn more about the ancient, organic games, sports, dances, and other cultural activities, writing more about these, especially in languages that the masses can understand is essential.”

Nuzhat Saadia Siddiqi

Nuzhat Saadia Siddiqi is a writer, photographer, environmentalist and archivist based in Lahore. She writes about women's rights, environment, species conservation, urban issues, culture and sustainable development. She tweets @guldaar

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