Lahore has been blessed with stunning architectural structures dating back to the Mughal era, some as old as the 16th century. Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque, Wazir Khan Mosque, the tombs of Jahangir, Asif Khan, and Akbari Sarai… the city boasts monuments of historical and cultural significance. Being a Lahorite, one needs to be acquainted with these places.
I have been to all these heritage sites at some point in time, whether with a school trip or with parents and friends for a Sunday activity. I used to think that only a history enthusiast would be able to appreciate the beauty and importance of these places, but once within the vicinity of these structures, it becomes difficult not be awed by the aesthetic charm of the domes, calligraphy, and designs.
Playing host to immortal monuments from the history books has an immense impact. Not only it adds to the scenic beauty of the city but also attracts tourists, for their postcard/selfie moments, which ultimately contributes to the economy as well.
I have been lucky enough to visit a few such structures in various countries. What immediately got my attention were the efforts put in by the concerned authorities, for the preservation and maintenance of these places. Regardless of where they are situated, whether in city centres or outskirts, practical attempts are made to conserve the splendour of these sites. Needless to say that we are letting our heritage fade away, like the visibility in this current smog filled city.
Construction projects have been going around the city of Lahore for a while now. For the past decade, the Punjab government has undertaken ‘mega’ projects to change the transport and infrastructure of the city. In an attempt to have signal-free access to various parts of Lahore, we have grown accustomed to the sight of debris and concrete pillars on our roads. I saw something just as familiar, recently, around the Shalamar Gardens area.
I do not normally take a trip up that part of Lahore. As a resident of DHA, a visit to Andaz or Food Street might be the only time I would have to drive up there. It is probably because of that reason why I had no clue to the deterioration of these sites. Recently, I made a visit to Lakshmi Chowk, and was surprised to see the amount of debris in the area surrounding the place. Traffic, on the other hand, was abysmal. Rickshaws, motorbikes, Suzuki ‘dubbas’, and cars scampering through bottlenecks, were worsening the already unpleasant picture of the old town. It was the first time I saw the ongoing construction of the Orange Line Metro Train (or OLMT). I decided to follow its route, in order to see if the situation was just as horrendous. As I approached the intersection of Shalamar Gardens, my suspicion grew into disbelief.
Shalamar Gardens is one of the sites to be recognised as a World Heritage Location by UNESCO. Dating back to the time of Emperor Shah Jahan, the place is proof of the extravagance of the Mughal Empire. From the 410 fountains, building up the canal and the basin, to the intricate fretwork, Shalamar Gardens proves its worthiness of being a World Heritage Site. However, the government’s attempts to provide a means of modern urban transportation seem to happen at the cost of the city’s cultural identity.
It is not a good picture to paint. Having been to these places before, I could remember the picturesque scenes of the surrounding area. Sewage pipes lined up against the Shalamar’s wall, ditches dug up close to it, and towering pillars in front of it, are just some of the unnecessary things present there.
It wasn’t long before I understood why the World Heritage status was being taken away. Earlier this year, it had been revealed that Shalamar Gardens would lose its status as a World Heritage Location, if the OLMT project progressed under its original plan. The construction process is within the 61-meter protective zone laid out by international laws, subject to heritage. The Punjab government has continued to stress its stance on the preservation of these sites as a matter of utmost importance. Regardless of what the government claims, the place is definitely facing a fall in its legitimacy as a heritage site.
Why does it matter? It matters because it is part of our cultural identity. It is what Lahore is known for. The title of ‘City of Gardens’ wasn’t given because of the Metro Bus or the signal-free Ferozepur road. It was given because of the plethora of gorgeous gardens that are present around us.
I am all for development of infrastructure or better means of transportation to the common man, but not at the cost of our heritage sites. These sites give us distinctiveness, a sense of originality that not a lot of countries can claim to have. What is the point of being identified as citizens of the world when we cannot even maintain our own cultural significance?