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Below the AKTC-restored Lahore Fort’s top surface are secrets of our past 2022-06-26

Date: 
Sunday, 2022, June 26
Location: 
Source: 
www.dawn.com
The restoration of the Shah Burj Gate, located in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Lahore Fort
Author: 
Majid Sheikh

We like to describe the Lahore Fort as one of our finest historical monuments, for within it are contained several other unique monuments and structures. Amazing stories are attached to each aspect of its history. But then is this the complete story.

As the fort and the adjoining walled city are the major, if not the main, attractions of our past, it makes sense to keep our focus on the centrepieces. The condition of the walled city is well known with traders smashing its ancient walls for the bricks to build illegal structures, and the commercial spread expanding from the legally permissible 15% of the built area to an unbelievable 64%. Officially the law is ‘best ignored’. So in this piece let us concentrate on the fort and the bright future that awaits it.

A few years ago because of poor maintenance the north-eastern portion of the fort’s walls collapsed. They have rebuilt in the process discovering that lower down lay a vast world onto itself. The original Lahore Fort lies, so experts inform, below what we see on the beautiful top - full of gardens and exotic structures of the Mughal era. An effort was undertaken to follow two drains, and the deeper they went the greater were the discoveries. So they stopped the process.

But was that enough? A survey showed that besides well-known torture dungeons and secret rooms for soldiers and kings seeking to escape internal attack, lay yet another world. In short as a well-known architect and history buff tells me that there are beautiful baths and prayer rooms and resting rooms and kitchens and huge areas where once grass existed. “What lies above is not even half of what exists below”, she explained.

To expect the government to cough up enough resources, monetary and human, to fully understand the real history of the Lahore Fort is just expecting too much. When as a people we do not pay our tax dues, why expect our politicians and bureaucrats to focus on our cultural needs. But then there are people in this world who can manage to make things happen, and happen only it can if they care.

One such person is the Aga Khan, the son of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, who played a major role in assisting Mr M.A. Jinnah create the Muslim League by becoming its first President. Sir Sultan was born in Karachi like Mr Jinnah, and yet he had a beautiful house in Lahore and it was because of his advancement of the ‘Two Nation’ theory that Pakistan came into being. His focus was on the educational and cultural uplift of the Muslims of the subcontinent. Yet his style was to not to be seen as a frontrunner. In 1937, he was chosen as the President of the League of Nations.

The present Aga Khan has an estimated wealth (Forbes claims) of well over US $13.3 billion, making him among the top 15 richest persons in the world. He has set up a number of organisations including the Aga Khan Development Network, as well as the Centre for the Promotion of Islamic Architecture, of which the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is a part. His numerous other educational efforts can be seen in the manner in which large areas of Northern Pakistan have been made 100% literate. “Educate the women and you will educate everyone” seems to be the motto.

In Pakistan besides major investments in education, for Lahore he made a major mark by raising German money for the Gali Surjan Singh project, which was completed in 2011. This effort led to the Walled City of Lahore Authority being set up in 2012, with the legal documentation being handled by an Aga Khan person.

His next effort was to concentrate on the Lahore Fort and their Lahore office has helped to handle most of the work in the walled city and the Lahore Fort. The Wazir Khan Mosque project has been yet another masterpiece with the surrounding buildings also being restored and conserved. That added immensely to the mosque’s ambience. Sadly, once the conserved buildings next to the mosque were handed over to the government, they auctioned them out and now we see the contractor trying to change those very structures with gaudy additions. This is illegal, but no one is bothered.

But back to the Lahore Fort and the Aga Khan. It seems he has got a detailed plan to explore and research the lower sections of the fort, some portions naturally being pre-Islamic, and a detailed plan has been put forward before the French government. Mind you the Aga Khan lives in France, so he has access to them.

My reliable understanding is that a US $20 million plan over five years is in the final process of approval, and once the skilled persons are put in place it will go ahead. One hopes that the vast history below the one on top is opened up for people and scholars to see and appreciate. Here we have the scope for archaeological research to lead the way, just as it did in 1958 when 50 feet below the front lawn of the Dewan-e-Aam in the seventh layer were found pottery carbon-dated at 4,500 years old.

The question is that will our ancient history be discovered as the French project gets under way. My plea over the years has been to undertake several such archaeological projects within the walled city. One such place would be at the Paniwalla Talab near Chuna Mandi, where over 1,200 years ago the Sun Temple of Bhandara existed. Come Mahmud the destroyer from Ghazni and it was flattened.

But then another mosque at the same place was demolished by a raging Mughal Babar. There is just so much below the surface. The effort of this column has been for such scientific research to be undertaken by the Punjab University archaeology students within the walled city. Sadly, no scholar of the likes of Prof Ahmed Hasan Dani exists.

But then when that north-eastern wall of the Lahore Fort collapsed, it finally came to the mind of our ‘authorities’ that ancient monuments have a science and a mind of their own. When unscientific additions are made they add to problems, not solve them, unless the addition is not invasive and was once part of the original structure. Large portions of the remaining fort wall need urgent attention.

On the Lahore Fort’s hidden secrets we will be learning more and more, and it might even take longer to bring back to life. My interest is also that all the honest great men who were tortured and/or killed by rulers past must be remembered. My list would include Dulla Bhatti, Guru Arjan and continue till Salmaan Taseer and other student leaders as well as political leaders like ZA Bhutto. Simple plaques will do.

The Lahore Fort is much more than part of our past, with great battles being fought there. How will this expected plan unfolds will be for everyone to see. It will certainly add to the glory of our finest monument. What lies below has always intrigued scholars, and now thanks to the Aga Khan and the French, we might yet add another chapter to our glorious past.

Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2022


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