Sunday, 31 January 2016

QK archives: Reclaiming our heritage

Originally published The NEWS 14 December 2012

By Z. Khan and Ali Jan
Recently, a Peshawar-based heritage activist pointedly told us how he used to keep a list of various heritage sites under threat. However, he sees little point in doing so now as the list of those sites under threat, and those that have vanished, grows longer and longer.

The city used to be clearly divided between the old walled city and the cantonment. The city’s 16 gates each had their distinctive names with the most used being the obvious ones – the Kabul and Lahori gates, a reflection of the two big influences over the city that have remained to this day. Today, only two of the 16 gates exist and, sadly, much of the wall has ceased to exist. The old city’s most famous bazaar, the Qissa Khawani Bazaar, was also the site of a largely forgotten massacre in 1930 when the soldiers of Garhwal Rifles defied their British officers and refused to fire on unarmed protestors.

Deeper in the city is the historic Mosque of Mahabat Khan, built in 1630. It was here, from its minarets, that the Italian mercenary and Sikh-era governor Paolo Avitabile (a name corrupted by locals to Abu Tabela) would hang opponents. Then there is the 2000-year-old Gorkhatri site in the heart of the old city, housing one of the widest and deepest archaeological excavation pits in the world. Findings from it officially established Peshawar’s chronological profile as the oldest living city in this part of Asia. The place also has a Mughal caravanserai, a Hindu temple and most interestingly is also home to a century-old fire engine station from the days of the British Raj.

Outside the old city there are other important heritage sites. The old city was controlled from the heights of the Bala Hisar Fort, which has remained under the Frontier Corps’ control. Although an ideal tourist attraction, visiting the fort, however, is a hard task nowadays with breakdown in security. The cantonment is home to the Peshawar Club, Edwardes College, the old Capitol Cinema, the Governor’s House and the once relatively quiet Saddar Bazaar near The Mall.

Further afield we have the Peshawar University and the iconic Islamia College with its distinctive early 20th century architecture, which is also in dire need of protection and restoration. Despite these rich treasures, none of the old monuments of Peshawar’s walled city are included in Unesco’s World Heritage List. The provincial and federal gazetted ‘protected national monument’ lists are, at best, feeble attempts and seem to give a semblance of some sort to the guardianship of a handful of sites. It is a sad reflection of the poor state of affairs and lack of interest among the government departments concerned with protecting our heritage.

Amidst this loss of the city’s heritage, when important buildings like Bala Hisar Fort and Islamia College are not listed as protected national heritage monuments, others have simply vanished. Town Hall, city gates and walls, Falak Sair Cinema, Shahji-ki-Dheri (Site of Kanishka’s Stupa) , Panj Tirath, Deans Hotel, Duchess of Connaught Hospital, Hari Singh Ka Burj, several ancient gardens, private homes and tea houses, Hastings Memorial, Mackeson’s obelisk, Dak bungalows, temples and even a synagogue have all crumbled.

In the case of the Bala Hisar Fort, a 1997 agreement reached between the Frontier Corps and provincial government stipulated that the FC were to vacate the fort and open it to the public for tourism purposes.

In 1995, the then inspector general of the Frontier Corps shared his concern about the deteriorating condition of the fort with the provincial government, suggesting that the fort may be opened to tourists if the higher authorities permitted. Since the fort was never formally notified as a ‘national monument’, the provincial secretary informed his federal counterpart to seek funds for its conservation and also bring it under the ambit of the Antiquities Act of 1975.

In 1995, the Frontier Corps HQ indicated via a letter (No 803/33/x/works) that it had inadequate funds for upkeep of the fort and asked the authorities to take note of the construction of multi-storey buildings in the vicinity of the fort. The FC also asked the agencies concerned to ensure the implementation of Article 22 of the Antiquities Act 1975, which prohibits construction in the vicinity of a historical monument.

In 1997, the provincial government allotted several acres of land worth millions to the FC to shift its headquarters from Bala Hisar. Then chief minister, Sardar Mehtab Abbasi, visited the under-construction headquarters in Hayatabad and issued a written directive (No SOIV/CM/97/4-1/4246-53), which included, among other things: “1. Additional Rs10 million may be released for completion of the under-construction building of FC HQ. It will be utilised to ensure the vacation of Bala Hisar Fort within six months by shifting the HQ to the site in Hayatabad; 2. A museum may be created in the Fort and it would be developed as a tourist facility.” Unfortunately the order remains unimplemented to this day.

Disturbing stories are also circulating about Gorkhatri, alleging that there are efforts to turn it into a commercial site with new constructions on the premises. This scheme is apparently supported by senior politicians and officials. This is a recurring theme for heritage activists when half-hearted, and sometimes well-meaning, efforts to preserve heritage sites end up causing damage. To use an analogy to describe this mixture of blatant opportunism and inept well-meaning efforts, it is like how bad medicine can be more dangerous to a patient than no medicine at all.

Till the 1980s, Peshawar was heavily dominated by the Hindko-speaking community of the old city as well as a significant number of Pakhtuns, and smaller numbers of Persian and Dari speakers. The rural areas of Peshawar were dominated by the Arbab landlords who had historically served as tax collectors and brokers between others tribes and the city. It was also home to a sizable number of Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and some Parsi families. This subculture had a sense of ownership over the city, a ‘Dil Pishori’ philosophy that still exists in a diminished form.

Over the decades the city has spilled out of these confines and spread westwards, with new suburban localities developing over prime agriculture land and a new generation of middle-class Pakhtuns who have made the city their home. In the face of governmental inaptitude, this generation has the added difficult task of preserving art and culture through education and guarantee the protection of cultural heritage sites. This new generation has to challenge the apathy that has crept around them and reach out to reclaim this heritage for future generations.

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