The future of our past

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Why preserve a heritage?

The Mohatta palace, built in colonial times for a Hindu businessman by a Muslim architect in the Mughal style using traditional pink Jodhpur stone and the yellow Gizri stone of Karachi is a speaking amalgam of time, place and person. Sensitively restored, it is a living symbol of the pleasure the past brings to a living present.

In this setting a panel discussion took place entitled ‘Critical Heritage: The future of Pakistan’s past.’ As keynote speaker Kamil Khan Mumtaz, one of Pakistan’s most gifted architects posed the simple question: Who are we?

Who are we indeed?

It is worth asking in addition why the past must be preserved and how? Is it so that we can revert to it?

According to Bertrand Russell, “There are two reasons for reading a book: one that you enjoy it, the other that you can boast about it!” Exactly so, it is a pleasure to explore one’s heritage, the Mohatta Palace, the Badshahi Mosque, the Lahore Fort; they are also a source of pride, inspite of the flaws.

It is also that the past, like another direction on a compass, is a point of reference that provides you with identity and helps position you in this world.

The people of Pakistan despite their varied genealogy rise to certain occasions as one. This could be defined as a collective identity, provided by the country we live in now, our recent past, and the years before. We may not live like our ancestors any longer or share all their values and predilections – not many of us move to another country to proselytise, not many of us move to another country to conquer – but we are undoubtedly products of a common history and it is this history that speaks to us by means of our visual heritage. This is why it needs to be preserved.

The statues of Buddha so wantonly destroyed were no threat to any faith. They simply spoke of the skill and dedication of those who chiselled these mammoths from harsh stone. They stood in mute testimony to persons who lived in these parts before we did, who were milestones along our history, helping us to visualise the pathways travelled by others before we arrived at where we stand today.

Buildings of the Mughal period would tempt no one to fratricide, patricide or to build lavish tombs for one’s spouse, although they do tempt some to poetry. They stand (or now almost fall) as a reminder of opulence gone by when elephants carried riders up wide steps into a fort, when a candle lit inside a pavilion burst into a thousand dazzling flames.

There is no threat implicit in someone else’s past either. Their heritage in Rome is a pleasure even though they were not my ancestors – Michaelangelo, Leonardo, or Raphael. Yet they instil in me a pride in the talents of my fellow human beings. I arise from the cradle of Mesopotamia or Gandhara and then from Jodhpur, Delhi, Agra or Bengal. I live now in Lahore or Karachi or Dera Ghazi Khan and am in addition a citizen of the world. I need to destroy no one, pull down no monuments to prove my identity or the worth of my ancestors.

Our children today are scattered in a diaspora as unsettling as the one that scattered the children of Israel. They dress in various ways, speak and eat according to their adoptive lands, yet their roots feed on exactly the same springs as ours. For those who remain at home, a longing for wider horizons leads them to adopt ways that express this yearning but the opportunity is often denied. What is more, life at home is such that even to copy is torment and anything that stands for change bitter.

The threat to our monuments from negligence, vandalism and their destruction by religious fanatics has no basis in religion. It is purely an expression of anger and an urge for self-assertion in a world that denies many the basic economic means for survival.

In countries like Pakistan, the expensive preservation of monuments requires more sensitivity than elsewhere in the world. To leave this work of restoration in the hands of workers who possess neither skill for the job nor the wherewithal for personal existence is foolish. As the architect Sajjad Kausar demonstrated in his presentation, the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore suffered as a result of a lack of this sensitivity, as have other monuments, and by extension the people to whom these monuments belong.

The past can never be destroyed but its lessons certainly can, along with the roots that it provides.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Beautifully written, it strikes a chord!
    I've always wondered what's the point of having architecture as a subject in our colleges & universities when we see so little of their input in the workings of the Ministry of Culture & Heritage…. the state of our historical buildings is a sorry reflection of our aesthetics as well as of our sense of pride in our heritage!

  2. I believe it is lack of pride and confidence in our selves collectively and individually. If you add insecurity and anger to it then we have a society that is what Pakistan is today. There is no sensitivity or pride in our culture present or past.

  3. Glad to learn that Mohatta palace has been preserved well. I wish the government would pay attention to Lahore Fort and Shalimar Gardens and other historical sites.

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