Lahore: The Past and The Present
If geography, war and politics have classically divided India and Pakistan, here’s an irony that unites both nations – a shared sense of apathy towards their historic monuments and heritage. You cannot escape that revelation, as an Indian reading Imagining Lahore: The City That Is, The City That Was by Pakistani author Haroon Khalid.
This is, of course, just first impressions. Khalid, a journalist and a writer, has written extensively on the religious minorities in Pakistan and his previous book retraced the footsteps of Guru Nanak. In his current book on Lahore, published by Penguin, Khalid brings a deep, richly layered perspective on the city he grew up in. The book does not follow a conventional path. Beginning in the present, it goes back in time, chapter by chapter, all the way to Lahore’s origins in Hindu mythology as ‘Lavapuri’, the city of Lav, son of Lord Ram.
It is the present that you instantly connect with, as the first chapter deals with the construction of the Orange Line Metro, which is part of the ‘modernization’ drive of (Pakistani) former Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif, and its effect on the city’s heritage. This is interspersed with the story of the historic garden and tomb of Zeb-un-Nissa, daughter of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. According to popular lore, Princess Zeb-un-Nissa was denied permission by her father to marry the man she loved and spent the rest of her life in this garden, writing poetry. The monument suffered a narrow escape in present times, as it lay directly in the path of the Metro and only the court’s intervention spared it.
Sadly, many Hindu shrines, which dotted the path of the Metro, were not as lucky. In his book, Khalid gets candid about the destruction of Hindu and Jain shrines in Lahore as a reaction to the Babri Masjid demolition in India, in 1992. He also offers a perspective on Lahore’s numerous Sufi shrines, now under attack from fundamentalists. The shrine of Data Durbar, patronized by every major Pakistani politician before elections, and whose sanctity was upheld by the Mughals, Sikhs, the British and even invaders like Ahmad Shah Abdali, was subject a horrific suicide bombing attack on 1 July 2010, killing 42 people.
Equally interesting is the retracing of places associated with Bhagat Singh’s life. Sadly, the barracks and gallows where Bhagat Singh was imprisoned and hanged were demolished in the 1960s, and today a traffic roundabout stands in their place. There has been a demand to rename the place as ‘Bhagat Singh Chowk’, but that still hasn’t been done.
By focusing on the lesser-known monuments of Lahore, the book brings out many interesting facets of the city. But those not familiar with the city might find it difficult to connect with many of the place names and their histories.
I spoke with Khalid, who shared his perspectives on Lahore, the state of its monuments and the way we relate to our history and monuments in South Asia, and how the research that went into his book has changed the way he looks at the city he grew up in.
There have been many books written on Lahore’s history. Why did you decide to write one on this subject?
Most of the books on Lahore were written in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and are research-oriented. I wanted to make the story of Lahore much more accessible to people. The idea was, for me at least, the most fascinating discovery about Lahore’s history… these small hamlets, these small villages that have been incorporated into Lahore now, and whose identity has been completely submerged.
Nobody, when talking about Lahore’s history, talks about then. The focus has always been the Walled City. I wanted to talk about these villages, which have now been reduced to kachhi aabadis (informal settlements). Some of these places are as old as, or even older than, Lahore.
Most importantly, I did not want it to be just a book on Lahore’s history; rather, I wanted it to be a book about Lahore right now. Looking at how history and the present interact, how history survives, how is it interpreted, and perhaps the difference between local histories and larger nationalistic histories.
In both India and Pakistan, when we talk of history, we talk about it at a very macro level. That is something a lot of students are not able to relate to, at least I was not able to relate to it, as a child. I wanted to talk about the history of the places I grew up in, places that were around me, things that I saw.
As someone from India, the first chapter on the construction of the Orange Line Metro and its effect on Lahore’s heritage is very relatable, since something similar is happening in cities across India. Why do you think there is so much apathy towards urban heritage in South Asia?
That’s a very interesting question. I think this attitude is rooted in our colonial history. During the British era, everything that was traditional, that was South Asian, was deemed to be un-modern. And the idea of ‘modern’ was to break away from these pre-colonial symbols.
So even if you see how these cities developed, like Lahore and Delhi, the idea was not to develop the old (Walled) city, the idea was to build a new, ‘modern’ city. So the idea was, as you become more ‘modern’, you move away from traditional symbols. These ideas were perpetuated by the state from the top; they were also internalized by the educated elite, who were trained in the same sensibilities.
So the irony is, the leading revolutionaries of India, even though they are talking about the oppression of the British, they also internalized the same prejudice against Indian culture. And then there is a reaction, in which Indian culture is glorified, which becomes quiet nationalist on both the Muslim and the Hindu side.
This is in contrast to, say, many European cultures. When you look at how Paris or Amsterdam developed, they developed around the traditional city centres. Our traditional city centres became almost like slums that were to be shunned. Even today, anyone who achieves any social mobility ends up moving away from these traditional centres into the newer areas.
That brings us to another question… Today, we see religious nationalism on the rise in both Pakistan and India. But that hasn’t led to either country believing in better preserving Islamic monuments in Pakistan or Hindu monuments in India. Why is it that we want to go ‘back to our roots’ but create new monuments?
I think religious nationalism in both countries are mirror opposites of each other and feed off each other. It is important to remember that these movements are also the products of colonial times and their idea of their own history of the colonial state. The very basic concept, that you can divide the history of India into Hindu, Muslim and Sikh rule, is how they (British) saw history, and was one of the tactics of ‘divide and rule’. If you look at our understanding of religion before the British, it is very different, there is much more syncretism.
Like in Pakistan, (Sufi) shrines are seen as symbols of Muslim nationalism, but there has also been an attempt to ‘sanitise’ these shrines. In the 1960s, an Aukaf department was created, and the goal was to somehow ‘sanitise’ these shrines and remove the pre-Islamic practices. I am not romanticizing the idea of these shrines, and they are oppressive in their own way, but it does not solve the problem when you impose your own religiosity on a culture.
What is the condition of monuments in Lahore? Is there a heritage movement taking place there?
I think, especially with the Orange Line (Metro) movement, there was a major hue and cry about these monuments. The entire case was in the Supreme Court (of Pakistan) for the longest time; UNESCO was actively involved. Many shrines, Mughal monuments, were in the way (of the Metro line). In a lot of shrines, in the name of renovation, a lot of the historical architecture is destroyed. You have a really grotesque modern tile kind of architecture that comes up.
There is such a lack of awareness of archaeology, of heritage protection; I feel a lot of these monuments get destroyed even more in the name of renovation.
How does Pakistan today look at its monuments, especially its non-Islamic monuments, belonging to the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist periods?
Pakistan faces the same issues with its monuments that any developing country faces, which is lack of funds, lack of interest, lack of priorities. In a country where people don’t have access to even clean drinking water, how much money can you spend on these monuments? Not all Muslim monuments have been protected; in fact, many of them have been destroyed and only a handful of them are well preserved.
Interestingly, Buddhist monuments, those of the Gandharan civilization like Taxila, are very well protected. They are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites and there is a lot of interest in preserving them and also using them to project Pakistan abroad.
Historically, there has been a strong religious bias against Hindu shrines. But that has been changing in the last 15-20 years and it has a lot to do with the global image of Pakistan, the idea that Pakistan is seen as a hub of Islamic fundamentalism. I think there is a desperate need in the state to project a softer image. For example, we know that in Katas Raj, among the oldest Hindu shrines in Pakistan, the entire state machinery and the Supreme Court got involved. The Sikh Gurudwaras are also well protected. There is still a long way to go but at least the attitude has changed.
While researching this book, what were some of the great revelations you encountered?
What was most revelatory was the magnificent history of all these places, little towns that I had seen all my life. Today, they look like poor, congested places, with a lot of traffic, and then you discover that these places have such an interesting history, with links going back 600-700 years. I have the same feeling when I am driving around today, when I see the enormous history, the enormous significance of these very ordinary places. It gives me goosebumps!
For example, every time I pass by Bhagat Singh Chowk, where he was supposed to have been hanged… I can’t escape that history. The rediscovering element of ordinary places was quite extraordinary for me. Because of this, I now look at every city differently. I realize how complex cities are, and how even the most ordinary, run-down places can have the most beautiful history behind them.