June Issue 2015
Over the last few years, my parents’ love for old Lahore has repeatedly taken me into its alleys. Together, we have walked around my favourite parts of the Lahore Fort — the mosaic wall, with its cornucopia of animals, humans and mythical beings; and the Shah Burj, where in some pavilions, the layers behind each mirror mosaic or painted detail is exposed, showing the workmanship that went into making it. But two recent trips of mine were devoted to renewing my acquaintance with the Wazir Khan Mosque.
Built in 1634 by Hakim Shaikh Ilm-ud-din Ansari, Emperor Shah Jahan’s court physician who rose to become a wazir, or minister, the mosque is distinctive for its richness of embellishment — the outer walls are covered with tile mosaics, while inside not an inch of space is left unpainted.
As you enter the quadrangle, flanked by four minarets covered with tile mosaics and calligraphy of exquisite colour and detail, flocks of pigeons rise from their perches in the minarets or above the main entrance, and wheel in the air above it.
Sadly, however, the frescoes inside the prayer chamber are crumbling, their once vibrant colours dulled by a film of grime. On our first visit in December 2012, we found the interior in disarray — durries folded untidily and thrown into corners, the madressah students’ books shoved higgledy piggledy into ramshackle shelves, and construction material and shamianas tossed into the hujras around the quadrangle. We were told that conservation was due to start. Two years later, in December 2014, the only visible change one noticed was that the encroachments around the mosque had been cleared. The rooms which make up the calligraphers’ bazaar inside the main entryway, and now serve as offices for the people in charge of the repairs, had been improved. But these repairs seem to have been made with little consideration for restoration techniques, which should incorporate the use of traditional methods and materials.
Inside the mosque itself, the frescoes were in the same condition as on the previous visit, perhaps worse: two or three fragments were propped up against the wall to which they belonged. There was a large crack in the ceiling of the prayer chamber, and a pile of newly fallen plaster in the middle of the floor.
The restored areas reminded me of a trip to Shah Jahan Mosque in Thatta with a friend three years ago. As we walked through the corridors I wondered why I didn’t feel the awe that I usually do when I see a beautiful building. At first I thought it was perhaps because we had just come from Makli, with its air of careless abandonment and eroded beauty. Here, wherever there was brick-work, it was as if a new mosque had been superimposed over the old one. On one wall, grey cement had been used to fix the old tiles. The slurry had dripped down and dried over them. We left disappointed; my friend had visited the mosque years ago before it suffered this rudimentary style of restoration.
The few conserved parts of Wazir Khan Mosque seem to be suffering a similar fate. Judging by Salman Rashid’s account on his personal blog, some of the conservation being carried out in mid-2014 was undertaken without thinking of its impact on the old building. He wrote that masons were busy pounding mortar on the parapet walls and roofs — in preparation for repairing the drainage system which causes water to seep through the walls — resulting in cracks and damages to the artwork and the walls.
At the end of last year, a delegation from the Norwegian embassy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA) and the Aga Khan Culture Service Pakistan (AKCSP) to restore and renovate the monument. Since one of the most pressing concerns is the actual foundations of the structure, where water seepage has caused major damage, causing two of the minarets to lean sideways, the conservation of its artwork will come later. In the meantime, time and general ignorance may take their toll. This is a functioning mosque, used for prayer as well as religious instruction. The people who use it are accustomed to living without amenities or aesthetics, and even if they are literate, the present educational system doesn’t offer knowledge of how to treat historical monuments.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s June 2015 issue.