Last winter I took my children to see the ruins at Harappa. Unlike Mohenjodaro where remnants of buildings and streets and even drains can be seen, not much survives of Harappa. But I still took them because I wanted my British-born children to experience the site, to understand its scale, to stand on the mound where the city once stood and look at the surrounding countryside, and to imagine the jungle that was then inhabited by leopards and wolves and rhinos, and to think that long before Jesus, long before Alexander, a city of craftsmen and farmers and priests and dancers and traders prospered here.
On the drive there, we spoke about the Indus Valley civilisation, about Harappa and its accidental discovery in the 1920s, its excavation, the excitement it generated around the world, its extraordinary artefacts and what they revealed about the sophisticated city state that flourished here 5,000 years ago. Before we went to the site itself, we stopped off at Harappa museum — a cute little building from the 1960s and thankfully left untouched. We saw its collection of mud toys and games, vessels decorated with images of rhinos and lions, pitchers, ewers, pins and jewellery.
My intention was to convey to my children the import of this place; to make them understand that they have deep roots in this soil and that their story is part of a continuum that stretches back over millennia. I guess I succeeded because when we left, they wanted to pick up shards of pottery that litter the whole site to take back with them to London, not just as souvenirs of an ancient archaeological dig but as physical reminders of their connection to Harappa.
I had thought that day that we would be the only visitors there. But I was wrong. There were at least eight other groups — mostly local people, who like us, had come to gaze upon the ruins and to imbibe their unique spirit.
Looking back on that visit, I am reminded of a conversation I had over 20 years ago with a British architectural historian working on Lahore Fort at the time. While discussing what ‘heritage’ meant to people, he said his team had conducted extensive research on why Pakistanis visit ancient and historic monuments. There are practical reasons of course. People go to Badshahi Masjid to pray; some come from the nearby walled city to escape the heat, congestion and noise; students bring their books for quiet study. I have seen them there myself in a quiet corner of the prayer hall, sitting cross-legged on the cool marble floor, deep in their books. But people also come, he said, for more intangible reasons.
Visitors to Jahangir’s tomb at Shahdara, for instance, come for picnics but they also come, crucially, for repose, for sakoon (peace). Many could not name the king who was buried there but they experienced Shahdara as a storied place, to which they had a visceral connection they could not explain. They said they felt a sense of belonging there, an emotional bond that was refreshed and renewed with every visit. They brought their children and later their grandchildren so that it became part of their family’s emotional landscape over generations.
All too often, regard for our heritage and history is dismissed as a self-indulgent hobby of disconnected elites. What do boring old sites like Shalimar Gardens, Gulabi Bagh Gateway, Chauburji and Zebunnisa’s tomb matter when weighed up against the importance of an Orange Line train carrying thousands to work through the city? It matters. Because these are not just buildings. These are monuments to our history, our culture, our art, our collective memory, our very identity. Development must come, but not at the cost of our identity.
The world recognises this sacred connection between the present and the past; hence the global outcry over the destruction of Buddhas of Bamiyan and the obliteration of remains of the lost empires at Palmyra.
We are Harappa, we are Mohenjodaro, we are Takht-i-Bahi and Taxila, we are Hindu Shahya temples, Data Darbar, Uch Sharif, Shalimar Gardens and Chauburji. Without them we are lost.
This article was published as part of a special editorial project '2016 In Broad Strokes' for the Herald's Annual 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author.
The artist holds a master's degree in fine arts from the Pratt Institute in New York.