Pakistan’s prevailing economic crisis looks set to claim another victim, with the authority tasked with restoring the historic Walled City of Punjab capital Lahore warning that its work will fall behind schedule due to a cut in its budgetary allocation for fiscal year 2022-23.
The Punjab Budget 2022-23 has allocated Rs. 438.14 million for the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), down from Rs. 454.95 for the previous year, which its director-general maintains is insufficient to complete all the work required, including the ongoing restoration of Masjid Wazir Khan. Speaking with Newsweek, DG Kamran Lashari said Rs. 500 million was necessary for the project to continue at its current pace.
Around 2,000 buildings comprise the Walled City of Lahore, featuring historical structures, many of which are over a century old. The WCLA has been tasked with maintaining the area from Delhi Gate up to Lahore Fort, and is responsible for restoring houses and entire neighborhoods from scratch. It must specifically restore and preserve 12 shrines, 11 churches and 1 temple with a mandate that covers various social and economic concerns. Authorities maintain that the project’s primary aim is poverty alleviation and job generation, adding that previous aspects of the project have utilized community participation to benefit the local residents.
“This is an urban regeneration program focused on improving the living conditions of people,” said Lashari, stressing that its primary purpose was the welfare of the local residents. “Modernity has been the real vandal, with deterioration especially rapid over the past 30 years,” he lamented. “Even the posh areas of Lahore do not match the standard which we have adopted in the Walled City, as new infrastructure and modern wiring were laid out in each street,” he said, adding that higher standards of cleanliness were also introduced to inculcate a convivial ambiance.
Sajjad Kausar, a renowned archaeologist and former principal of the National College of Arts, praised the work done by the WCLA, but regretted some of the ancient facades had been “improved” without preserving their original look. “A footbridge laid on steel pillars gives a beautiful view of royal bath underneath and visitors can have a look at places which were hidden before,” he said of the work done to restore the Shahi Hamaam (royal bath). Similarly, he said, the conservation of Wazir Khan Chowk into a public square had improved the overall ambiance of the Walled City.
However, he said, while the addition of balconies on some buildings’ facades could be seen as “improvement,” it had altered their original appearance to a point where it could no longer be considered conservation. Lamenting that no local Pakistani institute taught conservation, he appreciated the Aga Khan Trust for providing international staff for the preservation of ancient architecture. “This is a positive step.”
Detailing the steps taken by the WCLA to revive the historic area that once comprised the core of Lahore, the director-general said local residents were trained as tourist guides and hired as employees to attract visitors. “A good number of people are also working as freelance tourist guides,” he said, adding that residents had also benefited from the renewed foot traffic by establishing small businesses—traditional crafts, paintings, jewelry, food stalls—that boosted economic prosperity in the poverty-stricken area.
Another benefit of the restoration, said Lashari, was that indigenous aspects of South Asian culture, such as puppet shows, had found new life with a wider audience. “Street performers who had moved out of the Walled City in search of employment were brought back—snake charmers, jugglers, magicians and Sufi musicians.”
Tariq Masih, a local juggler, told Newsweek that he had returned to the Walled City thanks to the efforts of the WCLA. “The WCLA brought me back as an expert at several forms of juggling, such as footballs, acrobatics, balls, fires, tables and rings. It’s not only an art but also a good source of income here now as foreign tourists give me handsome tips,” he said.
The biggest boon for local residents has undoubtedly been the increased foot traffic from tourists, both local and foreign, who have swarmed the Walled City to take in the old sights and appreciate the improved infrastructure.
Tania Qureshi, who heads the marketing, tourism and culture arm of the WCLA, said the new facades of the ancient buildings, as well as work done to improve facilities, had made the Walled City a popular destination for social media users. “The influx of tourists has directly benefited the local residents of the area, as their businesses have roared with an immense increase in tourism,” she told Newsweek.
The tourist traffic has been especially boosted by owners of large havelis (townhouses) opening their doors for walk-in tours that highlight the Mughal-era architecture that characterizes the Walled City. “Tourists buy tickets from us [WCLA] to visit these havelis, but the direct beneficiaries are their owners,” stressed Qureshi, adding that the Royal Trail—a route that traces the journey of India’s Mughal rulers to the Lahore Fort—alone attracted 20,000-25,000 foreign tourists annually.
“I opened the doors of my traditional courtyard house for tourists,” said local resident Iqbal Ahmed. “My ancestral house, though transformed into a modern dwelling, still retains the inherent charm of the traditional architectural style,” he said of the tourist attraction.
The WCLA has also introduced several events through the year to encourage tourism, with Qureshi saying the majority take place during favorable weather between October and March. “Prominent among these events are dastaangoi (oral storytelling); Sufi nights; guided tours to Bhatti Gate, Taksali Gate, Royal Trail; a breakfast tour; and a rangeela rickshaw tour,” noted Qureshi.
The key barrier to work on the Walled City, however, remains a dearth of funding. Over the years, the project has been supported by the Punjab government, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the World Bank and several embassies. Unfortunately, funding has not been particularly consistent, says Lashari.
The WCLA director-general clarified the World Bank merely provided soft loans, while the Aga Khan Trust had given technical support for the project, which still continues today, without any monetary support. “Some foreign embassies like Norway, Germany and the U.S. have provided funds—but through the Aga Khan Trust,” he said. “They have never funded the WCLA directly.”
Especially disheartening, said Lashari, was the indifference of local philanthropists, who he said had never come forward to provide any financial assistance for the project.