Heritage for sale
While passing through Shikarpur town in Sindh, one can think of international trade practices of the past, local feuds, rulers like Nadir Shah, rich culture of Sindh, gardens and roses but what one sees is a typical Pakistani market town where people live in the face of urban attractions. Off the beaten track, it was once a dignified trade centre of great repute. Now aside from spicy achaar and Sindhi needlework, the town has only its past history to boast about.
Enter the once walled inner city and you will find yourself in archetypal form of an historic town - crooked and narrow streets, dense housing, and intricate woodwork on jharokas, bay windows and doors. It is the entire urban fabric of the place that is historic. The fortification wall and eight gates have completely disappeared and a road has been constructed around the old portion. Extensive suburbs stretch from the foot of the road all around. Like so many historic cities in Pakistan, which have 'developed' losing much of their original character in the process during modern times, Shikarpur is also changing its face.
Unfortunately, presently, Shikarpur, more than any other Pakistani city, lacks sensitivity to its heritage. Some of the houses in the inner town have retained their essential traits despite renovations to make them comfortable for modern living or to create additional space for more families. One can still see the extensive woodwork in old havelies having intricately carved timber façade elements and interiors with ornate details. Some of the houses have become dangerous for living with upper floor structures sagging and they stand abandoned. Sadly, the wooden features of the old houses are being sold and 'antique lovers' are buying to place them in their spanking new houses. The condition of temples, dharam shalas and gao shalas in the town is even worse. Some of them have been converted into residential quarters, some are being used as waste receptacles and from few others even the bricks have been taken away. If the trend is not checked in our country, we may loose most of our traditional heritage before we know it.
A glimpse into the interiors of a couple of houses revealed spaces rich in architectural details. The colourful geometric patterns on the floors, the intricately carved columns and other timber details on ceilings, doors, wall hangings cupboards and the fireplaces decorated in carved white marbles all reflected the mastery of craftsmen who created them.
One can only assume now but in the earlier times Shikarpur had a reputation for its rich gardens. The Shahi Bagh, which stands neglected today, was known for its thriving vegetation and scented flowers. At one time Shahi Bagh had a zoo with large population of lions, cheetahs, bears and wild boars. These animals were later shifted to Karachi Zoo. The garden had a wooden pavilion that was designed by Perston Phel and constructed by Sir W. Merewether in September 1871. Many other public and private gardens and open spaces of Shikarpur have vanished. There are hardly any cultural or healthy youth activities in the town.
History has it that due to its strategic location on important caravan trade route of seventeenth century, Shikarpur turned into an eminent commercial centre, known from Korasan to Central Asia. Due to its reputation in trade and commerce, in his notes R. Burten described Shikarpur as "the capital of merchants, money changers and bankers." With smart marketing practices, the Shikarpur merchants had built significant reputation and there was hardly any notable commercial town from Turkey to China that did not have dealings with traders in Shikarpur. In those times, the businessmen - mostly Hindus - had developed system of financial instruments that was reliable and trusted in far off places. These financial documents carried marks, which were known only to the writer and their correspondents, ensuring the prevention of fraud. This system of bills exchange gave the traders flexibility of not carrying large amounts of cash during move.
Shikarpur was a trade gateway - the first big city in route to the subcontinent. Wealthy wholesalers in the town had capacity to purchased entire merchandize and in return provided products from all over India. This saved foreign dealer coming from Iran, Khorasan, Turkistan, Bokhara and Russia from travelling to far off places in the Subcontinent and also reduced their cost.
Besides being the lifeline of trade activities in the bygone era, Shikarpur also has several historical events and past affiliations. The great Persian ruler Nadir Shah, after his invasions of Hindustan, had stayed in Shikarpur while he was marching through Sindh, though at present there is nothing physical that can be associated with Nadir Shah.
Bahadar Khan Daudpotras, whose family tree goes up to Abbasids, founded the town in early seventeenth century. Mughal king Auranzeb Alamgir conferred a vast jagir from Lakhi to Khanpur upon Bahadar Khan. The jagir area consisted of dense forest that was rich in wild animals. The forest was in possession of Mahars - powerful landlords' clan in Sindh. Reward of the area to the Daudpotras through sanad by the emperor triggered strife between the two sides that turned into a bloody battle between the Daudpotras and Mahars. Legend has it that after victory, Bahadar Khan Daudpotras was advised by a local saint to clear the forest that had been the cause of the battle and built a town on that land. Hence, the name Shikarpur meaning hunting ground. This is how Shikarpur came into being around 1617 AD.
Contemporary cities of that time - Bukhara, Samarkand, and Istnanbul - had bazaars with covered streets. Shikarpur's main bazaar too was covered. The long and narrow bazaar lined with shops on both sides almost passes through the centre of the old city.
The first impact that the town gives is an emotional one, for it is a symbol of cultural evolution and a part of our heritage. It also has architectural, historic and documentary values. In order to preserve the bits and pieces of history lying under the layers of time, the experts could carry out a survey to record the places having essential significance. The living heritage cannot be brought to old glory but it can be preserved for the future generations. The conservation is a very valid and momentous human activity in town management and planning.
The excessive use of timber in the construction of houses especially on their facades still seems to be a work of art. The woodwork is being eaten by termite and is fast falling into decay. Its state of apathy is so apparent that one just cannot help feeling sorry for the loss.
I witnessed one such incidence in Shikarpur. While passing through a lane I saw a donkey cart laden with timber elements freshly plucked from the façade of an old house; all set and ready to leave for its new destination. The poor structures with all its fine timber details gone now stand bland and graceless, brooding over the wealth and finesse that has ruthlessly been pulled from its face, saying its last farewell to the life long companions slowly being pulled away on the donkey cart, separated for ever.
A few enquiries reveal that such irreplaceable architectural wealth has been sold for as little as 45,000/- to 50,000/-rupees per house façade, just to be blatantly pasted at a place where it would look out of context.
This is a unique case of heritage on sale – not having been able to build and destroying the old one. What will be left in the town if heritage pieces keep moving out like this one wonders?