"They hardly gave us time to collect our thoughts. Nobody believed a historical site of such significance could ever be demolished. We were given 24 hours to pack and leave!" sighed one of the distraught staff members who had spent his lifetime in Dean's Hotel.
The hotel, where renowned celebrities like Professor Arnold Toynbee, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Winston Churchill (as a young soldier journalist on his way to Malakand), Quaid-i-Azam, King Nadir Shah of Afghanistan (in 1929) and so many others stayed, was witness to a century of unfolding history. Built in 1913 on 7.21 acres with sprawling lawns, it was a remnant of the colonial era. Memories of the "made in Berlin" piano dating back to 1897, the embossed tall mirrors and the varnished wooden floors in the grand ballroom with antique chandeliers are still vivid. It symbolized an understated architectural elegance of the Victorian period and had attracted admirers from across the globe.
Many Peshawarites, who had taken their "city of gardens" for granted, were shocked. They couldn't believe that a monument like Dean's Hotel would disappear out of sight suddenly - along with many other colonial buildings, parks and trees dating back to 500 years or more. All of a sudden Peshawar has become a smoke-filled, overcrowded, arid city, exhibiting hideous, tasteless, carbuncles of concrete and plaster, grossly disproportionate with the graceful pavilions, verandahs and elegant classical buildings that once dotted the Cantonment area. The presence of old trees lining the main boulevards and roads lent it a serene ambience. This has vanished as the trees have been felled from the major roads and intersections.
"Once a boulevard city lined with exquisite trees, scents, and foliage, Peshawar has now lost its charm. It is no longer the romantic Casablanca of the subcontinent as mentioned by many travellers and writers. It is fast becoming a Chinese shanty town," observes a respected professor of geography, Dr Mohammad Said, who is visibly shaken about the way unplanned development is going apace. With the 'market forces' in full swing and an unresponsive civil society tempted by instant monetary rewards and abetted by the thoroughly corrupt bureaucracy in control, the city has fallen victim to mindless consumerism. All remaining vestiges of a 2500 year-old living city are being demolished.
It all started with the advent of the Afghan jihad, as over two million refugees besieged the city. Besides the demography, the nouveau-riche culture invaded the once tranquil town. Drugs, guns and quick money changed the socio-economic and cultural values. While the war was waged on ideological grounds, its upshot was, among other ills, obscene materialism. Following the "civilized world", Pakistan has passionately embraced the consumer-capitalist Western model, but it also waged a jihad for the same cause with greater perils.
In the aftermath of this historical deluge, the middle class that had traditionally upheld the centuries-old values came under tremendous pressure. The elite was indifferent to the emerging challenges, and as a result took to greener pastures in the affluent localities of Peshawar, Islamabad and Lahore. Important political families of Peshawar have all but abandoned their heritage. Senior bureaucrats are more interested in championing environmental causes at Margalla hills and Lahore!
The real inhabitants, who are at the mercy of events, are forced into the daily grind of hard living and can barely spare time for altruistic causes. In the meantime, a new moneyed upward mercantile class has emerged with no cultural roots or sophistication. Many tribal drug barons, timber mafia lords and racketeers dictate the social standards. With the withdrawal of the middle classes from an active social role and the rise of religious fundamentalism as a new defining agenda, issues such as heritage, environment and culture have been condemned as being "Western-inspired" or worse, "secular ideas" that must be extirpated.
By the end of the 1980s, real estate prices had already spiralled beyond imagination. A new breed of entrepreneurs - the "builders" - was born. They were taking over the old city and demolishing historical structures with brazen impunity. The remnants of the walled city, and the historic gates finally gave in to this aggressive assault of money and greed.
Much earlier, in the 1970's, the city 'managers' had cut down the Great (Banyan) Pipal tree at Shah ji ki Dheri, described by Shin Fa Hian and Hiuen Tsang the famous Chinese pilgrims and historians who travelled to this place in 400 BC. According to H. Tsang, "Its branches are thick and the shade beneath, sombre and deep. The four past Buddhas have sat beneath this tree.." The famous stupas built by Kanishka to the south of the Pipal tree have also disappeared. Another historic tree belonging to Kanishka period was cut down only recently in Ander Shehr.
The timeless Chowk Yadgar building has been demolished to make another revolting structure. The original elegant Shaheed Mazaar at Kissa Khwani, has been given a 'new' marbled surface with ugly canopies. At the 'Old Panj Tiraths' mentioned by The Gazetteer, stands a derelict fisheries centre. As the name indicates, the place had five holy bathing places or tiraths, shaded by some sacred pipal trees of great age. The Brahmins trace its origin to the five sons of Pandu - the heroes of the Mahabharata - and the site is a place of great veneration to the Hindu community. No protest, by the Hindu extremists in India over this post-Partition sacrilege. Double standards galore!
One can go on lamenting the official apathy towards heritage. The Mohabat Khan Masjid, built by the Mughals, is decaying. These are our prized historical possessions that are being deliberately defaced. Why? I spoke to Zahoor Durrani who owns the prestigious "Sehrai Travels" and runs the Khyber Safari to Khyber Pass mostly for foreign tourists. "I am tired of approaching higher ups with suggestions to rescue several havelis, Bala Khanas, the Chitrali Bazar with exquisite houses, with great potential to foreign travellers, but it has fallen on deaf ears. It is heart breaking. Nobody seems to care."
It seems that the policy makers want to get rid of the Gandhara heritage, as it does not conform to their perception of Islamic ideology. This creates confusion in declared policy and the ground realities. Consequently, the Peshawar valley is rapidly losing its precious Gandhara heritage, and it's culture of tolerance. Instead, a volatile Talibanized society has emerged. Serious analysts are concerned about the future.
What happened in Afghanistan is an eye-opener. It was the most tolerant society. The Mujahideen targeted historical sites, plundered the prestigious Kabul museum, and have demolished the renowned Bamiyan Buddhas and other historical artifacts. The Taliban have destroyed the socio-cultural ethos of Afghanistan in order to pursue the "purification" agenda of the sponsors. One only shudders to think what could be next in store for us.
"Like a painting... as far as the eye could see were fields of blossoms. In spring near Peshawar the fields of flowers are very beautiful indeed," gushed Babur in his memoirs.
"The numerous gardens and scattered trees were covered with new foliage, which had a freshness and brilliancy, never seen in the perpetual summer of India. Many streams ran through the plain. Their banks were fringed with willows and tamarisks. The orchards, scattered over the country, contained a profusion of plum, peach, apple, pear quince, and pomegranate trees, which afforded a greater display of blossoms that I ever before witnessed," wrote Mohan Lal in Travels in Punjab.
Reading these travelogues one can easily float in ecstasy. The city of gardens - the sprawling Shalimar gardens as described by Elphinstone, the Wazir Bagh, Ali Mardan Gardens that encircled most of Peshawar, traversed by streams, lakes and rivers giving a surrealistic picture of Eden - was there only a century and a half ago. The Sikhs plundered and burnt Peshawar in the 1820's. This remains the most dreadful part of history.
When the British built the cantonment in 1849 on Ali Mardan Gardens, the trees were chopped off for the grand colonial buildings. But they extensively planted exquisite trees along major avenues and buildings. The Mall was known as Thandi Sarak. It had a cool, verdant atmosphere even during sweltering heat. The main roads were until the 1980's still lined with trees.
Prof Mohammad Said says, "Trees not only lend shade, but also contribute immensely in absorbing carbon dioxide and in giving oxygen. Besides, cutting down atmospheric pollution, they also serve to absorb sound pollution. Why the policy makers could not save trees in their planning is puzzling. As in other places they could be included in the foot paths upon widening of roads."
But the matter is much more serious than meets the eye. The British had tough laws and regulations regarding trees and buildings. One could not dare cut trees as it was considered a major offence. Also, the buildings and development had to follow certain restrictions. The Cantonment Board has been notorious for its shady dealings. Top officials pilfer millions in cutting down historic trees. The MES and the MEU become silent abetters. The rules are broken with impunity. The past ten years have seen Peshawar turn into an urban wasteland. At this rate Peshawar will disappear from the historical and touristic map of the world, unless of course strategies are evolved to enforce existing regulations.
After the 1990's as Pakistan embraced the IMF dictated "privitization", it opened the floodgates of corruption and murky dealings, resulting in demolition of centuries old state owned and private buildings.
Recently, several huge sheesham and banyan trees were felled inside the GPO, Saddar, within seconds - upon orders of a 'serving minister of Pakistan Post Office Pakistan'. Another dozen old trees vanished from the Peshawar university post office during the same period under his instructions.
The elegant St John's Church has also fallen victim to the organized timber mafia. Every time, the MES officials visit the premises to choose a few trees that are felled and "transported". No questions asked! The Peshawar Club, once the jewel in the crown of the cantonment, is now a barrack-like "Garrison Club". It has lost its class. Most shady trees are gone and the once graceful architecture is now overshadowed by tacky construction.
The Company Bagh (vestige of the historical Ali Mardan Bagh) has been denuded of ancient trees and instead stands a vulgar "fountain" and a dusty playground. A dozen more huge trees (belonging to the 1550's) along the intersection of Fort Road and Khaled Road also disappeared in 1999. The list is endless.
According to reliable sources the previous Cantonment Board execurive officer pilfered millions since 1995 destroying the pristine beauty of Peshawar, denuding trees and demolishing historical buildings. The coveted job is considered highly lucrative and environmental bodies have conveniently shut their eyes to their doings.
Who would like to visit a city with monstrous shopping malls, skyscrapers and bargain centres? At the site of the Deans hotel, a multi-storeyed plaza screams to attract potential investors. Certainly, it does not define civilization or culture, by any standard. The Citizen's Forum in Lahore prevented the government from disfiguring Lahore Gymkhana, State Guest House and Staff College. In Peshawar most thinking individuals are suffering from a collective amnesia or nostalgia. No active lobbying and no civil body exists here. Occasional emotional outbursts by its honest citizens cannot compensate for the crying need to get our act together to rescue Peshawar. Do the authorities care - really?