Renowned as the one of oldest living cities of South Asia- once famous for its shady boulevards and heavenly sunsets against towering Tatara Mountains in the background, Peshawar derives its name from Sanskrit “Pushpaur” meaning the city of flowers. In 400 AD, a Chinese pilgrim called it “Foleu-sha”.
According to noted archeologist, historian and Professor Fidaullah Sehrai, “It was the second capital of Gandhara during the days of Kushan emperor Kanishka in 78 AD. Kanishka planted the sapling of the Bodhi (banyan) tree in Peshawar. The Bodhi tree derives its significance from the fact that it was under one such tree that Buddha achieved enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in India”.
The Chinese pilgrim Sungyun writes, “It was a tree whose branches spread out on all sides and whose foliage shut out the sight of the sky”. Beneath this tree in Pipal Mandi, Peshawar used to be seated four 17 feet tall statues of the Buddha.
Olaf Caroe writes in The Pathans that Kanishka developed a golden age of Buddhism. The Ganj gate (King’s mound) was discovered in 1909, a remarkable relic of Kanishka by Dr D B Spooner, curator of the Peshawar Museum.
No wonder then that various travelers, historians, and writers from the 6th century BC onwards have waxed eloquent about Peshawar’s myriad wonders. “The gateway to Central Asia, Melting pot of Civilisations, Paris of the Pathans, Gateway to East and West, A city steeped in the romance of history, Casablanca of the East”, are just a few names accorded, since Herodotus and early Buddhist travelers traversed its fragrant gardens, orchards and streams. Baburnama extensively describes its varied flora and fauna and mild climate. These find exquisite descriptions in Mountstuart Elphinstone, Alexander Burne and Raverty’s memoirs.
Elphinstone describes the splendor of Shah Shuja’s court in 1809 thus, “The view from the hall was beautiful. Immediately below was an extensive garden, full of cypresses and other trees, and beyond was a plain of richest verdure; here and there were shining streams…. Our evenings were not less delightful, when we went out among the gardens round the city, admired the richness and repose contrasted with the gloomy magnificence of the surrounding mountains, some dark, others covered with snow”.
The Mughal period’s “city of gardens and flowers” was eventually ransacked and burned by Ranjit Singh’s hordes, and the famed Ali Mardan, Shahi Bagh and Shalimar gardens ruthlessly mowed down. The British restored some of its bygone glory with tree-lined boulevards and gardens once again. The colonial architecture of the cantonment added a majestic grace that blended well with the traditional architecture of the walled city.
But 1947 brought the end of tolerance: What once was a cosmopolitan, multi ethnic and variegated culture was robbed of its rich past. Rich Hindu and Sikh families with properties in the cantonment and walled city fled to make way for a new breed of evacuee property grabbers. Big businesses and palatial bungalows changed owners overnight. But some heritage jewels remained hidden from prying eyes despite the ravages of time, until recently.
Can anyone imagine that top Bollywood icons belonged to this historic city? Inside the walled city, Dilip Kumar’s home is on the verge of collapse, though Shah Rukh Khan’s ancestral home in the Mohallah Khudadad still exists. Prithvi Raj Kapoor’s imposing haveli “Kapoor House”, in Dhaki Munawar Shah, Asamai Gate is likely to be sold by nouveau riche enterprises. One of Anil Kapoor’s two homes still stands. Kamini Kaushal’s palatial ancestral haveli was recently pulled down in nearby Kohat city.
The ongoing demolition of heritage has been eating away at the character of the old walled city, especially since the time of the Afghan jihad. Recently the ‘war against terror’ has threatened to obliterate its remaining heritage.
After the mass exodus of old residents from the walled city to the suburbs in the early 1980s, invasion by hordes of Arabs, Afghans, and tribal drug lords with loads of black money has jacked up property prices and replaced traditional hospitality and courtesy in exchange for street Mafioso, violence and vandalism. It now defines the acquired ‘post-Jihad’ Peshawar culture. Thanks to the Yankee consumerist and stern Wahabi doctrine, contrived religiosity sans spirituality and extremism Peshawar’s legendary and tolerant social fabric has been undone.
Most heritage landmarks of the bygone period have been erased. The grand Landsdown Theater (renamed Falakshair) belonging to the famous Sardar Kirpal Singh family was pulled down recently by the land grabbing mafia – a tacky plaza stands there. The majestic Dean’s Hotel met the same fate a decade ago. Only Capitol Cinema, the last vestige of that romantic period remains, but its fate will also be sealed if efforts are not made to conserve it. Godin and Sons the earliest gramophone and piano shop dating back to 1920, and the even older and ornate Medicos, have both disappeared only this year.
All Gandhara period banyan trees at Pipal Mandi and Ander Shehr, dating to the Kanishka period, were mowed down in the mid-1970s. This is where Buddhist tourists and pilgrims used to converge previously. The self-appointed city guardians have zealously taken up the task of denuding the remaining flora and heritage trees. History bears testimony that the ruthless Huns and latter day Sikhs carried on the carnage of the city of gardens – presently being accomplished by Peshawar’s modern day administrators.
In these troubled times where security issues dominate, “Tourism Corporation Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP)” is striving to restore its intangible heritage and culture. TCKP has been on the forefront in holding several cultural events and folk festivals. But the larger picture of conservation remains a distant goal, though the 18th Amendment and devolution of the culture department to provinces should make this task easier, if taken up seriously.
It was expected of the liberal ANP-PPP government to take a leading role in the conservation and revival of threatened cultural assets and heritage sites. Although there was a laudable feat of establishing an independent culture department, it needs funding and sincere efforts to boost its inadequate capacity.
A thorough listing and documentation of all cultural assets and sites should have been the immediate priority, a precedent set by the Sindh and Punjab governments in the 1980s and ’90s. For this to happen, political commitment is needed.
On the contrary, the ANP government’s misplaced development priorities have diverted precious resources to billion-dollar mega projects like flyovers and roads that have contributed to an even greater traffic mess than before. A public transport system, a metro service or a mono rail would have been a sustainable alternative to the already congested roads. The question is: will the present PTI government follow the same discredited policies of the previous government?
This historical city of renowned writers, pilgrims and kings is now being threatened by unplanned development.
“Such was Peshawar in the days of royal glory. Every stone, every rafter, every tree of all this beauty was destroyed by the Sikhs. But the English who followed the Sikhashahi strove to make Peshawar once more a city of gardens, though with a suburban, not a stately taste. Working as best they knew, they remade a tradition which Pakistan must have the will to preserve”, prophesied Olaf Caroe in “The Pathans”.
The emerging cultural desert and a materialist Mecca that Peshawar has lately transformed into, shuts out the precious past – and along with that, any tourism prospects in the future.
Let’s remind ourselves: Peshawar is not Dubai; its 3000 year history cannot be sacrificed at the altar of money making and destructive projects.
Write By: Adil Zareef