Published On: Sat, May 13th, 2017

Lack of funds taking toll on conservation

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Given that we often fail to protect our heritage against a litany of threats – religious intolerance, institutional neglect, military appropriation, real-estate development, antiquities theft and the inevitable ravages of time – the least we can do is safeguard them against the self-inflicted wound of shoddy, albeit well-intentioned, interventions.

In November last, when the iconic seventh-century Buddha at Jahanabad, Swat, defaced by militants in 2007, was restored, it was termed to be a victory of a sort. The exhaustive four-year project was jointly undertaken by the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, KP, and the Italian Archaeological Mission, using best practices and imaging equipment. As reported recently in this newspaper, however, the same local department is responsible for undertaking dubious “restoration and preservation” work on the Bhamala Stupa near Haripur.  Earlier efforts on this unique World Heritage site had unearthed a number of significant artefacts from the Kushan era, including a 14-metre-long statue portraying Buddha’s death and another with a double halo.

Insider sources allege that the current phase of restoration was conducted without prior approval from international and local authorities, and in contravention of Unesco-mandated practices. Whether this disfigurement can be reversed without further damage to the ancient ruins remains to be seen, and why the stupa was subjected to it at all can only be speculated on. Lack of funding and specialised resources may be perennial problems for conservation in Pakistan but, as demonstrated by citizen campaigners in Lahore and local efforts in Gilgit-Baltistan, a lack of community engagement need not be one of them. Indeed, mobilising local communities to take ownership of their shared heritage is not only vital to ensuring the long-term success of such projects, it also spurs economic and social development.

For that, awareness needs to be raised about the various aspects of conservation, including preserving authenticity. There is clearly no lack of enthusiasm to put KP on the cultural map, but short cuts should not be taken to make sites tourist-ready.

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