Fauzia Minallah remembers Pakistan’s great scholar Dr Dani whose research will always remind us of who we are and where we came from
Eminent scholar and renowned archeologist Dr Ahmed Hassan Dani is not with us anymore. It only seems like yesterday when he blessed us with his company on a number of cultural caravans I organised for children in Islamabad to open their eyes to the cultural heritage of their city.
Dr Dani loved children, he had an innate ability to reach out to them and they too seemed to be absorbing everything the scholar had to tell them. He was always so full of life; when in a light mood, Dr Dani made them laugh yet enrich their knowledge about the history of heritage sites of Islamabad.
In 2006, during a cultural caravan to the the shrine of prominant sufi saint of Potohar, Barri Imam, he asked schoolchildren, “Do you know what ‘Barri’ means?” He informed them that it means ‘forest,’ since Barri Imam, who was born in 1617, lived for many years in the forests of Hazara and Margalla Hills, meditating. The word ‘barri’ is derived from the word, ‘Barh’ which in the local language means tree.
The children inquired about the main banyan tree and its importance. He told them that all Sufi shrines had an old banyan tree and the one at the shrine was perhaps over 800 years old. It was probably at the same time that a new design of the shrine was approved by the Capital Development Authority. The new design, being implemented now, was a colossal marble structure, a replica of Masjid-i-Nabvi without a sign of the old banyan when it was approved. It was this campaign through our cultural caravan blessed with Dr Dani’s presence and letters that the CDA corrected this oversight, and now children will be able to see the old banyan. Sadly they are caged in the marble monstrosity that is coming up. Hardly a fitting tribute to a humble sufi saint who loved nature and as Dr Dani suggested any renovation that will remove this natural beauty from the shrine and replaces it with lifeless concrete will negate the philosophy of Sufism.
In 2007, Dr Dani accompanied us to the Buddhists caves also known as Shah Allah Ditta caves in Islamabad. One hour with him was enough to enrich children’s minds about different cultures and religions. He would talk about Islamabad’s Hindu past as well as Buddhist. He had a progressive and enlightened mind, his love of his subject especially Gandhara civilistation, of which he was a world renowned authority, came from a deep respect.
Although his short term memory had suffered with age it was amazing how accurate his long term memory was. Whatever information he would give to children would be exactly what he had written in the 1960’s or 70’s. He was our chief guest several times, whether it was for the opening of our special gallery for children or for the launch of my book, Glimpses into Islamabad’s Soul’. He had a personality that one wanted to respect. It was his paper ‘Islamabad and the Soan, The Golden River, story of the oldest living place in the world’, which inspired me to photograph all the heritage sites of Islamabad he had mentioned and ultimately ended up producing the coffee table book.
But his work on the ancient Islamabad was only a small drop in the vast ocean of his work. From Taxila, to Swat, from Peshawar to the Northern areas, from Mohenjo daro to Rehman deri, his work will always be a guiding light for anyone interested in the rich heritage of Pakistan.
This precious heritage of Pakistan is slowly crumbling away, and while the militants are smashing the ancient sites in the area of the magnificent Gandhara region from Swat to Bajuar, the modern vandals of Islamabad are changing old heritage sites according to their tastes without even respecting a document called ‘Antiquities Act of 1975’. Although the recent transformation of historical Saidpur village into a Tourist village, has been welcomed by many, even the most sopisticated and educated, the fact remains that the work on the over ninety year old Hindu temple and the adjoining buildings by the Capital Development Authority has resulted in violations of Article 20(1) of Antiquities Act : The owner of a protected immovable antiquity shall not make any alteration or renovation in or addition to the antiquity.
Since the Federal Archaeology Department never declared the old buildings of Saidpur as protected and the CDA never bothered to get a No Objection Certificate, the CDA got away with destroying the history of this old village. In a letter written to the CDA Dr. Dani had recommended ‘Preservaion’ of the antiquities at Saidpur, but instead the CDA prefered changing its ‘look’ according to some photographs of villages in South of France. Here the cardinal rules of ‘Preservation,’ Conservation’ and ‘Restoration’ have not been respected and respect for the ‘heritage’ of this village is missing. For those tourists coming for another food street in Islamabad, all the paint job & illuminations have ‘glamourised’ Saidpur and made it presentable for those who do not know better. However, for those who valued the ‘Heritage’ of Saidpur, and for future generations authentic cultural assets of Saidpur are lost forever under layers of concrete and paint job.
The preservation of cultural heritage reflects our identity, it establishes a link of our past with our present and future. Whether it is the hate-mongering militants or the modern protectors of heritage driven by commercialism, we as a nation stand like a million years old tree, cutting and severing its own roots. We look down upon our own history and heritage we have severed our link with our past. Who says only the religious fanatics are bigots, I have come across many Pakistanis for whom the ‘multicultural’ past is not important.
The religious hatred and modernity are imperilling our cultural legacy that goes back to 2.2 million years ago Palaeolithic age. We have witnessed the destruction of seventh-century Buddhist rock carvings in Swat, which the Islamists blew up in an attack? It now appears inevitable that in the process of the construction of the Basha-Diamer Dam, we will lose Diamer’s natural galleries of rock carvings, a rich repertoire of petroglyphs celebrating the creativity of artists almost 10,000 years ago. Almost all the art works of these ancient artists of valleys of Hunza and Chilas will be flooded by the reservoir, and lost forever
As this vandalism goes on, how much do I wish to follow Dr Dani’s footstep and photograph the ancient Gandhara sites in Swat and Dir he had documented. How much I want to preserve the petroglyphs in my camera he had written about in his publication ‘Sacred Rock of Hunza’. Dr Dani was so fortunate he had seen better times. While Swat is bleeding, I can only dream of photographing the beauty that was Jehanabad Buddha.
Dr Dani’s internationally acclaimed research will always remind us of who we are and where we came from.
I hope those children who were blessed with his company understand the value of people like him and his precious research. I hope they will not look down upon their own history and heritage and grow up respecting their past.
Dr Ahmad Hassan Dani passed away on Jan 26, aged 88