We were on vacation in Spain, where the entire family decided to spend the day discovering Park Guell, one of Antoni Gaudí’s largest and most famous works in Barcelona. But amongst the spectacular architectural structures and abundant exotic vegetation we also discovered a common Pakistani “work of art”. Right there, on a wall of this UNESCO World Heritage Site was some pointless graffiti. Someone from Swabi, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa had found that leaving his name and date of visit would be of great relevance to history someday.
Why do we do this? Why do we engage in such selfish vandalism? It’s almost a question as baffling as why cavemen painted on cave walls. Apparently, humans across many cultures and centuries have desperately desired to be remembered. I recall watching a documentary on National Geographic more than a decade ago that discovered graffiti inside a secret chamber in the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. The documentary indicated that it might have been left there by members of the various masonry crews who built the pyramid, gauging from their obscure placement. It was almost like they were trying to hitch-hike their way into heaven with the ruler in addition to being remembered!
The “Standard list of factors affecting the Outstanding Universal Value of World Heritage properties” was compiled in 2008 by the World Heritage Committee (WHC). It contains 14 primary threats to World Heritage properties. Under the primary factor of “Other Human Activities”, the deliberate destruction of heritage appears as a major contributor to degradation of World Heritage properties. “Vandalism” and “Graffiti” are listed before “Politically motivated acts” and “Arson” on this inventory of offenses.
But in Pakistan it is almost our national pastime to defile cultural, architectural and religious treasures. But unlike the bold social and political expressions of street artist and activist Banksy or the street art movement in Karachi changing the city’s landscape – the senseless graffiti left by tourists at every national heritage site and apparently all over the world is infuriating.
The Altit Fort, an 11th century fort in Hunza, was restored in 2007 by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the Historic Cities Support Programme and the Government of Norway. It received the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2011. By the time I visited in 2013, couples from Lahore had found the time to scratch their love for each other into centuries-old wood.
Another World Heritage site, Katas Raj, is a one-of-a-kind location which, apart from its obvious beauty and history, is very important to the Hindu religious minority in Pakistan for whom it is the second holiest site in Punjab. It is believed to have been constructed in between the 7th and 10th centuries and had fallen into disrepair till 2006 when restoration was carried out. On a visit there with friends in 2014, various offending disfigurements were found on its ancient walls. Renovation was again apparently underway earlier this year.
Not even the most inaccessible places in the country are safe. The road to K-2 looks like a bizarre graffiti-marked path to the highest point in the country. Rocks at every interval are spray painted by irresponsible and unapologetic tour operators as well as individuals. A direct conversation with one such group about managing their footprint ended with the petitioner being treated with the same disrespect shown to our mountains.
One thing to be taken away is that graffiti is not the root problem here per se. It is disrespect for historic and natural treasures in general. Every year you hear about a new jeep rally being planned in the Deasoi plains – a pristine area which is the second highest plateau in the world and is protected under the Northern Areas Wildlife Preservation Act 1975. It is home to various unique flora and fauna which will be threatened by excessive traffic and disruptive actives. Blatant disregard has also been shown for this protected area with polo, horse riding, jeep rallies and safaris planned in the past. There was even the somewhat ridiculous announcement that a group of people on 1969 Vespas would be crossing the plains in 2016. At the Katas Raj temple, I saw a board of general rules for visitors with one rule specifically forbidding the washing of cars in the sacred temple pool. What kind of people were washing their cars in the holy pool – believed by some of their fellow countrymen to be made from the teardrops of Shiva?
What kind of people were washing their cars in the holy pool – believed by some of their fellow countrymen to be made from the teardrops of Shiva?
Last year marked a watershed moment as the International Criminal Court began trying Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi for the destruction of ancient mausoleums which were part of a UNESCO World Heritage site in Timbuktu. While in no way as destructive as his actions, the graffiti growing like weeds on our heritage sites needs be addressed in an analogous manner – by holding individuals accountable for their actions. In a 2016 notification, the Gilgit-Baltistan Council Secretariat stipulated that a party “shall follow the international guidelines for maintenance of healthy ecosystems”. Groups found in violation of this or any other rules (which included porter wages and kit allowances) would be “disqualified from any future trekking engagement in G-B for a maximum of 3 years”. But this is hardly a deterrent, as enforcement has been hard with cases of violation like graffiti often going unreported. When asked why, most porters regularly working on the route to Concordia simply shrug their shoulders. “People are used to it” is a common answer.
An ironic piece by Banksy professes that “Society gets the vandalism it deserves”. This is very true in our case. We also sadly ensure that it is enthusiastically shared with other nations that we visit. The unfortunate message here seems to be that to a lot of us the Standard Operating Procedure is: “When at a Pakistani or even at some else’s beloved national heritage site, please leave graffiti, for it is expected of you”.
Sigh. Arshad Khan of Swabi may you always be remembered (as an inconsiderate idiot).