Tracking Jain Heritage with Aadil Pasha
Aadil Pasha, the Jain Temples and Androon seem like the unlikeliest entities to be working together on an intensely personal project: preserving histories that urbanism and nationalism keep trying to erase. In all honesty, I would not have bet on their success. But looking at the pictures again, weeks later, I am struck by the raw honesty in each frame. All three are present and unafraid to take up space. An ode to a city that changes just as it stays the same.
Aadil Pasha sends me three folders full of striking images. I have spoken to him about this project before. At that time, he talked about the Jain Temples in Lahore with excitement. Now, a few months later, his voice is less animated. Perhaps he has resigned himself to the fact that not many are interested in documenting and showcasing history, nor in grappling with the social and political narratives that underlie the past and the present.
When I speak to him next, he is buying paracetamol for a headache caused by the height. He is travelling to Skardu to assess a developmental project that aims to increase parental engagement in primary education. As always, his voice is urgent but gentle. There is a beautiful deliberateness to the way he speaks.This same quality is apparent in the pictures he takes. The anthropologist, the architect, the photographer all make their presence known.
Pasha’s work is layered and human. Old Lahore – the Walled City as it is often referred to by historians, or Androon as it is known to locals – and the obscure Jain Temples are too.
Until 1992, Lahore was home to four Jain Temples. The Urdu word for ‘temple’ is mandir. In the aftermath of the Babri Masjid incident in India that year, the largest and most well-preserved of these was destroyed by rioters. Never mind the fact that this was a Jain and not a Hindu mandir, or that the very desecration of holy places these people were protesting was what they were inflicting upon another religious group now.
The remaining three temples are no longer accessible to the public. Hidden behind sprawling business developments and obscured by facades for new homes, these mandirs exist and occupy space only because the law prevents their demolition. Under Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code, injuring or defiling places of worship is punishable by up to 2 years imprisonment or fine, or both. The Mehkama Auqaf – Ministry of Religious Affairs – has been tasked with the implementation of this law, and in so far as the implementation is concerned, the Jain temples still exist. The state they are in at present and the negligible Jain presence in the country are a different matter entirely.
Pasha, however, takes great comfort in their mere presence. “The culture moves around the temples [in that area] and just the fact they are still standing is astounding. It is a subliminal recognition of a sacred space,” he says in a half-whispered soliloquy.
I asked Pasha to describe going to Androon as a photographer in one word. His response: “intimidating”. As he searched for the spires or ‘shikars’ for the mandirs, he had to turn to the local residents for directions. Many of them were commuters or out-of-town workers who neither knew where they were nor had the time or connection to care. But he also met people who have lived in and around Anarkali Bazaar for generations and share a familial relationship with the architecture. Often, they would point to an apparently regular looking home and tell him that the temple was there. After much neck-craning and observant sky-gazing, he would be able to spot the beehive structures typical of the Digambar style; obscured otherwise by the construction all around them.
The urban density might be to blame. In the Wacho Waali Mandir for instance, different families now live in different parts of the temple; often within 3-5 meters of each other. Pasha made the conscious decision not to photograph them because he felt that it would be intrusive and disrespectful to the squatters. He says this without a hint of self-righteousness. Later when we meet at an upscale café in Gulberg for a cup of coffee, he speaks of the class struggle he observes in the act of photography. “Representation of the truth is hard,” he muses. I wonder if he is speaking about himself or the people he meets every day.
The openness and permeability of Androon fascinates Pasha. But he tries his best to avoid exotifying it as those unfamiliar with it often do. Memory and density interact to create a fluidity that just does not exist in other parts of town. For example, the same structures are known by different names to different groups here; an alarming thought to Google-maps-dependent millennials who often find themselves lost in the narrow alleys. This very fluidity determines how “some memories remain…some change and vanish and disappear.” By the Moori Gate Bazar, for example, is the Baba Habib Chowk. It is named after a man that sat there every day for forty years. He has now been dead for twenty. The name of the chowk represents 60 years of indigenous remembrance and his house, right opposite the intersection, has no name. It has been transformed into a printing press by his family and without the memory of the locals, that history would be lost forever.
Many may compare this to how frequently the lanes of the underpasses in Lahore get renamed. Is that not the same fluidity as in the Walled City? Pasha seems to think not. He points to how there is a political narrative that the process of naming and claiming space serves in urban developments. This narrative is not dictated by neo-liberal, neo-imperial state projects but by the association of the people to the space; the personal histories woven into the architecture. The Walled City is full of dead ends and roadblocks, and almost inaccessible to the uninitiated. As a result it is difficult to colonize and of little interest to those who have no sentimental attachment to it.
Pasha also thinks that this part of town is inherently different from the urban landscape because it is not confined by lines. “To separate from fixed lines (like roads) is impossible in the urban city,” according to him. We can only walk one path, one road, in one direction there. To break away is structurally and logistically impossible. From an architectural point of view, Pasha believes these newer structures require fixed points to measure and map the development and growth of the city, and to provide the constant or the center around which change occurs. Androon – “a manic, living entity” – is that anchor to Lahore. Central Park in New York City is another such space that is built around and into the people.
The reason the buildings in the Old CIty are ‘fixed’ is because unlike the newer parts of the city, the structures are not torn down and rebuilt to repurpose the space. The buildings are never fully effaced. There are even some pre-Mughal Era bricks in them still. Buildings built upon buildings; they stand huddled together; sometimes even leaning on one another. They continue to not only ground the city as it grows, but also bear testimony to its history. Although voyeurs like us often satisfy ourselves with the colourful facades of the buildings that have been preserved in the Walled City, Pasha thinks “what has meaning in Androon lies behind the facade of the havelis”. It lies in their permanence and evolution in the face of change.
The people have shaped their lives around the architecture of these Jain temples, and the architecture has grown around them. It is an intimate self-sustaining community. Even the markets are important for providing the architectural and structural scaffolding to traditional, local craftsmen and artisan histories. Wacho Waali Bazar, known for its embroidered goods, and Sooha Bazaar, famous for the jewellery produced there, are surprisingly low-lit markets. This is because all the displays and shops are designed specifically to draw attention to the locally produced pieces. Art and tradition take center stage. In fact, the inextricable relationship between artisan and architecture was clear when the traders of the Sooha Bazaar volunteered to help rebuild the destroyed Jain Temple themselves. A generous offer given that most of the traders are small business owners and predominantly Muslim. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy, in fear of lashback from right-wing groups, did not let them.
“Debauched air.” That is how he describes the environment of Androon close to Basant. Something about Pasha suggests the same. His Vespa, his local cigarettes and his old manual camera. His Aitchison college, liberal arts education, and upper-class, urban upbringing. He resists it with his ill-fated attempt at learning Japanese, his anthropological photography, the hitched rides up North. Maybe he craves the air there near the Jain temples. Maybe that is what the people here crave too. What they find around Basant time. Or did at least.
When he speaks of Lahore’s romance with rooftops, I wonder if I could describe Pasha’s own fascination with the Walled City as such. The young women climbing up rickety ladders to take selfies on the open rooftops. Secret messages sent over Whatsapp to lovers across the street. I picture him in his leather jacket – an exact replica of Han Solo’s – making his way through squatter quarters to access the ‘shikars’. I think of how his photographs resist the homogenizing Muslim-Mughal narrative that permeates discourse around the Walled City. It is as if the elevation in Androon, on the rooftops and the spires, sets people free. A shedding of walls – social and structural – that changes the rules that govern behaviour.
Pasha, the Jain Temples and Androon seem like the unlikeliest entities to be working together on an intensely personal project: preserving histories that urbanism and nationalism keep trying to erase. In all honesty, I would not have bet on their success. But looking at the pictures again, weeks later, I am struck by the raw honesty in each frame. All three are present and unafraid to take up space. An ode to a city that changes just as it stays the same.