Cholistan comes to Lahore
Tuesday, 12 February 2013
‘I am a Cholistani; Cholistan lives within my soul,’ says my friend Akhtar Mummunka. And so it is that barely half an hour from the famous crossing known as qainchi in east Lahore, as one drives to Kasur, one notices a sign by the canal bridge on the right side of the road proclaiming ‘Cholistani’.
There along a smaller distributary and barely a few hundred metres off the highroad is a walled-off, tree-shaded compound. This is the dream that was born back in 2002 when Akhtar was invited to conference by Asian Productivity Organisation in Japan. Every year, this organisation awards one person from around the world for outstanding work to preserve the world’s environment.
That year it was a man who had tuned an abandoned factory into a hotel somewhere in the South American rain forest. The winning idea was to do as little as possible to disturb what already existed. Now, if someone had an abandoned factory, Akhtar had ten acres of land and an abandoned poultry farm sitting on it that could be similarly altered.
He returned home and invited a couple of well known architects for ideas. Although he told them the factory to hotel story, our architects said it would be better if the poultry shed was torn down and a fancy new building erected in its place. That was the only way, according to them, to make anything of the tract of land.
But buildings block the view and in the Cholistan Desert that lives in Akhtar’s soul, there is openness. The eye can rove as far as the horizon. The only thing that comes into view is vegetation and sand dunes. The gopas (traditional homes with conical roofs), the only buildings the desert knows, blend into the dunes for their very material comes from these same dunes and bushes. If he were to raise a brick and mortar monstrosity, the very idea of keeping of tampering with the environment in the least possible way would be killed.
Urban educated wisdom having failed him, Akhtar reverted to his roots: to the village in Cholistan. There was Mistry Mohammad Khan, the master craftsman and builder who knew by heart every little bit of the architectural and ornamental vocabulary of the desert.
In Mohammad Khan’s hands, mud plaster quickly transformed the ramshackle poultry shed. A couple of arched windows and a door with arched niches so commonly met with in the desert changed the whole prospect. As the Cholistanis add colour to their world of sand and sparse vegetation with bright colours, so too did the borders of bright blues, greens, reds and yellows around the niches and windows bring a sprinkling of the desert to the old poultry farm. Now resembling a longhouse of the Indies or South America, this building can house about one hundred persons for dining or conferencing.
Now, ten acres is a good deal of real estate and anyone with less gumption would have been sorely tempted to clog the area with buildings of all manner. But as he had said, Akhtar wanted his place to give a feel of the openness that only the desert can. He added only a gopa on one side of the old shed and a few open cubicles on the other side. If you ask me, this little house, equipped as a bedroom, is a perfect honeymoon getaway for an unconventional couple.
As a take on the toba or pond of the desert that fills up after every fall of rain and provides drinking water to nearby villages, Akhtar created an elongated, serpentine lake along the west side of the open lawns. The unexpected bonus of this water body was a sudden upsurge in the number of birds. Here we have seen woodpeckers, kingfishers, golden orioles, Brahminy mynas, tailor birds, munias and magpie robins. These species were once common in Lahore, but because of the wanton destruction of indigenous trees and their replacement with imported species, are no longer to be seen.
In neighbouring India, the Choki Dhani resort near Jaipur has a similar concept. There they have regular fairs – but then they have tourists from all around the world. Every time I have been to Akhtar’s Cholistani, we have had local tourists from Lahore wandering in to check out what the place is all about. But it seems it will take some little while before Cholistani actually takes off as a Sunday resort to get away from the madness of Lahore and relax to the sound of birdsong under a limitless sky.
Meanwhile, Akhtar has other ambitious plans. There are at least over a dozen traditional Cholistani crafts that are dying out because their practitioners no longer find them profitable. The idea is to establish artisans’ villages in this little piece of paradise and get the exponents of the fading crafts into action. But, says Akhtar, the products will have to be adapted for modern utilisation. Of course this will have to be effected without loss of originality under Akhtar’s expert artistic eye.
The artisans’ village may take some time in materialising. But for the time being, the ambience of the place draws me back to it again and again. It is an island of tranquility only an hour away from home. It surprises me that so few people in Lahore or Kasur know of it. Such a place in India would have been swamped with visitors on weekends. What really is the matter with us?
Related: Who Owns Derawar Fort
Related: Who Owns Derawar Fort
Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of eight books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand.
posted by S A J Shirazi @ Tuesday, February 12, 2013,
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