The people of Sindh province in the south of Pakistan, the site of one of the oldest civilizations in the world, are currently celebrating a festival to pay tribute to their rich and vast cultural heritage. The brainchild of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the festival aims to revive the history of Sindh, his home province, with a 15-day celebration in various cities showcasing local art, music, sport and more. However, critics accused him of playing the Sindh card by exploiting the peace loving innocent Sindhi people.
If that was not enough, before the celebrations had even begun, the festival drew ire from some for its decision to hold the theatrical opening ceremony at the ancient ruins of Mohenjodaro.
Mohenjo-daro, an UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the earliest urban settlements in the world, dating back to 2600 BCE. A stage and other event infrastructure was built nearby the delicate ruins for the opening ceremony of 1 February 2014, to which about 400 or more dignitaries were invited. Some leading archaeologists did not give the green light for holding the festival there. However, the organizers of the event and the PPP government in Sindh assured that the ceremony was being planned with painstaking attention to details, ensuring that the ruins were not threatened.
So the Sindh Festival opened last night at Mohenjodaro, but it didn’t remain untouched by controversy: the accusation that the ruins were being damaged by preparations for the festival, including the building of a stage, construction of steel pillars, and other things that shouldn’t be happening on or around delicate ruins from a five-thousand year old civilisation. In addition, the vibrations by the construction and the loudspeakers during the concert, and the bright spotlights would possibly degrade the site even further. Furore erupted on social media, petitions were signed, and letters written. The Festival went ahead as planned and by all accounts was successful, but it’s still a sensitive subject as we wait to assess the impact of the concert on the site post-event.
Local journalist and environmental activist Amar Guriro’s photographs of the stage being constructed at the ruins first drew the attention of many to the choice of venue when they viral on social media. Debates emerged over the use of wooden and steel scaffolding over and near the ruins, heavy spotlights and lasers for a light show, and sound systems for the ceremony that could possibly damage the area.
While commenting on Amar Guriro’s photographs, Shah added on her blog:
I was very concerned when I saw the photographs and I retweeted them so that people might pay attention to the issue. The Festival organisers responded by claiming they’d had archeological experts both local and foreign approve the plans and help build the site in a safe way.
Journalist Mohammad Malick wanted someone to inform Bilawal Bhutto Zardari about the importance of the ancient city:
pl send a tweet each to bilawal bhutto urging him to change venue. 5000yr old civilisation is way more imp than any individual’s ego
— Mohammad Malick (@MalickViews) January 30, 2014
Senior Editor of The News Talat Aslam tweeted his thoughts about the opening ceremony:
The 5,000-yr-old ruins of Moenjodaro, which survived conquests, floods, pestilence, were finally destroyed by The Great Festival of 2014…
— Talat Aslam (@titojourno) January 29, 2014
Environmental communicator and cricket journalist Afia Salam was also against the idea:
Moenjodaro is a UNESCO World Heritage site… and it is illegal to even move a brick or add anything there… http://t.co/V9i0Orw2nb
— afia salam (@afiasalam) January 29, 2014
The official Twitter handle for the Sindh Festival was quick to clarify their position:
1/3 Pls do not confuse pics of wooden scaffolding & protective sheets for the stage.These are only to protect the site from any potential
— Sindh Festival (@sindhfestival) January 29, 2014
2/3 damage in unlikely event of accident. Done specifically on instructions of Dir. of Archaeology to protect the site. It is NOT the stage
— Sindh Festival (@sindhfestival) January 29, 2014
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari defended the choice:
inspected MD site with Director Archaeology (30yrs experience).
Explained how every precaution has been taken. Remains are safe. More soon.
— BilawalBhuttoZardari (@BBhuttoZardari) January 30, 2014
The ruins of Mohenjodaro
According to UNESCO, Mohenjodaro is the best-preserved urban ruin on the Indian subcontinent. The ruins, unearthed by a British archaeologist Sir John Marshall in 1922, are already threatened by harsh climatic conditions, floods and saline action of the Indus River water.
Ever since the news broke on social media, protests and online petitions signed against the opening ceremony at the Mohenjodaro ruins marred the main event. According to a news report published in Dawn Newspaper, UNESCO was unhappy with the idea of holding an event at the ruins. The report said that a week before the festival at Mohenjodaro, the director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites declared the opening ceremony as an “improper” activity.
But here is what the organizers had to say after the opening ceremony of the Sindh Festival at Mohenjodaro:
A picture worth thousand words, says it all. Moenjodaro after inauguration on Feb 1 is open and unhurt. pic.twitter.com/yw2vDBNQGK
— Sindh Festival (@sindhfestival) February 4, 2014
This post was originally published in GlobalVoices on 12th February, 2014.