The men huddled on what remained of the marble courtyard, the parts that hadn’t been ripped away by a bulldozer’s claw. A cloud of smoke rose above them as they passed around hashish joints — for the spiritual high, they said. They shook their heads to the frenzied banging of the drummers. Others leaped up, twirling, contorting and chanting in praise of the Sufi saint at whose shrine they worshiped.
In short, on a recent Thursday night, hundreds of worshippers at the Mauj Darya shrine repeated a tradition that the shrine’s keepers say has occurred in some form for about 450 years.
But activists fear this tradition may end with the shrine itself.
They say it is threatened by a 16-mile train line the government is racing to build through Lahore. The train route passes 11 heritage spots — from Mauj Darya, to a British colonial church, to the Shalimar Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is expected to ferry about half a million people every day within five years, said the head of the Lahore Transport Authority, Khawaja Ahmad Hassan.
“I’m really keeping my fingers crossed,” said Kamil Khan Mumtaz, a prominent architect who took part in an unsuccessful effort to petition against the train route. “It’s so close to the shrine Mauj Darya that it’s going to break the foundations.”
The train line is part of a planned web of public transportation, so far including a bus line and two more planned train routes, meant to serve the more than 11 million residents of Lahore, Pakistan’s second most populous city.
The metro line is being built with a Chinese loan of more than $1.6 billion, according to Hassan, the transportation official. He said the government has a seven-year grace period and then two decades to pay it off, but the interest rate and other terms of the loan are not public.
That’s part of the billions of dollars’ worth of loans that Pakistan has borrowed from China to build megaprojects. Pakistan’s government hopes those projects will transform the country and modernize its economy. In return, China is seeking to secure a trade corridor via Pakistan to the Arabian Sea.
Pakistani officials have typically been secretive about these loans.
“The people of this country have been kept in dark,” said Qais Aslam, an economist at the University of Central Punjab. “The cost will be higher than the benefits that we will reap,” he said. “It is my future generation that has to pay back these loans.”
Beyond the projected debt, activists against Lahore’s train line say future generations are threatened with losing something more intangible: a sense of their history.
Lahore’s residents live among jumbled layers of the past: medieval gates, soaring Mughal-era mosques, pokey Sufi shrines, British colonial buildings and decaying Hindu and Sikh temples.
Among them is the shrine for Mauj Darya. Tradition holds that he saved Lahore from being engulfed by a flooding river by stretching out his hand and reversing its tide.
He was so prominent in his day, in the 15th century, that even Mughal Emperor Akbar, Mumtaz said, “went barefoot to the court of this fakir,” a Sufi who has renounced worldly possessions.
Hassan of the Lahore Transport Authority said engineers have strengthened the foundations of historical buildings. The projected vibrations of the train would not harm the sites, he said.
“We are not trying to disrupt, disturb or destroy any of the heritage points,” he said. He reasoned that the train line is rescuing the sites from neglect. “People didn’t know that they exist,” Hassan said. “I think this has been a silver lining for the heritage.”
The impact of the construction work was apparent on a recent day.
At the Mauj Darya shrine, a small domed building covered in flowery mosaics and tinsel, engineers built a reinforcing concrete wall underneath the structure. It was visible because construction workers had dug an enormous trench right up to the shrine’s wall.
Saira Waqas, 30, clutching her daughter Saman, scrambled over dirt mounds to reach the saint. She was praying for a son, she said.
Another trench lay in front of St. Andrews United Presbyterian Church, built in 1860, during the British colonial period. Inside, metal rods reinforced the church’s front-facing wall.
The caretaker, Salim Masih, said the church serves the small Presbyterian Pakistani community of several hundred families. His daughter had just recently graduated with a college degree — they celebrated here, in church.
The train line runs above ground near the Shalimar Gardens, offering a view inside the Mughal-era landscape. Couples sat in the shaded seclusion of trees. Families strolled.
The biggest grievance of activists like Mumtaz was the method used to dig the train route. Instead of boring tunnels to keep the metro underground, the government tore through Lahore’s dense urban fabric.
They accused the government of using that faster, cheaper and more destructive method to complete the train before national elections, expected this summer. Mega transport projects are a signature of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the conservative party that rules the federal government and Punjab state, whose capital is Lahore.
“It has become an election stunt,” said Nadeem Omar Tarar, an anthropologist and director of the National College of Arts in Lahore who has written against the new rail line. Transport projects like the metro and road projects could be executed in short time and offered immediate visibility, he said.
Hassan, the transportation official, said that the government used the above-ground digging method because engineers recommended it. And Lahore’s underground utilities were never properly marked — meaning they could be cut inadvertently if they bored tunnels.
“That’s precisely the reason to go deep tunnel, which goes far below all these services,” said the architect Mumtaz. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. Or else, they’re lying.”
Hassan said the matter had already been decided in Pakistan’s Supreme Court. In December, it allowed construction work near the heritage sites. That was after a lower court ordered a halt while it heard petitions against the train’s route.
As a result, construction around the heritage sites has only been taking place for the past three months. Other work on the route began in October 2015.
Feng Jing, a UNESCO official, said the World Heritage committee was organizing a mission to visit the Shalimar Gardens “as soon as possible.”
In an email, the UNESCO official said they had requested a mission in July 2016 examine the rail line and review how world heritage sites were being managed and protected. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, the government had not invited them until late December 2017.
But most of the dozen or so residents interviewed by NPR welcomed the new train. On a main street, knots of motorbikes and vehicles swerved through cloudy dust piles left by construction work. Shaker Javed, a government health worker, was crammed on a tuk-tuk alongside three other men.
The train line, Javed said, “would be more respectable.” It would be faster and quieter, he shouted over the roar of traffic.
Back at the shrine, the gathering was ending and men piled out. Barbar Ali, a 25-year-old mechanic, said he trusted the government to repair any damage they caused to the shrine. Even if they wanted to harm it, the saint, Mauj Darya, wouldn’t let them, he said.
He pointed to the construction. It would be tidied up and “when all this has been finished,” he said, “people will really be in awe over Pakistan’s progress.”
Abdul Sattar is NPR’s Islamabad bureau news assistant.