Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Mayo Gardens

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In 1906, barely forty-five years after they had laid the first rail track across the dusty Punjabi landscape, railway authorities had chosen Lahore to be the headquarters of what they called the North Western Railway (NWR) from among the several railways that chugged across undivided India. Though some of the lines (like the one into Jammu and the narrow gauge up into Simla and yet others across Punjab) remained with India at the time of independence, Pakistan inherited a somewhat truncated NWR.

When Lahore became the headquarters, the city saw a flurry of construction work to house railway officers and subordinate staff. Mayo Road (renamed Allama Iqbal Road) that stretched from the railway station to the Mian Mir cantonment saw the first string of houses. The first real railway housing estate, however, was the one that sprawled between Garhi Shahu and the Loco Shed just southeast of the railway station.

About 1910 railway authorities acquired yet more land to build one of the finest railway housing estates in all India and, so far as railway housing goes, indeed the finest in Pakistan today. This was the prestigious Mayo Gardens, sandwiched between Mayo Road and Aitchison College. Land allocated for each housing unit was never less than two acres (sixteen kanals) and went up to twice as much in one case. Laid out in a neat grid, the roads running through the estate were lined with indigenous trees, most of which stand to this day.

Construction began in 1910 and over the next two years twenty-three palatial houses came up amid sprawling lawns – houses fit for kings. There were no boundary walls or high gates, only hedges. Each house was surrounded on all sides with green lawns, each came with a prescription patio in the garden which. In latter years this was equipped with a superstructure for an electric fan for the long summer afternoons. Four houses were added in the years 1932-33 and then several more subsequent to independence.

Several years ago railway authorities came up with the hare-brained notion of commercialising Mayo Gardens. The notion was that this income would help float a railway system careening fast down the financial tube. It is strange that instead of cleaning up the act, railway authorities could come up with such a bizarre and moronic scheme. That meant running a bulldozer through this lovely estate and dividing up its one hundred and thirty-seven acres into tiny few-marla plots so that a whole warren of ugly little houses with bathroom tile facades and Greek colonnades could be built. Had that come to pass, all the trees would have gone, the grassy lawns bricked up. An entire ecology that connects up with that of Aitchison College, the Governor’s House, Lawrence Gardens (now Bagh e Jinnah) and GOR I would have been irrevocably disturbed.

Good sense prevailed, however. Nayyer Ali Dada and Associates were called in for advice. After much deliberation it was decided that even if Mayo Gardens was to be commercialised, its basic essence could still be preserved. And so while the bulldozer may not be run through this tree-shaded estate, for the time being at least, it is in for a few changes. The southeast segment (the one nearest the canal and railway line) will be commercialised while the lawns of most of the rest of the houses will be cut up to build more residences.

The consultants insist that only a few trees will face the axe, if any do at all, and that the basic character of Mayo Gardens will be disturbed only minimally. Though for the time being we can be thankful for this mercy, we can only wonder how long this situation will remain. Surely one day some shark of a real estate developer will get his way and Mayo Gardens will end up like most of Lahore’s open spaces (remember: there were some one hundred and fifty gardens, large and small, in Lahore at the time of partition). If Pakistan were a country of old money and real class, the ultra-rich would have purchased the residences of Mayo Gardens to form an exclusive enclave. Since it isn’t, one can only fear that this estate will sooner or later go.

Gone will be those majestic old trees that shade the houses. In their stead, the dinky little 5-marla matchbox blockhouses will have eucalyptus or, at best, the kulfi-shaped Asoka tree that we have now become very fond of. No longer will one look up to the sky to the drone of beating wings as a grey hornbill passes overhead. No longer will the sad little kook-kook-kook of the little green barbet ring through the leafy crowns, nor too the mellifluous whistle of the golden oriole. Gone will be the wide, grassy gardens that soak up rainwater to recharge the rapidly drying aquifer of Lahore. But no one will care for the railway will have some few extra rupees in its kitty.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 08:00,


At 8 December 2013 at 13:45, Anonymous Anonymous said... was a prestigious and tranquil place to visit. It made the visitor envious. I had to go there frequently because of several friends living there and always had to tear myself away to return home reluctantly. What thy r doing to it is shameful but what the latter day residents did to it was worse than that, which brought its downfall. The servant quarters were rented out, shacks made for domestic help and freeloading of electricity became the norm. All this when the trains had all but stopped running.
Even the great Nayyer Ali Dada, all his horse and all his men can't do a thing to deal with mentality such as our railwaymen possess.

At 8 December 2013 at 14:00, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

A sad reflection on the state of this sorry land.

At 14 September 2014 at 21:56, Blogger Maqsood A. Khan said...

The Write up - Good - Informative
Comments - Mis / Disinformation - There is nothing to be saddened - and every thing can make you sad


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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