Rediscovering Pakistan’s Cultural History

By Sonya Rehman

43-year-old photographer, Maria Waseem, attributes her passion for documenting Pakistan’s heritage through photography as a “gift” from her mother.

While growing up in Mangla, Azad Kashmir, Waseem recalls watching her mother develop photographs in a darkroom set up in their house. At the time, Waseem’s mother was working on her college thesis and frequently went on photo-walks with her daughter in tow.

The process fascinated young Waseem. For one, the exciting excursions to Pakistan’s heritage sites as her mother took photos, and then, the even more thrilling stage of developing photos – in the darkroom – left an impact on Waseem.

Photography was not just a stimulating medium, it was also a reminder of the childlike awe that comes with capturing both the beautiful and the overlooked.

And it is this very sense of curiosity that Waseem continues to carry in her adulthood while on the field, documenting Pakistan’s heritage.

Intricate carvings of Lord Ganesh and other deities on Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Samadhi (tomb) in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo: Maria Waseem.

But it was only until Waseem graduated – with a degree in architecture – from Lahore’s well-known arts institution, the National College of Arts (NCA), that the photographer began taking her love of documenting local heritage seriously.

While working at NCA as an architectural researcher on a book on the famed pre-partition architect, Bhai Ram Singh (at its research and publication department), Waseem’s interest in photography grew.

Maria Waseem during a photo-walk at a temple in Punjab, Pakistan. Photo: Waseem Ahmed.

“I got to visit all the British colonial period institutional buildings in Lahore which were designed by [Bhai Ram Singh] and are mostly located in the old parts of the city,” Waseem states, “With time, I developed an interest in photographing the lesser-known pre-partition structures like residential buildings, temples, gurdwaras, small mosques, etc. The fine architectural details on these structures intrigued me as an architect and this is how my training in architecture, and my keen interest in photography converged.”

A section of the Abbasi Mosque (built in 1849) in the Cholistan Desert, in Bahawalpur, Pakistan. Photo: Maria Waseem.

Having exhibited her photography since 2002 at shows in Pakistan and abroad, Waseem revealed that she was recently selected as a finalist for the Sovereign Asian Art Prize 2021.

Currently gearing up for an exhibition in November, in Karachi, Waseem states that each time she goes back to a previously explored heritage site, she learns something new.

Shahi Mahal (also known as Sheesh Mahal) in the town of Kot Diji, Sindh, Pakistan. Photo: Maria Waseem.

“The layers of history of ancient structures which have withheld the touch of time inspires me. These structures are tangible documents of history, they stand as records of peoples’ lives. Often a monument, a palace, an ancient place of worship or a grand building embodies the rub of ordinary people; those who built them, as well as those who left their marks on these ruins,” Waseem says.

“In my work, I try to document these places not as a story of stone and mortar, but the narrative of a people who see themselves reflected in these ruins, hence for them, these places are not dead structures, but as alive as the memory of their ancestors.”

A section of the ceiling of the Samadhi (tomb) of Kharak Singh, in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo: Maria Waseem.

Speaking about her photography expeditions in Lahore and around Pakistan over the years, Waseem reveals that her excursions have often left her feeling quite emotional.

“The British-era railway lines on Khyber Pass from Peshawar to Landi Kotal, which are not functional anymore and are mostly in ruins, makes one wonder what the train ride in this region must have been like,” she states, “Or for instance, on the way to the Torkham border one crosses the Sphola Stupa site…it makes me think how during the Gandhara period the region must have been so rich and thriving with cultural activities. However, my most emotional experience was when I was photographing the haveli of Sardar Jawala Singh Sandhu at the Padhana village on the border of East and West Punjab for the Sovereign Asian Art Prize. Sardar Jawala Singh Sandhu was the commander-in-chief during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and was married to the eldest sister of the Empress of Punjab, Rani Jind Kaur. The haveli is located on the border of East and West Punjab and during partition the family did not migrate and decided to stay in West Punjab and converted to Islam to stay in the village. The haveli is still owned by the same family and with them I got the chance to visit the 40-feet wide bordering belt of East and West Punjab. While standing there one can see the Gurdwara Chevin Patshahi (located in the Padhana village in West Punjab) and the Gurdwara Sahib Naushahra in East Punjab. Both gurdwaras are just walking distance away divided by an international border now.”

Detail from Sultan Jam Nizamuddin’s Tomb in Makli, Thatta, Sindh, Pakistan. Photo: Maria Waseem.

Next year, Waseem plans on finally beginning work on a publication of her travels documenting local heritage and culture.

Gorgeous fresco art at the Haveli Nau Nihal Singh in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo: Maria Waseem.

While she has a thriving social media presence, where Waseem continuously uploads photos, videos and live sessions of her trips, the photographer recognizes the importance of archiving Pakistan’s cultural history in the form of a book for future generations.

“My main purpose of documenting heritage sites is not just to share picture-perfect photographs, but to make people aware of the amazing shared heritage of the subcontinent.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s