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Controversial Sindh Festival Accused of Risking Ancient Ruins for Flashy Kickoff

Fireworks during the opening ceremony of Sindh Festival held in Moen Jo Daro. Image by Jamal Dawoodpoto. Copyright Demotix (3/2/2014)

Fireworks during the opening ceremony of Sindh Festival held in Moen Jo Daro. Image by Jamal Dawoodpoto. Copyright Demotix (3/2/2014)

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 Mohenjo-daro.

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.

Pakistani writer Bina Shah wrote on her blog that she wasn't convinced:

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.

Labourers prepare for the Sindh Festival at Moen Jo Daro (Mound of Dead), the location of the remains of an ancient Indus Valley civilization. Image by Jamal Dawoodpoto. Copyright Demotix (

Labourers prepare for the Sindh Festival at Moenjo-daro (Mound of the Dead), the location of the remains of an ancient Indus Valley civilisation. Image by Jamal Dawoodpoto. Copyright Demotix (3/2/2014)

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: 

Senior Editor of The News Talat Aslam tweeted his thoughts about the opening ceremony: 

Environmental communicator and cricket journalist Afia Salam was also against the idea:   

The official Twitter handle for the Sindh Festival was quick to clarify their position:

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari defended the choice: 

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 Moenjodaro, 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:

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