Folk dancers and singers wearing traditional multicolored dresses took the stage Saturday at one of the world's most ancient archaeological sites in southern Pakistan for a festival that organizers say aspires to promote peace in a nation where political violence has left some 40,000 dead in recent years.
The festival at Mohenjodaro aims to publicize the cultural heritage of the country's south. But it drew controversy when some archaeologists said the event posed a threat to the site's unbaked brick ruins dating to the 3rd millennium BC.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, organized the event at Mohenjodaro, associated with one of the world's first urban societies, the Indus Valley civilization.
Benazir Bhutto was killed in a 2007 gun and bomb attack widely blamed on Pakistani Taliban and Bilawal has made opposition to militancy a pillar of his platform.
Saturday night's event was inaugurated by the 25-year-old politician, who now heads the Pakistan People's Party. His father served one term as the country's president but it has been the younger Zardari who has become the public face of the party. It is especially strong in Sindh province, the family's homeland and the location of Mohenjodaro.
The festival has been seen as part of efforts to raise the younger Zardari's profile on the national political stage.
Zardari selected Mohenjodaro "to promote local culture, peace and tolerance," government official Saqib Ahmed Soomro said. About 500 guests were in attendance — many flown in from the port city of Karachi. Roughly 2,000 police officers provided security although militant attacks are relatively rare in that part of Sindh province.
The festival drew controversy when archaeologists said they fear the stage and other event infrastructure could damage the delicate mud ruins.
"It is nothing but insanity" says archaeologist Asma Ibrahim, who is a member of the Management Board for Antiquities and Physical Heritage of the Sindh government. She says the stage and sound and light show could damage walls.
But organizers say there is no risk to the ruins.
"There is no risk to Mohenjodaro because of the festival. Rather, it was never decorated the way we have done now," Soomro said. He said he supervised arrangements for the festival to make sure no harm was caused to the site.
Zardari visited the site Thursday and said every step was being taken to protect it, and people would not be allowed to roam freely over the ruins.
Zardari's attempts to promote culture have won praise in some quarters. "People are living in a state of depression due to continued violence, and there is a need to provide them more opportunities of entertainment," defense analyst Talat Masood said.
"The world knows us in connection to acts of terrorism which routinely take place in Pakistan. Tonight, the world will see another face of the country," said 20-year-old Anwar Baluch, one of the guests.
But in the nearby city of Larkana, which is considered the seat of the PPP's power, some residents questioned whether promoting culture was the best use of resources. Much of Pakistan suffers from frequent power cuts.
"We have hopes for young Bilawal," said shopkeeper, Sunil Kumar. But he said there are many serious issues in the area. "We only have eight hours of electricity a day, which destroys our business."
Mohenjodaro, meaning Mound of the Dead, is on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites. Excavations since 1922 have uncovered only one-third of the site, the organization's website says. A UNESCO campaign ending in 1997 raised money to protect the site from flooding and to control the ground-water table.