Travel Photography: Amna Zuberi
Bahawalpur offers a master class in gut-wrenching history paired with uplifting remnants of said history. Are you ready for the emotional roller coaster of discovering the former princely state’s built heritage? Journalist Nuzhat Saadia Siddiqi visits the city of her birth and narrates a tale full of fascination and wonderment from the times when opulence and romance reigned supreme there.
Here’s an earnest suggestion for you, if you are planning to visit Bahawalpur.
Don’t take a guide. Go alone. Because while you’re there, and you’re being confronted by, say, the towering majesty of Noor Mahal, you need to be alone so you can shed a tear or emit a deep sigh in appreciation of the grandeur without being mocked by companions who may or may not understand your reaction. I’m not exaggerating. The sight of one of the architectural wonders that exist in that city will force a wave of emotions upon you that will take a whole day or two to subside. But you won’t have the time to allow your heart to settle down. Because the next day you will be standing in front of Darbar Mahal, or Gulzar Mahal, or inside the Dring Stadium, or passing by in front of the Bahawal Victoria Hospital, or walking along a neatly kept road inside the Sadiq Public School, and that wave of emotions will keep on surging. You will be exhausted by the end of this journey. And that is a good thing.
How? Because you will realize that this is what it feels like to fall in love with a city drenched in history, where people still remember a past more romantic than the present.
My personal love affair with Bahawalpur started because of family history. My great grandfather was the Wazir-e-Hazir (or Minister in Waiting) in the cabinet of the last, and most beloved, Nawab of Bahawalpur, Nawab Sir Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi. My maternal grandmother had been married into a family that had migrated from India and had settled in Bahawalpur, so I was born in Bahawalpur. I grew up in Lahore and the Middle East, but many holidays were spent in the city of my birth visiting my grandmother who organized grand trips to all of the places that featured prominently in family reminisces. This was the 90s and my cousins and I went to her house armed with wonderment and our Walkmen. She would feed us fresh cream with crispy parathas, pack us in her Toyota Cressida or Mark X, and drive us past Noor Mahal, Gulzar Mahal and Darbar Mahal.
At that time, these architectural marvels weren’t accessible to the public because of various legal battles among the heirs. Sealed by the courts, the palaces were finally sold to the Pakistan Army and while the Army did a great job in restoring them, they remained off-limits to the general public. This has changed only recently and thousands of domestic and foreign tourists can now experience for themselves the remnants of a legacy that has stood the test of time. And it is not only the palaces; for being the 12th largest city in the country, Bahawalpur is rich in architectural heritage that is quite unlike what other, larger cities boast of. Lahore has what the Mughals, the British and the Sikh built. Karachi’s built heritage includes buildings made and influenced by the British, the Parsi community, and Hindus. What Bahawalpur has is inspired by French chateaus, British stately homes, padded with a bit of Italian neoclassical design, and it was all the result of the expansive imaginations of the Nawabs of Bahawalpur. It is also interesting to note that while their homes looked as if pulled out from European countries through a gash in the space/time continuum, the mosques that they built offered a firm and unwavering adherence to their claimed Arab ancestry with elements of local Sindhi and Punjabi culture mixed in.
They walked through ceilings painted with frescos reminiscent of those found in Venetian palazzos, they looked at their own reflections in gilded mirrors imported from France, they dreamed within rooms where the wallpaper was brought in from England, but when they surrendered themselves to the Almighty, it was surrounded by the markers of their history which was unchangeable, unshakeable, and probably what kept them somewhat humble.
Are you sufficiently intrigued? You should be. I revisited Bahawalpur recently to try and play Russian roulette with my own memory of the place and to learn more, to see more than I did when I was a child and my only goal in Bahawalpur used to be scoring the ice cold and incredibly thick mango milkshakes that street vendors sold, with a rose drawn in Rooh Afza on the top. I’m happily sharing my itinerary with you. (And you can get that milkshake in summer from any cart around Fawara Chowk.)
Thanks to the incredible courtesy and consideration of the relevant authorities, I found myself staying inside Gulzar Mahal, something I didn’t even imagine was possible. I kept waiting for myself to trip and fall down the staircase I was ascending and wake up. But it wasn’t a dream, and I was soon on the first floor in what was historically the guest wing of the palace, inside a room larger than an average Manhattan apartment. This would be my base for the next few days.
Gulzar Mahal is well preserved. It was the first palace out of the many built by the Nawabs to have modern (for that time) concealed wiring and was lit up using electricity generated through diesel generators. The building is vast, with four domes sitting imposingly atop a lavish structure that borrows architectural elements from Britain, Italy and Spain. Corinthian columns feature heavily both outside and inside the great hall. There are ornate galleries that lead off to residential wings on either side, behind heavy doors.
It is hard to judge if the modern renovations are in line with original design elements, but the fact is that the building is at least alive with the sound of people using it. The lush grounds of the palace house military vehicles in the barns. Garages have been converted to suit the local corps’ need. Outhouses accommodate constabulary and service staff. There is a basement (#IHaveAThingWithBasements) but it was inaccessible. I did, however, fulfil my exploration quota by taking the old, concealed staff staircase. While improved, it still retains the original wood planks and threadbare carpet to soften the sound of footsteps. Service staff in the olden days used it to discreetly whisk away laundry, linens, used crockery and cutlery from residential chambers and to appear between guests with drinks and hors d’oeuvres during celebrations. While I couldn’t take it all the way down to the original service rooms, it was a delight to explore as much as I did because a whole class of young officers was having a gathering of some sort inside the palace while I was trying to play explorer. I had to make myself incredibly scarce to avoid a possible conversation. The only talking I wanted to do was in my head, with any possible ghosts I may have encountered.
I didn’t encounter any, but of course that’s beside the point. With the noise of boots echoing through the marble hallways at all sorts of hours, it would be hard for any residual hauntings to last.
The first thought I had when I walked down a gravelly path towards Noor Mahal, which is now partially open to the public, was: ‘that’s our version of Downton Abbey.’ Lit beautifully by strategically placed yellow lights, the manicured palace grounds now have caterers selling food under strict guidelines of the army. People flock to visit it; the people I saw and heard the cold night I visited were a group of girls celebrating the birthday of a comrade in one of the designated dining rooms, families with children, teenager boys and a set of grandparents visiting from the UK. Strategically placed signposts warned visitors against being rowdy and disrespectful. Graffiti of any kind is sternly prohibited and a punishable offence. Hands, and children, are to be kept to yourself – whatever is itching to cause destruction. And since this is an army-owned historic building, the rules were unsurprisingly being followed.
While you climb the red stone steps to enter the palace’s reception hall, you can see the windows of another inaccessible basement and you’re left to imagine what is or was kept underneath. Inside, the great hall is quite similar to that of Gulzar Mahal but has a more elaborately painted domed ceiling. It is quite evident that Noor Mahal inspired Gulzar Mahal. The former was built in 1875 on the command of Nawab Subah Sadiq Muhammad Khan IV in honour of his wife, who, as local legend has it, only slept in her chambers for one night. In the morning, while exploring her new home, she figured out how close the palace was to the Basti Maluk Shah graveyard. She chided her husband for the ill-fated proximity and never returned to stay at the palace again. There may be some truth to the story as well, because according to even historical records, the Nawab and his family never truly made Noor Mahal their home despite its resplendent architecture and generously decorated rooms and halls.
During the reign of the last Nawab, it was used to house state guests and for glittering gatherings of special guests. But no one from the royal family ever slept here again. Once again, legal battles about the ownership of the palace stole a few decades worth of life from it until the army stepped in to purchase it. During the years of abandonment, treasures worth millions were stolen from inside the palace and sold to the highest bidders across Pakistan and even abroad by black marketers. Whatever was left has now been restored and displayed within the great hall and the two state reception rooms flanking it. These are the only places accessible to general public. From the possessions of the Nawabs, a classical grand piano with real ivory keys, stamps and coins issued by the State Mint when it existed, military medals and honourary badges, photographs, paintings, tapestries, furniture carved and inlaid with mother of pearl, silk and velvet cushions embroidered with gold and silver thread, an oak and teak desk, and steel daggers and swords mounted along the walls, are on display.
In his book Beyond Belief, author V. S. Naipaul writes a withering description of the generally well-loved (at least locally) last Nawab of Bahawalpur. He also mentions that the Pakistan Army found dubious possessions of the Nawab when they took over the Darbar Mahal (another architectural marvel and victim of familial infighting). While I haven’t been able to corroborate the story, I do know that Darbar Mahal is worth passing by during your visit to Bahawalpur since it isn’t accessible to public at all. There’s a heavy influence of the Lahore Fort and princely palaces of Rajasthan in this palace. Rumour has it that this palace still manages to hold on to its many princely treasures which include a wondrous art collection, tapestries, carpets and original furniture that was brought in from England and France. I missed out on getting in to the palace on my trip, but, again, if you have friends in high places within the army, call in a favour.
Sadiq Garh Palace
“I wish they would tear it down.”
I thought I had misheard the local man who had ambled into the grounds of Sadiq Garh Palace after my companion and me.
“I wish they tear it down,” he repeated for my benefit, just as snidely as he had said it the first time. “This pit of ghosts is nothing but a nuisance. My grandchildren have to take a detour of at least a kilometre every single day to go from our home to their school. They are exhausted by the time they get to school and then when they come back home. They should pave it and make a road here. A nice, wide road.”
I couldn’t believe what this man was saying. Before I could respond, the caretaker of the place, Saeed, shooed away the old man and informed me that this man was the son of one of the bakers who were employed by the Nawab sahib. He had grown up inside and around the palace and he didn’t hate the place. He hated the fact that the history that he was a part of no longer exists.
“What he really wants is the return of the old days,” Saeed told me sombrely.
But the past cannot visit the present, and cannot be a part of the future. All we can suffice with is the thought that we keep clutching on to bits and pieces of it, and Sadiq Garh Palace, located some 56 kilometres away from Bahawalpur in the small town of Ahmedpur East, is one of the more alluring ones. This magnificent palace once served as the seat of power for the Nawab of Bahawalpur. Now, the grand building stands neglected and derelict as legal battles rage on. Saeed informs me that many smaller properties located in the grounds have been distributed among the families of the heirs, but Sadiq Garh Palace remains, in his words, “loveless” and “orphaned.” It is hard not to understand exactly what he means.
While Nawab Sir Sadiq ruled the princely state, state dignitaries, kings and queens, prime ministers, generals and presidents wined and dined in this beloved abode. Built in 1882, the palace was more of a mini fortress which had an elegant ballroom, a library that had more than five thousand books and manuscripts in different languages, separate living quarters for the women of the family, a grand dining hall, a “Turkish Hall” inspired by Turkish architecture, art and motifs, a “French Hall” which took inspiration from la vie Parisienne, a beautiful mosque, a mini cinema hall, an armoury, an electricity generation plant, a water pumping and filtration plant, a dairy farm, stables, a motor workshop for the dozens of Rolls Royce cars the Nawab owned, and an extended garage that housed cars, motorbikes and Victorian coaches. While none of this remains now, and the gardens and fruit orchards are overgrown and unkempt, you can experiences slivers of that former glory if you convince Saeed to allow you to respectfully go inside the palace, which I did.
Author and critic Susan Sontag wrote in her essay “Unguided Tour” for Granta magazine that nostalgia for the past experienced at instances when you visit old and ruined places is “just one of the more disastrous forms of unrequited love”. And that’s exactly what I felt. The decay and destruction felt like a personal affront. The wallpaper peeling off the walls inside the rooms was once lovingly brought in from England. The mouldy and crumbling carpets now stacked inside a room where the ceiling is caving in were brought in from Central Asian countries, Iran, Syria and Iraq. The cracked and muddy porcelain bathtubs and washbasins were brought in from France. The crystal and diamond adorned chandelier that lit up the central court within the palace was felled by looters and taken away piece by piece. It was hung up originally by bringing in elephants to bear its weight; the place where it had fallen still has the cracks. Only things which couldn’t be humanly lifted out and carried away from the palace, have remained within. These include a set of safes and lockers in the basement that once held the jewels of the begums, heirlooms collected from across the globe, priceless gifts from rulers of dozens of countries, and at least a part of the wealth that Nawab Sir Sadiq offered to the Quaid when Pakistan was created, to pay for official state expenses.
The fact that this place is falling further and further into ruin and an advanced state of decay shouldn’t deter you from visiting it. In fact, I encourage people to visit it so that, perhaps by some miracle, a mysteriously generous benefactor or the state would recognize and realize its value and restore it to its former glory. The fates of similar palaces on the other side of the border, in Rajasthan, have turned for the better with public private partnerships that have proven to be delightfully profitable and uplifting for the local people and for the country’s tourism.
“We used to say this place was made of magic and now it sits under a curse,” Saeed told me before I left. On my way back to Bahawalpur, I kept wondering if the curse would be broken before the last brick crumbles away.
Everything is Illuminated
Sadiq Public School
Most people do not chase decayed dreams of a distant past on their holiday and that’s perfectly all right, because Bahawalpur has so much more life to offer. Make an appointment to go and roam around the grounds of the magnificent Sadiq Public School, a boarding school that was modelled to be the “Aitchison of the South”. It soon surpassed its inspiration by opening its doors to female students as well. They can now be found studying side by side their male counterparts. Your hearts will be lifted when you see some of these young ladies in smart jodhpurs and other riding gear, going off to ride their horses for polo and show jumping practice. Inaugurated in 1954 by Nawab Sir Sadiq, the 450 acres of land under the school management house historic school buildings, manicured lawns, hostels, two swimming pools, a hospital and several staff houses, a library, a squash court, a gymnasium, a riding club, an IT centre, and an amphitheater. The children of service staff members are also educated on campus in a school block built specially for them.
Sadiq Reading Library
Next, find your way to the Bahawalpur Central Library, which is also known as the Sadiq Reading Library. Inaugurated in 1924, it is one of the largest public libraries in the country. It was built as a diminutive version of the many palaces the Nawabs built and the design is an amalgamation of influences from the same. The library thrives today with thousands of members keeping it afloat. When you visit, you experience a living place. It is useful and necessary to the way of life of hundreds of students and patrons from all walks of life who come here to read, to learn, to use the computers, to talk to each other and to take part in book launches and readings by local authors and poets. The library also houses an impressive archive of local and regional newspapers and periodicals and magazines. Their collection of British magazines and journals goes back to the 1850s.
If you are looking for more, stop by the historical Fawara (Fountain) Chowk in the middle of the city. The fountain was gifted to Nawab Sir Sadiq by members of the British royal family and was originally installed in the grounds of Sadiq Garh Palace, from where it was moved and finally put in the city centre with a pond and a roundabout. Water sprouts out from the fountain through several founts that are shaped like heads of various animals. It is marvellously strange thing to have in a city that still apparently takes a Friday holiday to side with the Ummah. After this, move on to the Bahawalpur Museum which houses the cars of Nawab Sir Sadiq, a grand coach that was gifted to his father by Queen Victoria, a carriage of the royal train, dozens of historic photographs of the foreign dignitaries who visited the Bahawalpur State in its heydays, coins from the Bahawalpur State Mint, postage stamps bearing the likenesses of the Abbasid Nawabs, textiles and clothes from the family and much more.
Lastly, stop by the chaos of Farid Gate and gird up your loins to brave the crowds engaged in frenzied rituals of daily economy inside the bazaar. Have some sohn halwa from Haji Halwai on your way to steady your nerves, or some of that delicious street food. Make it to the historic Jama Masjid Al-Sadiq. Once there, soak in the serenity of the place and offer a prayer or two for having made it so far, awash in complex history, yet, hopefully, unscarred by it. And buoyed by it.