By Sonya Rehman
A little over two hours, an assorted playlist and insipid coffee (from a petrol station) later, we arrive at our destination in the heart of the historic Chiniot city in Pakistan.
Maneuvering through cramped lanes, past sputtering rickshaws, vegetable vendors and furniture shops with their beautiful pieces on full display (side note: Chiniot is quite well-known for its ethnic, intricately carved furniture), we arrive at one of Pakistan’s hidden gems – a pre-partition palace of wonders and secrets: the Umar Hayat Mahal.
From a distance, the palace looks incredibly fragile, like a piece of your grandmother’s jewellery, carelessly forgotten outdoors, left to combat the forces of nature on her own.
With its delicate wooden balcony (so brittle, as if one touch could bring it crashing down to the ground below), its salmon pink exterior walls, sturdy carved pillars, stunning arches, jaw-dropping jharokas (particularly the large one made of teak wood, protruding from the second floor), windows showcasing complex patterns and designs within their wooden frames, and vibrant stained glass doors (in hues of azure and forest green); the structure carries a feeling of abandonment, of things left unsaid and of a profound hollowness that is only magnified once one steps into the palace’s atrium – currently functioning as a languid free-for-all public library.
I am greeted by a smiling Mushtaq Ahmad, the librarian and caretaker of the palace. Having graduated with a degree in Library Sciences from a local university, Ahmad reveals that he also doubles up as the palace’s tour guide, a role that he takes very seriously.
Dressed in a neatly pressed white shalwar kameez and a prayer cap, I realize that it’s hard to gauge Ahmad’s age, given his youthful energy and how excitedly he speaks about his work and the history behind the Umar Hayat Mahal.
With a love for languages (particularly Arabic and English), Ahmad, with his kind eyes and bright orange beard, comes across as friendly and chatty.
Leading us past a few visitors (all men), engrossed in reading newspapers while lazily lounging on worn out turquoise chairs, while a rickety pedestal fan whirs in the corner, Ahmad walks us through the ground floor, unlatching quaint wooden doors with a flourish.
From a dusty lounge to an old fashioned conference room complete with a large wooden table, chairs, elaborately carved and gold-painted glass cabinets, ceilings incorporating fine woodwork and glass, a small museum (housing old and contemporary artifacts), panels of the most beautiful tiles in pink, pale blue and sea green imported from Japan, and a secret cellar that you can climb down into from one of the smaller rooms, the palace, while in a partial state of ruin, carries an air of dignity and grace about her.
Constructed in 1930 (although some say that the palace was complete in 1928) and having taken nine long years to meticulously design and build, the five-storey edifice sits on just 4 marlas of land, lodged between shops and houses.
“[Umar Hayat] was a successful businessman who made his money in Calcutta,” Ahmad reveals, mentioning that back then a number of entrepreneurs from Chiniot would travel to Calcutta on a frequent basis for trade and work.
But five years after the completion of his majestic palace, Umar Hayat passed away in 1935; leaving behind his wife, Fatima, and their only son, Gulzar, who was then 15-years-old.
Two years after the death of her husband, Fatima decided to marry Gulzar. “She wanted to create a sense of joy within the palace again, given the trauma she and her son had endured,” Ahmad tells me, his voice lowered, “There were many festivities leading up to the wedding; it was a grand affair. It is said that the whole neighborhood was invited, even those who could hear the sounds of the music from the dhols from a distance were invited to Gulzar’s big day.”
But the morning after the wedding, 17-year-old Gulzar was found dead in his bathroom – it is said that he died inhaling the gas from lit coals, however the cause of his death still remains inconclusive.
“[His mother] was devastated and had him buried right here on the ground floor,” Ahmad says, motioning to two graves cordoned off on all sides by flimsy pieces of wood. “Exactly one year after her son’s death, Fatima died of heartbreak. She too is buried here, right beside her child.”
It is a heartrending sight as one looks over the dusty marble grave stones inscribed in Urdu with the text; ‘Fatima, wife of Umar Hayat,’ and ‘Gulzar, son of Umar Hayat.’
Amidst such immense beauty – a palace made from and with so much love – now housing the graves of two lives cut tragically short; the city’s hubbub outside seems surreal, almost disrespectful.
After the deaths, rumour spread that the palace was haunted and was a harbinger of bad luck. However, in the 40s, the palace housed an Islamic school and later an orphanage, but this didn’t last very long.
Left without any government intervention, maintenance or restoration, the palace fell to further ruin after thieves removed and stole portions of the palace to sell to antique dealers across the country. The vandalism, coupled with the lack of care, resulted in the two upper levels of the palace to be torn down by the authorities.
But it was only until the early 90s that the palace came under the protection of the then District Commissioner, Muhammad Athar Tahir.
However, the restoration work didn’t do justice to the original art and design of the palace – in fact, there are many portions on the ground floor which seem slightly off; the re-painting of the frescoes and the sloppy whitewashing comes across as crude and amateur.
“The preservation hasn’t been consistent. If conserved properly, this palace has the potential of being recognized as Pakistan’s Taj Mahal,” Ahmad states, as we follow him up a battered, winding (and mildly terrifying) staircase to a magical second floor.
Pointing to the walls, Ahmad says; “Did you know the structure has been made from a paste which includes mud, lentils, white clay and the juice of molasses?”
Given the exquisite craftsmanship – from the woodwork, detailed frescoes and exceptional ceiling work (different in each room), it is interesting to note that at the time, the palace cost the late owner a grand total of 4 lakh rupees.
Designed by famed craftsmen, Elahi Baksh Pirjah and Rahim Baksh Pirjah (among other master craftsmen such as Niaz Ahmed Jhalandari, Ahmed Din, and more), Ahmad states that Elahi Baksh Pirjah, was so gifted, that he was known in the area as the “local Michelangelo.”
“Even though he has passed, his art form is still very much alive,” Ahmad says, “Go to the market, to any shop in Chiniot and you will see how his designs are still being replicated. What you see today are his creations.”
Dodging pigeon droppings and avoiding a precarious landing with a gaping hole, I spot a cat and her three kittens, running around the second floor, meowing their heads off. Ahmad laughs when I worriedly ask him if he’s going to chase them out. “Not at all, they are visitors here too.”
With a running corridor on all four sides leading to ornately designed doors and multi-coloured stained glass, the second floor is almost otherworldly, if not slightly eerie. Past a padlocked door (with bits of glass missing from the centre), I catch sight of piled up newspapers and discarded furniture, all coated in thick dust.
Interestingly, one can make out slightly faded paintings of the Taj Mahal (in Agra), Shalimar Gardens (in Lahore) and the Jantar Mantar monument (in Jaipur) on one of the main ceilings on the second floor. Looking at them evokes a strange feeling of nostalgia that I can’t put my finger on – perhaps this is what living in the subcontinent (before the ravages of partition), felt like? A sense of unity; celebrating and forever immortalizing one’s culture and identity in art…
“The Umar Hayat palace is great for domestic tourism,” Ahmad states, while walking us through Gulzar’s spacious bedroom. “Chiniot is recognized due to this palace, but the authorities don’t seem to be interested in its upkeep. It’s a pity. There has to be a love for maintaining our heritage sites. I remember when I first saw it in 1991; I thought the palace was incredible. Back then someone told me, ‘like old people, old buildings too need care,” Ahmad says with a smile.
WKND Magazine, Khaleej Times