This palace in Chiniot, Pakistan, is full of secrets

This palace in Chiniot, Pakistan, is full of secrets

Umar Hayat Mahal has been ravaged by time - and yet lives on to tell its tales of love and tragedy

By Sonya Rehman 

Published: Fri 14 Sep 2018, 6:36 PM

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. Manoeuvering 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, carelessly forgotten outdoors left to combat the forces of nature on its own.
With its delicate wooden balcony (so brittle, as though 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 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 salwar kameez and a prayer cap, I realise 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, 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, panels of beautiful tiles in pink, pale blue and sea green imported from Japan, and a secret cellar that you can climb into from one of the smaller rooms, the palace, while in a partial state of ruin, carries an air of dignity and grace.
Constructed in 1930 (although some say that the palace was completed in 1928), and having taken nine long years to meticulously design and build, the five-storey edifice sits on just four marlas of land (one marla is equal to 272.25 square feet), lodged between shops and houses.
"[Umar Hayat] was a successful businessman who made his money in Calcutta," Ahmad reveals, adding 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.
Two years after the death of her husband, Fatima decided to marry off 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 neighbourhood was invited."
But the morning after the wedding, 17-year-old Gulzar was found dead in his bathroom; it was assumed 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 heart-rending 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.'
After the deaths, rumours 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 these 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 being torn down by the authorities.
It was only in 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 that seem slightly off, and the re-painting of the frescoes and sloppy whitewashing come across as crude and amateur.
"The preservation hasn't been consistent. If conserved properly, this palace has the potential of being recognised 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 asks, "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 - 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.
The palace was designed by famed craftsmen Rahim Baksh Pirjah, and Elahi Baksh Pirjah who Ahmad states was known 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 eerie. Past a padlocked door (with bits of glass missing from the centre), I catch sight of piled up newspapers and discarded furniture, 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 immortalising 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 recognised 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'."

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