Home >

Rawalpindi’s hidden legacy

Haveli Sujan Singh has an enigmatic past

August 06, 2023
Lost glory of the haveli.


t has been claimed that Bappa Rawal, a ruler from Mewar and Jaisalmer, constructed garrisons throughout his kingdom, including one at the present-day location of Rawalpindi. As a result, the city came to be named Rawalpindi after him. Bappa Rawal is also said to have fought against Muhammad Bin Qasim and preventing invaders from northwest from entering the region. It is important to note that this narrative appears to be driven by a Hindutva agenda to rewrite history for political purposes and strategic goals. No credible sources support these claims. The proponents of this version lack historical grounding.

Some people in Pakistan have also picked up this narrative, possibly without being aware of the recent rewriting of history in India. It is crucial to be cautious and not extend credibility to false histories.

Rawalpindi’s ancient history remains undocumented. The only references to its past are available in journalistic writings, self-published books and a coffee-table book. The scarcity of primary sources has led to the emergence of several false and fabricated histories.

One of the primary reasons for the lack of scholarly attention to Rawalpindi’s history has been its relegation to a mere political reference in recent days, undermining its rich cultural heritage. First-hand accounts of colonial era tales and events are scarcely documented. Much of the record has been lost forever in the communal riots and plunder.

Rawalpindi’s proximity to the federal capital makes it an alluring attraction for visitors from diverse cultural backgrounds. Historical evidence suggests that never in its history has it been a fortified city. While some of the passages to havelis and some bazaars are referred to as “gates,” they differ significantly from the typical gates found in walled cities.

Rawalpindi’s downtown area is characterised by narrow winding streets. Most of the century-old mansions with bowing jharokhas and intricate wooden doors have disappeared. Many have been sold to the highest bidders and now grace upscale restaurants, marriage halls and new homes. The remaining doors have been obscured by thick layers of dirt and paint as they await potential buyers.

Rawalpindi suffered significant damage at the end of the British colonial period as the non-Muslim intelligentsia departed, along with those who had established ownership over most of the city. One prominent example was this the Sujan Singh family, whose haveli and Gurdwara complex have kept their memory alive.

Constructed in the 1880s by Sardar Sujan Singh, the Haveli Sujan Singh holds great historical significance. Singh was a Sikh businessman. The haveli is believed to have been built in the latter half of the 19th Century. Local accounts suggest dates ranging from 1890 to 1893. Ome accounts suggest an earlier construction.

It is plausible that the haveli was built upon or expanded from earlier, pre-colonial foundations.

While colonial annals provide some details about Sardar Sujan Singh, online Sikh history platforms and encyclopaedic works offer little insight into his life and times. His legacy lives in oral tradition alone. It is highly probable that Sardar Sujan Singh’s family had resided in Rawalpindi since Milkha Singh Thehpuria founded the modern Rawalpindi in the latter half of the 18th Century.

Among the Sikhs of Rawalpindi and diaspora, Sardar Sujan Singh evokes romanticism and nostalgia. The emotional attachment of Sikhs who lived in Rawalpindi until 1947 is evident as Sikh visitors, travellers and pilgrims continue to visit the haveli.

Vintage cast iron railings and poles.

One of the primary reasons for the lack of scholarly attention to Rawalpindi’shistory is the city’s relegation to a mere political reference, undermining the city’s rich cultural heritage.

The wooden gate of Mohan Singh Haveli.

To reach Haveli Sujan Singh, one must navigate through narrow streets in the congested commercial area, beginning from Bhabra Bazaar. The haveli is located approximately 300 metres from this starting point. Its floral iron railing is a helpful sign for visitors. Upon entering the narrow lane, a street opens up, with Haveli Mohan Singh on the left and Haveli Sujan Singh on the right. The two are connected by a wooden bridge raised above the street.

Sujan Singh is believed to have been born in the 1830s in Rawalpindi. Initially, his business was limited to import of timber from Kashmir. However, when Rawalpindi became a cantonment of the British army, he seized on the opportunity and ventured into several businesses. This marked the beginning of his ‘princely influence.’ He was famously described as a prince without a princely state. Sujan Singh’s wealth grew rapidly after he became an army contractor. This made him one of the wealthiest people in Rawalpindi. In recognition of his achievements, he was honoured with the title of Rai Bahadur in 1888.

Sardar Sujan Singh also had a role in bringing electricity to Sri Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, in 1897. This further enhanced his prominence as a notable businessman in Rawalpindi.

Sujab Sngh was also known for his refined taste and love of art and literature. Haveli Sujan Singh was often referred to as a living museum. The haveli boasted an extensive collection of contemporary art and items imported from England, reflecting Sujan Singh’s appreciation for beauty.

Today, the faded grandeur of Haveli Sujan Singh’s architecture is evident in its iron railings and pillars imported from Glasgow, featuring unique floral patterns that bore testimony to the significant financial investment in the construction of the haveli. Many rooms in the haveli still retain intricate wooden ceilings.

The use of bricks in Haveli Sujan Singh differs from that in the Mohan Singh haveli. This is regarded as evidence that the latter was built before the former. Additionally, the giant peepal tree that has grown along the wall of Mohan Singh’s haveli holds independent significance.

The intricate design on the doors of Haveli Sujan Singh contains numerous motifs. However, many of those have been defaced.

The door has remained intact because the neighbours have been protecting the haveli. Only two metal sculptures of female busts now remain at the haveli. The jharokha windows no longer allow passage of air. Photography of the haveli was once quite a challenge. Locals were suspicious and would ask if the photographer had filed a lawsuit to claim ownership of the property.

Opposite Haveli Sujan Singh stands Haveli Mohan Singh, believed to have been constructed in the 1830s. It is the only surviving monument in Rawalpindi’s downtown built with Nanak Shahi bricks. Situated near the 17th-Century shrine of Shah Chan Chiragh, the haveli is associated with a piece of history. Once, a heavy iron lattice bearing the name of Sardar Sujan Singh and the date, 1893, adorned the courtyard. During the fighting over possession, the lattice was removed and sold as scrap in the early 1990s.

Since the 2005 earthquake, the haveli has been declared a hazardous building, leaving the dispute about its ownership in limbo. Neither the residents nor the government have moved to make the necessary repairs. It once served as a place of residence for Kashmiri refugees. A dispute arose when attempts were made to repurpose the second floor as an imambargah. Neighbours say in 1981 the Kashmiri families living in the haveli were forcibly evicted on account of their political activism.

Approaches to rehabilitating and renovating Haveli Sujan Singh have been politically influenced. This has also been a hurdle to knowledge production on the haveli, with some NGO reports and informational writings on Haveli Sujan Singh being labelled as ‘research papers.’

Over time, several proposals have been put forth for the haveli’s use. These have ranged from housing a technical education institute, a religious place and the art department of a university.

The haveli has also been viewed as a means for local politicians in Rawalpindi to bolster their influence.

The haveli can be repurposed, like some other colonial-era architectures and havelis in Lahore’s Walled City, as a community space for art and creativity. Such havelis hold within them the social, political and cultural history of the cities they belong to. However, reviving this haveli to its former glory poses several challenges, particularly due to its location in a narrow passage that makes commuting difficult. The haveli remains locked, but a few years ago, it was handed over to an art college.

The only available photograph of the haveli from the British period is of unknown date. It is captioned as “Top view of Sirdar Sujan Singh’s Palace & Garden, Rawal Pindi City.” Oral accounts suggest that the haveli once had an extensive garden area stretching from Bhabra Bazaar to the adjacent residential area. Stories about a tunnel from the haveli leading to Bagh Sardaran are intriguing but no such tunnels have been discovered. It is worth noting that tales of tunnels in colonial-era havelis are common in India and Pakistan.

Adjacent to the garden of Mohan Singh’s haveli there is a well that remains the sole source of water for the locals.

The concept of place attachment has its roots in preserving built heritage, highlighting philosophical and methodological diversity. However, despite its significance and potential, the haveli is not perceived as a valued construct.

In his book Rawal Dais, Aziz Malik writes about the heart-breaking fate of Haveli Sujan Singh’s extensive library, which was used as fuel for cooking food by the refugees in 1947. It took several weeks to consume all the books.

The writer is a historian, travel writer and translator. He has extensively written onnon-Muslim history and Pakistan’s heritage in different capacities, now turning it into the shape of history writing.