Home >

The jewel of Pothwar

The resilient history of Kallar Syedan’s Bedi Palace and the treasures of Sikh heritage

August 27, 2023
A view of Baway Nañ Mahal or Bedi Palace of Kallar Syedan


t short notice, the residents of Kallar Syedan (confused sometimes with Kallar Kahar) mobilised, carrying rugs and sacks of bare corn cobs on their backs, to build a passage overnight all the way to Rawat. With no pre-existing pavement in place, they faced the challenge of covering a bumpy 19-mile stretch to ensure reliable communications beyond the town. The purpose behind this endeavour was to welcome an English earl, a guest of Baba Khem Singh Bedi of Kallar Syedan. In a single day, they transformed their vision into reality, creating a unique road paved with bare corn cobs and covered with rugs. The remarkable episode has been chronicled in the four-volume book Tarikh-i Kallar Syedan by Master Karamat Hussain. The book documents the social, political and economic influence of the Bedis of Kallar Syedan. Today, the only tangible legacy of the Bedis in Kallar Syedan is the palace, known as B w y Nañ Mahal.

Lying along the bank of the Kanshi ravine, also known as Kansi, and situated on the left side of the road to Kashmir, the Bedi Palace (B w y Nañ Mahal) emerges like the rising sun. It now rests among modern structures but has retained its regal status. Occupying a significant place in Sikh history, the palace holds a legacy of darkness. The deteriorating ceilings, fading frescoes and the sound of chirping birds punctuate the silence extending over years. In 1948, the Mahal underwent a transformation and was turned into the Government Boys High School, Kallar Syedan. However, the school moved to a new building in 1996. Since then, the palace has remained abandoned.

Kallar Syedan is a historic town in the Pothwar region, deriving its name from its saline soil and the presence of salty underground water. The village was once granted as a jagir (a fiefdom in exchange for service) to Syed Muhammad Ali Shah, also known as Meeran Shah, by the ruler of Pothwar. The palace’s construction is attributed to Baba Khem Singh Bedi, a significant figure in the Sikh Sabha Movement. Baba Khem Singh Bedi, born in February 1832 in the Ramreek Gram village in Hoshiarpur district, was an educationist and reformer. Tragedy struck his family when he was 16, as his father, Baba Attar Singh Bedi, was killed in a feud. Following her husband’s death, Mata Sultan Devi relocated to Kallar Syedan with her children, Thus Baba Khem Singh Bedi was raised at the house of his maternal grandfather. When he was three years old, Maharaja Ranjit Singh visited Una to seek blessings from Baba Khem Singh Bedi. The ritual continued as the maharaja attributed some of his state’s prosperity to the family’s blessings.

In Kallar Syedan those days, the Sikh community enjoyed great economic and political influence. They primarily engaged in trade as aarhatis or wholesale merchants. Remarkably, only one shop in the town was owned by a Muslim. During the Baisakhi festival, the entire town would be illuminated and Sikhs from across the Punjab would congregate at Bedi Palace to joyously celebrate the occasion. During the March 1947 riots, this palace served as a sanctuary for Sikhs from neighbouring villages. It is said that around 5,000 Sikhs sought shelter here at the time. In its heyday, the palace has facilities like a stable for horses, a small zoo and an orchard in its surroundings.

The history of Kallar Syedan is intertwined with the story of Baba Khem Singh Bedi himself. The primary construction material used for the palace is sandstone, carefully shaped into rectangular blocks and sculpted in accordance with classical Sikh architectural practices and aesthetics. This sandstone is coated with a mixture of lime and surkhi. From the pinnacle of this four-story palace, visitors can relish a panoramic view of Kallar Syedan. Comprising 84 rooms, the palace boasts walls that are a metre thick. The initial attraction for visitors lies in the captivating frescoes and murals that catch the eye at first glance. The ancient Mahal stands as a treasury of splendid frescoes, adorning the pillars in the courtyard and the interiors of most rooms. The frescoes in the central courtyard show various Sikh gurus, Hindu deities and Muslim rulers. Over time, these frescoes have begun to fade. The decay has been exacerbated by the growth of green fungus on the walls due to heavy rainfall, leading many frescoes to lose their original charm. While some rooms remain pristine, many of the intricate designs on wooden doors are succumbing to termite infestation.

A view from the third floor of Bedi Palce or Baway Nan Mahal in Kallar Syedan.

Sites of great historical significance in Pakistan, such as this palace, situated away from major cities and main routes, are frequently overlooked for preservation and restoration as they are deemed unsuitable for attracting tourists and pilgrims.

Baba Khem Singh Bedi had two sons. The elder son, Gurubaksh Singh Bedi, held the position of a third-class magistrate in Rawalpindi. He was the maternal grandfather of Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan. Throughout his life, Baba Khem Singh Bedi remained steadfast in his loyalty to the British Raj. In 1902, he had the honour of representing the Punjab at the coronation of King Edward VII.

Baba Khem Singh Bedi is also recognised for his significant contributions to advancing education in the Punjab. He played a pivotal role in establishing 50 schools in the Rawalpindi district. His efforts also extended to founding a vocational institute. He can be considered a trailblazer for the cause of women’s education in the Rawalpindi district.

The first survey of Sikh shrines across Pakistan was published in 1962. It was titled Sikh Shrines in West Pakistan. The report categorised Sikh shrines into two distinct sections: those associated with Sikh gurus and other Sikh shrines found throughout West Pakistan. However, havelis and other sites significant to Sikhs were not considered for documentation until recent years, when the concept of Sikh heritage emerged for economic reasons. So what exactly constitutes Sikh heritage? Historian Ali Usman Qasmi says, “There exists a deep nostalgia for the Sikh empire, which venerates the memory of Sikh rule and the tangible aspects of it, all classified as ‘heritage’.”

Bedi Mahal.

Poet Habib Gohar, known best for his lyrical prose on the history and heritage of Pothwar, recalled in his essay, titled Ek Zar’fish ñ Mahal Th Jou Abb Zar’fish ñ Nahin, that Baba Khem Singh Bedi was a distinguished figure in the Punjab, whose portrait adorned cloth produced in some Manchester factories. For the construction of this palace, he had engaged artisans and masons from Attock. Gohar says, “Through certain historical references, it is learnt that the palace was erected in 1836. The artisans hailed from Attock. Sardar Fateh Khan from Fateh Jang was one of the masons. Later, in 1930, his son Sardar Muhammad Nawaz Khan undertook some repair work.”

Outside the Mahal, the pole on which the Nishan Sahib (the flag of Sikhism) used to be hoisted stands in surprisingly good condition despite 76 years of neglect. The pole has changed colour due to corrosion, but the gleaming brass khanda, when touched by the sun’s rays, serves as a poignant reminder of the legacy of the Bedis of Kallar Syedan. Adjacent to it is a white marble platform, approximately two feet in height, believed to be the resting place of Mootay Shah. Oil lamps surround it, and local residents frequently lay chaadars upon it as offerings. This isn’t a grave. Nobody has ever attempted to decipher the Gurmukhi text inscribed upon it, revealing the true nature of this rectangular platform. The inscription reads,

This spot, once used by Sikh religious leaders for religious activities, is now ironically known locally as Mootay Shah’s grave.

The Mahal can be repurposed as a children’s public library and a small museum. Its importance extends beyond drawing tourists and pilgrims. It also appeals to advertisers and serves as a backdrop for modelling. However, access should be limited to those genuinely interested in its history and committed to meaningful work. The school administration’s directions regarding its status - an endangered building - are valid.

Many sites of great historical significance in Pakistan, such as this palace, situated away from major cities and main routes, are overlooked for preservation and restoration and deemed unsuitable for attracting tourists and pilgrims. While such economic considerations are understandable, they often result in the neglect of valuable heritage.

The writer is a historian, travel writer and translator. He has extensively written on non-Muslimhistory andPakistan’s heritage