Ever wondered what it’s like to live in a palace first built in the 1800’s? Perhaps an experience like that wasn’t available in Pakistan until 2011. Originally constructed by Kashmiri and Balti craftsmen and now converted into a hotel, the Khaplu Palace holds its traditional old school charm close with its modern innovations. The modern elements ensure comfort that a luxury resort requires and the traditional parts of it take you to another world, so different from the one we live in. The old palace building may be traditional and majestic, but the newly constructed wing for accommodation is contemporary and chic, offering people the best of both worlds.
Renovated by Agha Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and now handed over to Serena Hotels to manage and run it as a hotel, the Khaplu Palace is a different world and its interior is a brilliant tribute to the legacy of Yabgo Raja Daulat Ali Khan of Khaplu who first built the palace in 1840. There’s some otherworldly magic that exists in the walls of the palace, one that can’t be spotted or identified, but perhaps is a reflection of the many stories that have lived here through the years.
Built with stones, bricks, plaster and wooden carvings, the beautiful façade of the Khaplu Palace welcomes visitors and leaves a mark on them. One sight on the main building of the palace is enough for it to do its magic and transport you to the historic times. The Tibetan, Kashmiri, Ladakhi, Balti, and Central Asian influences are visible to this day and while it’s difficult to take eyes off the remarkable building, the Khaplu Palace has so much more to offer than what meets the eye at first sight.
Behind this beautiful façade are the stunning mountains that only add to the royal charm of the space. In the front and on the right side are lush green lawns with apricot and apple trees that grow plenty of fruits for everyone who visits and lives around.
Since the palace has now been converted to a hotel, the main building has some guest rooms and some areas that have been converted into a museum with belongings of the royal family. Although these belongings are interesting in their own way, what strikes one is the stunning architecture and preservation of the intricately carved ceilings, windows and doors.
“Most of the carved ceilings are original and have been preserved through the years.” informs the tour guide on my visit. They add the kind of charm that nothing else can. Yet, the modern innovations and the wood work complements the original ceilings and carved doors from the 1800’s.
Shehnaz Ismail, one of the founders of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, who heads their textile department, is the mastermind behind the interior of the Khaplu Palace. She is also one of the pioneer members of the restoration project by the AKTC. “Restoration projects are challenging because of the legacy attached to them. When something is built so naturally and organically and belongs to a particular land and environment, you bow your head down and say that I am not going to take away anything from it, vis a vis the interior. I will try to be as honest and true to what it was and what it is. You can’t try to subvert the architecture or interior, you have to be subservient to it and that was my gist when I first began the thinking process for the interior,” says Shehnaz.
“There was so much beauty in its wooden carvings, stones, water streams around the space that I did not want to add anything that would have distracted one from it. Yet, it had to be something that was very beautiful in a minimalistic way. I wanted the materials to be organic and handmade and close to nature and true to its environment,” she adds.
Thus, the simplistic wooden styles, the crisscross designs, the natural logs used around and the minimalistic furniture used in bedrooms all contribute to the beauty of the space. Any innovation added to the palace is simplistic in a way that it complements the original design, instead of trying to compete with it. The original and the new wood works are accentuated with dim warm lights placed perfectly in the corners of the ceilings to add a dramatic look in the evenings and highlight the beauty of the focal points in the main palace and beyond.
The colours used in the rooms, lounges and the dining spaces are beautifully in sync with the original wood work, the façade of the main building and the nature around. Shehnaz shares that shades of rust, beige and whites were used particularly because they complement the palace but also the greenery and nature around it. As an interior decorator, Shehnaz understood the legacy and the aura of the space. “I didn’t want to put too much colour or distraction to it. It was beautiful the way it is.”
Yet, the selection speaks volumes about the efforts that went into it. The gao takiyay used in the private terraces add a unique charm to the breath-taking views one can see from those spacious carved wooden windows. At the same time, the beige rugs ensure that the highlight of these terraces and lounges remain the original carvings and wood work on the ceilings.
Just as the indoor dining space gives visitors the feeling of being in a cosy hut, the lawn outside gives them an option to dine under the sky amid all the greenery. Cane furniture is used outdoors with simple white cushions and white table linen to let nature do the talking. On the inside, however, shades of rust and light green are blended with lots of white to add charm to the contemporary wood work of the restaurant. The plain white translucent curtains remind one that the beauty doesn’t lie in heavy embellishments but in the most simplistic of things.
The guest rooms are similarly designed: comfortable yet simple but with small touches that leave a mark. According to Shehnaz, the first blinds used after the renovation were handmade by students at the IVS, which tells a great tale about how much effort went into it. “We tried to keep it simple but also ethnic and found local craftsmen, although limited in the region, to help us do the linen,” she explains.
It is this hard work and thought that reflects throughout the palace even years after the restoration. Not only does the Khaplu Palace offer a unique architectural experience to visitors but also makes sure they are comfortable and well fed. The Serfa Khar (restaurant) offers some delicious traditional Balti dishes along with continental varieties.
If visiting and staying there can be a once in a lifetime experience, one can only imagine how remarkable it would to bring it back to life so beautifully.