A visit to a forgotten well in Kashmir invokes nostalgia and questions about its history
The edifice is unpretentious. But the quality of construction is superior. So fine, in fact, that the building could only have been built for nobility. Nadia, my hostess in Palandri (Kashmir), said it was called baoli - the traditional subcontinental well with steps descending to water level - and I imagined a structure like the Mughals were so fond of building.
As I was driven a few kilometres outside Palandri town, Nadia told me the building is believed to have been a watering place for the animals of passing caravans and nothing more. When we arrived, the fine architecture immediately told me that the structure was much more than what they believed it to be. Ell-shaped with the rooms fronting an open courtyard formed by a low wall on two sides, the building comprises six rooms of various sizes.
The shorter leg of the ell is one largish hall with a finely crafted European-style fireplace, alcoves and a vaulted roof. On one side, a door leads into a smaller side room. The three arched doorways leading into the hall from the courtyard all have arrangements -- on the inside, to pivot the upright doorposts. Outside, there are arrangements for curtain rods though the doors are now missing. Clearly, this was a room used by aristocracy.
When I declared that this was no ordinary watering place but a sort of rest house for nobility, I was told that locals do indeed call it the Rani’s Baoli.
The four rooms of the longer leg of the ell are either utility rooms - one clearly being a kitchen - or for the use by the lady’s attendants. Like the rani’s room, these rooms too have arrangements to hang drapes outside. One of the rooms contains an octagonal water tank in the middle. The courtyard has a similar, but somewhat smaller, water tank.
The overhanging eaves running along the parapet are supported by finely crafted stone brackets. Though simple brackets would have done just as well, the architect of this fine edifice was not one to disregard aesthetics in favour of functionality.
One cannot but be struck by the superior quality of workmanship and the fine cutting of the stones that make the structure. On the outside, on two corners of the rani’s living, there are reinforcing structures with beautifully corbelled tops. Next to one of these there is also a watering trough for animals.
Interestingly, the entire structure sits atop a water source -- from below its foundation, there bubbles a fine spring of clear fresh water. Evidently, it was this water that fed the two tanks inside the building as well as the watering trough. But the system that worked the hydraulics no longer operates now and only the spring continues to well.
Local legend maintains that the structure was built by Maharaja Hari Singh of the Kashmiri Dogra dynasty. This raja reigned from 1925 to 1949 whereas the building is clearly somewhat older. I estimate it dates to the period straddling the 19th and 20th centuries. I would therefore say it may have been ordered either by Ranbir Singh (1857-1885) or Pratab Singh (1885-1925).
In undivided Kashmir, Palandri was part of Poonch district. And in Rawalpindi just off Bank Road sits a regal mansion known as Poonch House that once belonged to Kashmiri nobility. Surely, on their biannual transhumance between the winter cold of Poonch and balmy Rawalpindi, the Kashmiri nabob and his family would have paused at Palandri sitting on the way.
Recalling the passage of those bygone rulers of Poonch, there is a potholed side road running through town still known as Rani Road. As well as that, locals point to the old building of the Deputy Commissioner’s residence as belonging to Poonch nobility.
At 1400 metres above the sea, Palandri is a rather pleasant little place, especially because of the largely unspoilt pine forest on surrounding hills. No surprise then that the lord of Poonch would have favoured the place as a rest stop.
Today, however, the Rani’s Baoli, having remained abandoned for many years, is a school. One of the teachers wanted to know why I was photographing the building. She saw no beauty in it and had never wondered about its nature or use. When I said I would write about it she asked why I should do something like that. What, she wanted to know, was I to get out of writing about a derelict old hulk. And this was a teacher who should instil a sense of wonder in the impressionable minds of her young wards!
Given the total and apparently officially sanctioned disregard for all sorts of built and historical heritage inside the borders of Pakistan, I could not but think of what such an edifice would have been in another country. And this includes India where they deeply care for their heritage. Surely, it would have been a protected monument. Perhaps, within it would have been a small restaurant and on its inside walls an account of the why and wherefore of the .
But in Pakistan, we care nothing for heritage.