Retracing Bahawalpur’s glorious past

Historian Nadia Noreen talks about the princely state’s past

Bahawalpur – the southern district of Punjab bordering the Cholistan desert – has a rich history.

The cultural tradition in the former princely state is highly influenced by writers and sufis of Multan and Uch Sharif.

Recently, The News on Sunday talked to Nadia Noreen, a historian working at the Bahawalpur Museum, about the history of Bahawalpur.

“Over the centuries, a number of civilizations thrived here. There is a desert in the district’s neighborhood, Cholistan, which is also known as Rohi. It was once a rich region, with a flowing river - Hakra that has unfortunately dried out,” she says.

“Hakra was a large river that brought water from the Himalayas. This region was conquered by many tribes: Aryans in 1,500 BC and Jats, Rajputs, and Baloch tribes later on. They built many forts. In 1733, it was taken over by the nawab of Shahotra tribe of Bahawalpur, Sadeq Mohammad Khan I.”

Cholistan has several large forts including Meergarh, Jaangarh, Maujgarh, Digarh, Khairgarh, Bijnotgarh and Islamgarh.

“These forts were built by the locals for their safety and security. Kalah Sardargarh, Meergarh, Jaangarh, Kalah Maror, Deengarh, Khairgarh and Derawar are the most prominent among those. Many of those are no more, but their names are remembered.”

“Derawar Fort is one of the most well-known and impressive defensive structures. It housed the nawab’s treasury and was his centre of administration,” Nadia says.

According to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Derawar Fort, was built for the first time in the 9th Century AD by a Hindu ruler of Bhatti tribe, Rai Jajja. He dedicated the fort to Rawal Deoraj Bhatti, the king of Jaisalmer and Bahawalpur. Therefore, the fort was known as Dera Rawal, which later morphed into Derawar.

When Cholistan was taken over by Abbasi Nawabs of Bahawalpur, the fort was rebuilt.

“After gaining control of the fort in 1834, Nawab Bahawal III founded a beautiful mosque (Abbasi Jamia Masjid) near it, which was inspired by Delhi’s Jamia Masjid,” Nadia says.

“Next to the mosque, there’s is a large graveyard known as Shahi Qabaristan, where successive generations of the Nawabs have been laid to rest. There is one large sized rectangular room that contains the graves of all 12 Nawabs who ruled Bahawalpur state, including the last nawab, who merged the state into Pakistan,” she says.

“The architecture of the tombs is quiet impressive and has inspired many artists, architects and lay people. Most of the tombs are covered with a blue paint derived from the indigo plant which is also used in many other monuments and traditional items like Ajrak. The graveyard is a private property of the Abbasi family.”

“After Cholistan became part of Bahawalpur state, its importance increased on the international level. The UNESCO has placed these forts on its World Heritage list and has been helping with their preservation. A scaled model of Derawar Fort is on display at the Bahawalpur Museum,” Nadia says.

“Bahawalpur was the 2nd largest state in the sub-continent, having its own postal service and military. The state was established in 1802 by Nawab Mohammad Bahawal Khan II after the termination of the Durrani empire. In 1807, Ranjeet Singh took over Multan. Those fleeing from Multan were encouraged to seek asylum in Bahawalpur. Bahawalpur offered permanent settlement to the refugees during the collapse of Mughal rule,” she says.

“Eventually, the state became a refuge for many nobles, religious scholars and artists fleeing from the Sikhs and Marathas. Nawab Mohammad Bahawal Khan III signed a treaty of friendship with the British in 1833 that guaranteed the autonomy of Bahawalpur as a princely state,” she says.

In 1833, the Sutlej and Indus rivers were opened to navigation. By 1845, trade routes to Delhi were re-opened, further boosting Bahawalpur’s importance as a regional commercial hub,” she says.

The city was known in the late 19th century for its production of silk and cotton products.

“Bahawalpur state was a heir to several ancient civilizations. The Bahawalpur Museum contains artefacts from the Indus Valley Civilization, as well as ancient Buddhist sites such as the Patan Minara. The museum has 10 sections and has items ranging from the vintage car in the personal use of Nawab Sadeq Khan to weapons used in WWII. The Bahawalpur Museum itself was built in 1976 to preserve the area’s history. There’s a gallery in the museum, known as pictorial gallery that has the photographs of Nawabs’ lifestyle,” Nadia says.

“The city was founded in 1748 by Nawab Bahawal Khan I. He named Derawar as the tribe’s capital city. In 1785, Durrani commander Sirdar Khan attacked Bahawalpur city, destroying many of its forts. Bahawal Khan retook the city later,” says historian Nadia Noreen.

“Bahawalpur also has the Sultani Musuem, which is located in the Sadiqgarh Palace. It was the personal property of the nawab. The people of the city attach great importance to their history. I would say there are quiet sentimental about it,” she says.

Before the establishment of Bahawalpur city, the state’s foremost city was Uch Sharif - a regional cosmopolitan centre between the 12th and 17th centuries that is well-known for its collection of historic shrines dedicated to sufi adepts.

“The city was founded in 1748 by Nawab Bahawal Khan I. He named Derawar the tribe’s capital city. In 1785, Durrani commander Sirdar Khan attacked Bahawalpur city and destroyed many of its forts. Bahawal Khan then retook the city,” she says.

“In 1947, the princely state was given the option to join either Pakistan or India. Nawab Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi V decided to join Pakistan on October 7, 1947. Bahawalpur thus became the first state to join Pakistan. The nawab financially supported the newly-created state. The royal family were good friends with Muhammad Ali Jinnah,” she says.

“After independence, most of the city’s minority Hindu and Sikh population moved to India, while Muslim refugees from India settled in Bahawalpur and neighboring regions.”

“Sadeq Khan Abbasi V, the last ruler of the state, established many schools and colleges, including Quaid-i-Azam Medical College and a university. It was a big deal in those times. He also set up a central library in the city. The library has a unique structure and looks like a palace. It contains more than 300,000 books, magazines, and research journals. The structure is representative of Italian architecture. It is the second largest library in the Punjab. Among other collections it has complete archives of national newspapers published since 1947,” Nadia says.

“The state had 12 rulers with the titles of Sadeq and Bahawal. They not only built public schools but also healthcare institutions. The Victoria Hospital, established in 1906, was the second largest hospital in Asia at the time,” she says.

“This city is known as the city of palaces, the city of nawabs, and the city of lovers. Noor Mahal, Darbaar Mahal, Sadiqgarh Palace, and many more palaces were built by its various nawabs. The most famous among these is Noor Mahal. Anyone can fall in love with the palaces and their huge gardens. Noor Mahal is the hidden gem. It was built by the ruler of Bahawalpur for his queen, Noor. However, the queen refused to reside there as the view from her balcony was dominated by the graveyard. It then became the state guest house. All viceroys and commanders in chief during the Raj and prime ministers and presidents of Pakistan were received in this palace,” she says.

“Noor Mahal, inspired by Italian architecture, was built by a British engineer in 1875 at a cost Rs 1.2 million. The palace has five domes in traditional style, located in the middle of a garden and having a fountain in the middle. It has 32 rooms. It remained unoccupied following a dispute over the last ruler’s legacy. In 1997, the army took it over and renovated it. In 2001, the Government of Pakistan’s Department of Archeology declared it a protected monument. After it was opened to visitors, it became one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. While the monument looks wonderful during the day, its view when the lights are turned on at night is even more spectacular. The light show at Noor Mahal also draws a lot of visitors. It is usually held on Saturday and Sunday evenings,” she says.

The writer is a Hyderabad-based freelance journalist and photographer. She tweets @MashalAhmed

Retracing Bahawalpur’s glorious past