A treat for privileged eyes

March 21, 2021

Till the general public gets to experience the splendour of Darbar Mahal, this piece of history will remain in a bubble of timelessness- neither féted, nor forgotten

Baradari. — Photo by the author

A pelican struts daintily across manicured lush green lawns as we stare in wonder at the red and white architectural marvel that is Darbar Mahal. It is the weekend of the Annual Cholistan Jeep Rally 2020, a month before Covid-19 would make inroads into Pakistan and shut the country down. I am part of a motley crew of travel enthusiasts and bloggers invited by The Coyote Trail to explore South Punjab’s tourism potential. Sanaullah Marwat of the Coyote Trail believes the south offers much scope for not just cultural and religious tourism, but for adventure tourism as well. After camping in the midst of the majestic Cholistan desert, we are sold on the possibilities for adventure motoring in the desert, but can the sun-kissed south appeal to the hordes of travellers used to the mountainous north’s charms? In response, we are whisked away to the nearby city of Bahawalpur, the capital of the former princely state ruled by the Abbasis till 1955.

The jeep rally’s festive banners sway besides the surprisingly wide roads as our motorcade weaves through the city traffic to reach the royal mahals situated in close proximity to each other within the Bahawalgarh palace complex. Having seen photographs of the iconic Noor Mahal, we are all prepared to be suitably impressed by the opulent tastes of the Nawabs of Bahawalpur, but it is Darbar Mahal that cements the impression of grandeur.

Darbar Mahal during the day. — Photo by the author

Set on seventy-five acres of land, Darbar Mahal was commissioned by Nawab Bahawal Khan V to honour one of his wives. As one steps onto the driveway leading to the central building, it is difficult to decide what to focus on first. There is the imposing Mahal itself on the right, while raised platforms and a distant baradari sit amidst perfectly maintained grounds on the left. The February sun is hot, and the red brick exterior hints at cool interiors.

The amalgamation of Arab, Mughal, and Sikh influences is clearly visible, with a Mughal-style red façade that gives way to a white roof top where stylised domes reminiscent of Sikh architecture rest on octagonal turrets at each of the structure’s four corners. The white of the jharokas is repeated in the intricate carvings and fretwork framing the eighty Arab-inspired windows that run on all sides of the building. Identical arched entryways on all four sides open onto the central reception area- a high vaulted octagonal hall with glass-paned doors leading off to receiving rooms that currently serve as office space for the Bahawalpur corps. A balcony wraps around the upper part of the hall, its metal trellis giving a glimpse of the doors on the second floor. Stepping into this hall is like taking a half-step into the past. The frescos along the interior arches and walls are in perfect condition. The marble flooring is squeaky clean. But other than a few portraits on the walls, no artefacts are on display.

One possible explanation for the stripped-down look is the fact that Darbar Mahal is not on display at all – the general public is not granted access to this historical building, and it is only the lucky few with friends in high places who are allowed to set foot on the grounds. Familial infighting over ownership rights led to the royal Abbasi residences being leased to the Pakistan Army in 1966, and the military has since been in charge of the restoration and maintenance of the palaces.

The Mahal at night. — Photo by the author

Marwat appears to have found like-minded souls in the military establishment who want to showcase these architectural treasures. A team of white-turbaned butlers serves us afternoon tea in one of the functional reception halls. Surrounded by rich upholstery and cascading velvet drapes from a high ceiling, it is easy to visualise matters of state being discussed here as sunlight streams in through tall windows. Nawab Bahawal Khan V looks down from a huge portrait on one of the walls, subduing the conversations in the room to a volume befitting a royal court of yore.

The verdant gardens and an elaborately designed fountain beckon through spotless glass panels embossed with the emblem of the former princely state of Bahawalpur, the Pelican. The architectural ode to the Lahore Fort becomes stronger as one steps towards the baradari. The tree-lined path is neatly divided into equal parts by a multi-tiered octagonal fountain. As one gets closer, the well-preserved relief work brings to mind the extravagantly adorned palaces of Rajasthan, an unexpected surprise in the midst of one of the busiest cities in south Punjab. The red on the walls takes on a deep pink hue as sunbeams touch upon the edifice. A squadron of white pelicans lazes around in the green quadrangles at the foot of the steps leading up to the baradari, heightening the sense of being transported back in time. The collective experience of nostalgia for a glorious past is enhanced by the quiet that enfolds the entire complex of Darbar Mahal. In harmony with the main building, the baradari retains the red-on-white scheme, with white relief work lending a whimsical elegance to the structure. Perhaps as a harbinger of the future when the princely state of Bahawalpur would prove instrumental in bolstering the fledgling fortunes of a newly-created Pakistan, the chand tara motif is everywhere. Whether woven artfully into the more traditional Indo-Arabic patterns on the baradari’s facade, or painted along the arches inside the mahal, this symbol of the sadiq dost remains at the centre of attention.

Standing under the cool shade of the baradari’s long corridors with the regal pelicans enjoying the sunshine, one is hard pressed to imagine a more serene setting for governing a state. Suitably impressed by the Nawabs of Bahawalpur and their impeccable taste in architecture, we reluctantly leave Darbar Mahal. Unbeknownst to us, the officer in charge has been impressed by our group’s enthusiasm to promote and preserve Pakistan’s cultural heritage. As the sun sets, we are invited to experience the splendor of Darbar Mahal at night.

Daylight might have revealed all the intricacies of the architecture, but it is the strategically placed lights at night that highlight the grandeur of this royal palace. Under artificial lighting, Darbar Mahal transforms into a structure suspended in a perfect balance between past and present glory. Jets of water sparkle in the spot-lit fountain, weaving an old-worldly charm over the baradari. An equally resplendent entrance to the mosque on the premises is lit with deference, reminding us of the concurrent influence of Islamic traditions and modernity on the Abbasi dynasty.

The piece de resistance of the visit is, however, not just the artistically lit building but the 3D light and sound show projected onto it. Seated on lawn chairs on a balmy February night, our group is treated to a visual retelling of the history of the princely state of Bahawalpur. It is safe to say that the light and sound show is at a par with those projected at major global tourist sites such as the Pyramids of Giza. Enthralled, we watch as 3D images juxtaposed upon the ornate carvings of Darbar Mahal complement a recorded narration of the contribution of the princely state of Bahawalpur in resuscitating a Pakistan cheated out of crucial state-building resources at partition.

The entire experience brings a singular question to mind: why is the public not allowed to appreciate this national treasure? Our host at the mahal assures us that the government has been working on streamlining a system that will allow public visits while mitigating the risks of overcrowding and vandalism. The light and sound show, we are informed, is part of the innovative tourism strategies being explored to put Bahawalpur on the national and international tourism map. For now, Covid-19 appears to have halted any plans to open up Darbar Mahal to the general public. It remains to be seen how long this architectural gem will be obscured by layers of bureaucratic technicalities and ownership tussles. Till the awaam get to experience the grandeur of Darbar Mahal, this piece of history will remain the way it is - neither féted, nor forgotten.

The writer is a policy consultant and social anthropologist based in Lahore. She can be reached at ainab.altaf@gmail.com

Darbar Mahal: A treat for privileged eyes