Almost 150 years since its completion, Noor Mahal stands tall and proud, a tangible reminder of the bygone era of princely states and royalty
If cities had synonyms, Noor Mahal would be one for Bahawalpur. Mention Bahawalpur, and the conversation immediately turns to the discussion of this neoclassical palace located at the heart of Bahawalpur City. The mahal’s charm is undeniable. Imagine an Italian chateau, only grander. Add Greek-style Corinthian columns and five angular domes inspired by Islamic architecture. Set it amidst acres of smooth green lawns that sparkle like perfectly cut emeralds in the sunshine, and you have a building symbolic of the progressive approach of the nawabs of Bahawalpur.
For seventy-five rupees, anyone can walk in and spend an afternoon basking in the nostalgia-suffused environment of the only royal residence open to the general public in Bahawalpur. Visitors are granted access to just a handful of rooms previously used by the nawabs, but that fact does not detract from the carefully curated glimpse into the extravagant lifestyles of the Abbasi dynasty.
Often, well-preserved facades of heritage buildings mask interiors robbed of any noteworthy details and treasures by time and people alike. Bas bahir say daikh lo, undar kuch nahi ho ga can be overheard at various historical sites. But the presence of official guides smartly attired in starched white shalwar kamees and black waistcoats hints that there might be more to Noor Mahal than the exquisite exterior.
Heenan, the British state engineer accredited with designing the palace, definitely believed in first impressions. The main doors open into a high-domed entryway. The initial impression is one of light and airiness; immediately followed by the realisation that the building is decidedly cooler than expected. The answer lies within the walls, and not in the macabre Anarkali-imprisoned-in-the-wall way.
Aware of the relentless sun that heats up the region for the better part of the year, the architects used an indigenous technique of mixing pulses and grains to build the walls. It isn’t just the absence of cement that ensured the mahal remained a cool sanctuary. It is said that streams of water run beneath the smooth Italian marble tiled floors. Once you have stopped marveling at the intricate geometric patterns on the floors, a different form of tile work grabs the attention.
The columns separating the entryway from the great hall are lined with official plaques from various defining phases in the political history of the princely state of Bahawalpur. The terracotta tiles, with their gradual incorporation of different elements into the state seal, are a visual lesson on the trajectory of Bahawalpur’s relationship with Pakistan. Look away from the tiles, and you will find yourself in the darbar room, the great hall where the nawabs discussed state affairs. Formal armchairs line both sides of the hall in imitation of the original seating layout of the hall. The raised throne-seat of the nawab in front of a mirrored wall is spectacular, but not as much as the frescoed ceiling high above it.
From the huge crystal chandeliers to the rainbow-hued vaulted ceiling, the interior provides glimpses of the immense wealth of the nawabs. Regal portraits of a long line of nawabs grace the walls of the visitors’ gallery, utterly unconcerned with the crowds politely jostling for a closer look at the jewels and arms on display. Politely, because this is now a property owned and maintained by the Pakistan Army, and the army is the only institution Pakistanis take seriously. So, unsurprisingly, despite the constant stream of tourists walking in and out of the palace, there are no spit marks or love poems graffiti-ed on the walls. The ornately carved wooden furniture in the bedroom is still free from pocket-knife etchings, as is the grand piano.
It is not just the objects on display that have strengthened the image of Bahawalpur as a prosperous principality. Legend has it that state coins and important documents were placed in the mahal’s foundation at the time of construction as omens for good fortune.
It is not just the objects on display that have strengthened the image of Bahawalpur as a prosperous principality. Legend has it that state coins and important documents were placed in the mahal’s foundation at the time of construction as omens for good fortune. Of course, the most popular legend about the mahal is that of Nawab Sadiq Khan IV’s wife Noor, for whom this resplendent mahal was commissioned, and her refusal to spend another day in the two-storied building after discovering its proximity to the Basti Malook Shah graveyard. The fact that the nawabs of Bahawalpur had enough palaces on hand to move in and out of within days certainly makes it easier to indulge in the speculation about precious treasure that remains hidden somewhere deep under the cordoned-off basement.
Among sites that remain off-limits to the general public in Bahawalpur is Gulzar Mahal. Named after the wife of Nawab Bahawal Khan V, it lies within a vast quadrangle, fenced by high fortified walls, and surrounded by lush green grounds. Noor Mahal has a long winding driveway, with the Shahi Buggy parked outside the main building as a reminder of who used to traverse that land. Gulzar Mahal does not have any such royal carriage on display, but its circular driveway leading up to the pale limestone-coloured building has all the royal feel.
Completed in 1909, Gulzar Mahal was commissioned as a residence for the ladies of the royal family, though Nawab Bahawal Khan V did not live to see it take concrete form. Said to be inspired by Noor Mahal, the exterior and interior of Gulzar Mahal depict a similar amalgamation of Italian and Indo-Saracenic architectural elements. But four rotund domes sitting majestically atop circular turrets and the curved sides of the building lend Gulzar Mahal its own unique identity. Corinthian columns are aplenty, both inside and outside. Like Darbar Mahal, Gulzar Mahal is currently maintained and utilised by the army’s administrative wing. As such, only the main hall and a few guest rooms are accessible. Interestingly, on the day of this writer’s visit, the main hall had been transformed to fit the set requirements of a soap opera. Ah, the irony of renting a century-old palace only to conceal its perfectly well-preserved architectural details behind modern furnishings. Could the director have misunderstood the context of modernity since Gulzar Mahal was the first building in Bahawalpur to be equipped with concealed electric wiring and generate electricity through diesel generators? The ornate balconies on the second floor and the relief work on the ceiling were silent on the subject.
Following upon a visit to Noor Mahal, it is the silence at Gulzar Mahal that is surprisingly jarring. While Noor Mahal’s grounds play host to groups of happy visitors basking in spring sunshine, Gulzar Mahal’s vast lawns are eerily empty. There are army vehicles parked in the barns, but like at Darbar Mahal, not an officer in sight. The grounds are just as carefully manicured; the glass panels with the Bahawalpur seal similarly spotless; the building equally well-preserved. But the curious visitors are missing. There is no one exclaiming at the remarkable sight of the large marbled hall; nNone to admire the expansive views from the raised terrace.
Seeing a heritage site being treated with due respect is a pleasant surprise in Pakistan, and Noor Mahal is proof that Pakistani visitors can be trusted to treasure national monuments. Almost 150 years since its completion in 1875, Noor Mahal stands tall and proud, a tangible reminder of the bygone era of princely states and royalty. If granting the public access to one palace can boost tourism confidence and local pride so much, imagine what adding Darbar Mahal and Gulzar Mahal to the list will do. Hopefully, someone in the Tourism Department is taking note of the #cityofpalaces hashtags used for Bahawalpur, and is working on letting the general public have a closer look at those magnificent markers of history.
The writer is a policy consultant and social anthropologist based in Lahore. She can be reached at email@example.com; Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/cancook.musttravel