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The wonderland of wood


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Umer Hayat Palace, Chiniot. -Photo by author.
Umer Hayat Palace, Chiniot. -Photo by author.
Gate of the Umer Hayat Palace. -Archive Images
Gate of the Umer Hayat Palace. -Archive Images
A view of the Umer Hayat Palace in Chiniot . -Archive Images.
A view of the Umer Hayat Palace in Chiniot . -Archive Images.
The Umer Hayat Mahal in 1972. -Photo by Mushtaq Nasir
The Umer Hayat Mahal in 1972. -Photo by Mushtaq Nasir
A view of the Umer Hayat Palace in Chiniot . -Archive Images.
A view of the Umer Hayat Palace in Chiniot . -Archive Images.
The Umer Hayat Mahal in 2006.  -Archive Images
The Umer Hayat Mahal in 2006. -Archive Images
Umer Hayat Palace, Chiniot. -Photo by author.
Umer Hayat Palace, Chiniot. -Photo by author.

For whom the bell tolls

The 16th day of April in 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.

Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have a few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-Fi communications, I hope you will like them.

From the mountains of Jammu, a small spring sprouts. The snow clad Himalayans remain immersed in fog unless the sun shines on them but that too, lasts only for a few minutes. Once the sun is lost in the clouds again, these peaks don the white of mourning and shed tears, in the loving memory of the light, much like the rudalis of the desert … loud, heart-wrenching yet still superficial. The tears that roll down these mountains in the form of springs, grow into rivers in the plains and know no compassion.

Formed by the union of Surya Tal and Chander Tal, the river of Chander Bhag is known as Chenab on this side of the border. At Trimmu, the river Jhelum joins Chenab and adds to its serene signature. Down South, Ravi drops in and a little later, Sutlej also falls in Chenab. Gaining antiquity from the dried up Bias, Chenab finally falls in to river Sindh at Panjnad. The saint, that is river Sindh, then carries these waters to the Arabian Sea.

During its journey of almost a thousand kilometers, Chenab is nothing but myths and lore. Its real life stories have all shades of feeling and span from the plight of Sohni to the endeavors of Ranjha. While smoke and fog filter in to the ambiance of thatched restaurants up in the mountains of Leh, the locals charge tourists for telling made-up tales of the river, as old as Vedas. This is what has come to be known as culture, in our age.

Alongside the rivers, birds chirp about human settlements and one such dwelling is located to the north of Jhang. The name of Chiniot has a lunar reference that links it with Chander Tal, as well other mythologies. For ages, the city remained anonymous like a treasure island. It was only when the studious Saad ullah Khan from the neighboring town of Patraki made it to the court of Shah Jehan, that Chiniot rose to prominence. His flight from a penniless student to an affluent Prime Minister is attributed to his hard work, a phenomenon that recurs in almost all the success stories of Chiniot. Impressed by this minister, the Moghuls spotlighted Chiniot.

There are few references which identify Chiniot with "Channi-wat", a city mentioned in the Ramayan and others which link it with Al-Beiruni’s Kitab-ul-Hind, but the first archived mention of the city is found in Tozak-e-Babri. While few believe that a tradition of love was enlivened here, many found the remains of a Pathshala by the banks of Chenab. Contrary to the metaphysical world of love and spirituality, the city now boasts a university and a fried chicken outlet.

Amongst the bustling streets and newly constructed government offices, a unique structure grabs the attention. Shrouded in the novel elegance of scrolls, this building is known as the Umer Hayat Palace or Gulzar Mahal. The location, size and unique structure of the palace have made it another emblem of the city.

The palace is located in Reekhti Mohallah, a colony named after an old fort. Nothing remains of the fort expect for a wall which, too, is shared by neighbouring houses. A madressah stands on one side of the palace and bazaar on the other. The troika of the palace, madressah and the market is ancient, as well as illustrating.

The city is also famous for Chinioti Shiekhs, who are the embodiment of business acumen. Due to their hard work, financial intelligence and meticulous behaviour, these entrepreneurs have made their mark on regional trade for over a century. Marriages at a young age, respect for elders and a well-organised network of close-knit families are the identity markers of this community. Prior to partition, they worked in Calcutta and maintained their bases at Chiniot. After 1947, a large number of Chiniotis made Pakistan their home and traded their love for Hooghly with that of the Arabian Sea. This explains the fact that the two cities of Chiniot and Karachi invariably find a connection in every Chinioti’s life.

Sheikh Umar Hayat was one such magnate of his time. Like other members of the community, he too lived in Chiniot and visited Calcutta for work. Besides his success, Umar Hayat was also famous for his generosity. Whenever he visited Chiniot, he made it a point to sit down in the market and give away money to the needy. During one of these philanthropic episodes, Elahi Bux Pirjha was passing by. A craftsman beyond brilliance, Pirjha was famous for his wood work; his Taziyas were known to depict a range of expression through storytelling. Every story featured the miniatures of Roman arches, Gothic structures and Persian grandeur in an Indian undertone. It was said that in Pirjha's hands, wood transformed into wax. His fame had reached England and he was marked for woodwork at the Buckingham Palace. As he passed through the market, the attention drifted from Umer Hayat’s generosity to the dexterity of Pirjha. On his inquiry about Pirjha, Umer Hayat was informed about the artist with a candid remark:

He is an artist and you are a businessman. Today, you are rich but tomorrow his art will outlive your wealth.

Umer Hayat thought about this for a while and then called Pirjha to construct his house. Pirjha hinted that Umar Hayat’s money might not sustain his skill. Those were the good old days, when people were not frantically possessive about their thoughts, hence Pirjha was commissioned to the Umer Hayat Palace and his work started in 1922.

(To be continued…)

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Muhammad Hassan Miraj is a federal government employee.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (10) Closed

Adil Mulki Jul 23, 2013 07:26pm

Wonderful words for the wonderland of wood

dushyant Jul 23, 2013 09:32pm

Eagerly waiting for the next part.

Aiza Jul 23, 2013 10:30pm

Thank you for this insightful article! What a wonderful piece of reading!

Gulbaz Mushtaq Jul 24, 2013 04:22am

Great piece of writing.

Mubashir Jul 24, 2013 07:57am

Seems more like a travel tale and river talk rather than about Chiniot.

vijay Jul 24, 2013 10:58am

Such a marvellous palace.

DR.Mazhar Masood Jul 24, 2013 02:07pm

My dear Hasan how can I appreciate your writings I have no words.I have read all of your blogs for which I cannot thank you enough and the dawn group. My best wishes are for you and your pen. I hope we will have a book by you in near future containing all your writings. This will be a blessing for our generation who is not familiar with our own history and our land. Nobody is familiar with your name and with your writings in the area and the social circle in which I live but I am doing my job to tell as many people as possible about you. My best wishes are for you. Dont stop writing we need people like you more than ever People like you will be the real face of Pakistan

Mansoor Bukhari Jul 24, 2013 04:15pm

Adorable place & author.... Your words have enlivened the legacy

Gulbaz Mushtaq Jul 25, 2013 01:56am

@DR.Mazhar Masood: 100% Correct

koi-kon Jul 25, 2013 04:43am

@DR.Mazhar Masood: Thank You, I am honored