Mohatta Palace: A tale of love lost

Published July 28, 2014
— Photo from Mohattapalacemuseum.com
— Photo from Mohattapalacemuseum.com
— Photo by Akhtar Balouch
— Photo by Akhtar Balouch
— Photo by Akhtar Balouch
— Photo by Akhtar Balouch
— Photo by Akhtar Balouch
— Photo by Akhtar Balouch
— Photo by Akhtar Balouch
— Photo by Akhtar Balouch

Akhtar Balouch, also known as the Kiranchi Wala, ventures out to bring back to Dawn.com’s readers the long forgotten heritage of Karachi. Stay tuned to this space for his weekly fascinating findings.


Clifton, Karachi is known to be home to the wealthiest families of the city.

It has long been that way, in fact. Clifton used to be the preferred destination among well-off people when it came to residence, long before Partition as well. In the '70s and afterwards, the area was famous for housing Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s residence, 70 Clifton.

There is particularly a certain building in Clifton which looks like a palace and is a very popular attraction for anyone who comes here — the Mohatta Palace.

Currently a centre for cultural activities, the Mohatta Palace was constructed by a wealthy businessman of Karachi, Shivratan Chandraratan Mohatta.


A love story like Taj Mahal's


The story behind the construction of the Mohatta Palace is an interesting tale of love. It reminds me of the story of Taj Mahal, which is one of the seven wonders of the world and was built on the orders of the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan in ‘loving memory of his wife’.

The difference is that Shah Jehan built Taj Mahal after his wife died, while Mohatta had the palace built in order to save his wife from dying.

Usman Damohi, a well-known Karachi historian, writes in his book Karachi Taareekh Kay Aaeenay Main:

*"In 1927, Shivratan Mohatta, a successful Marwari entrepreneur, commissioned a palatial house in the affluent seaside neighbourhood of Clifton. The architect commissioned for the assignment was Ahmed Hussein Agha, one of the first Muslim architects of India. He came from Jaipur to take up the assignment.

"Working in a Mughal revival style with a combination of locally available yellow Gizri stone and pink stone from Jodhpur, he sought to recreate the Anglo-Mughal palaces of the Rajput princes."*

It is said that the reason behind its commission was a serious illness that Mohatta’s wife suffered from. Doctors had told Mohatta that the refreshing winds of the sea would cure his wife’s illness. Thus, Shivratan had this fascinating bungalow built in the previous century in Clifton, covering a very large area.


Pakistan government strikes


After Partition, the palace was handed over to Fatima Jinnah, sister of the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. After her demise, the Government of Sindh took over the building. MQM’s Kunwar Khalid Yunus once wrote in his Letter to the Editor, Dawn:

"While visiting Delhi in 2004 on an official visit, I met an octogenarian gentleman. He was a businessman in Karachi who moved to Delhi after Partition. He narrated a story of Seth Mohatta, who had been a good friend of the Quaid-e-Azam since long.

"Mr Mohatta decided to live in Karachi, even after the Great Divide. But one day he was contacted by a powerful political figure of the country, who asked him to vacate the Mohatta Palace for some government office. According to the old gentleman, Mr Mohatta was stunned.

"Then overnight, he decided to leave. The next day, he packed his and his family's belongings, migrating to Bombay. He handed over the keys of Mohatta Palace to its manager, instructing him to hand over a note to the politician concerned, saying that he could have simply gifted the palace on being requested rather than being ordered to do so.

"Mr Mohatta and his family members never visited Karachi or for that matter any other city of Pakistan again."


A mesmerising structure


The double-storeyed structure covers an area of 18,000 square feet. There hasn't existed a single structure that could match the area that Mohatta Palace covers, neither before nor after Partition.

Upon entering the palace, you first notice the beautifully coloured windows on the exterior, a wall of stone, an arch and minarets; a stunning view of architectural splendour.

The rooms on the first floor are luxurious and royal in their setting, an absolute delight to be in. The second floor is no less beautiful. It's hard to look at a room and imagine it being used by a singular person.

Even today, if you go all the way up to the rooftop of the building, it might be possible to catch a view of the sea, though dull residential high-rises have surrounded the Mohatta Palace so completely that even the winds from the sea cannot reach their once favourite destination. Back when it was constructed, the occupants of the Mohatta Palace could enjoy not only the sea breeze, but a view of the then clean and unpaved seashore, too.

On the rooftop is a magnificent structure with a central dome surrounded by smaller ones. This was meant to protect inhabitants from the severe heat of direct sunlight. In addition to the central structure, the building has four other minaret-domes on its corners.

The ceilings on these domes display some fabulous art, with engravings painted over in colourful patterns. —Photo from Mohattapalacemuseum.com
The ceilings on these domes display some fabulous art, with engravings painted over in colourful patterns. —Photo from Mohattapalacemuseum.com
The entire palace is encompassed by an extensive, airy garden, too. —Photo from Mohattapalacemuseum.com
The entire palace is encompassed by an extensive, airy garden, too. —Photo from Mohattapalacemuseum.com

The days of Fatima Jinnah


Mohatta Palace is historically important in a number of ways.

After Partition, it housed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Agha Hilali, the Deputy Chief Protocol Officer back in the early days of the partition, writes about the building in context of its being used as the Foreign Affairs office:

Mohatta Palace was located at quite a distance from the city, giving the employees a tough commute. To solve the issue, we started a bus service from Empress Market to the Mohatta Palace. Back then, Clifton was not a very populated area. It only had seawater and sand. Sometimes, the area would be flooded with seawater, with roads at least six inches below seawater.

Pictures of the palace were officially used by the foreign ministry for its seasonal and New Year’s greeting cards. When the palace was handed over to Fatima Jinnah, the ministry offered to vacate the building, but Ms Jinnah did not have any interest in it then. Still, the ministry had the building completely cleaned and barbed wire around the building removed. They even cleaned the pigeon nests. Fatima Jinnah had chosen the Mohatta Palace as a replacement of Mr Jinnah’s Bombay residence.

In an interview to the Daily Dawn, Fatima Jinnah’s friend Begum Ikramullah narrates memories related to the Mohatta Palace:

One evening, Fatima Jinnah took me to the rooftop of Mohatta Palace. The sea looked beautiful from up there. When Mohtarma had first moved to the palace to live in it, I had asked her: isn’t this too big? She had replied: 'No. I like the place'. It was a Thursday evening. She dined at the palace. According to Lady Hidayatullah, there was qawwali event that night at the Abdullah Shah Ghazi mausoleum and they sat all night to listen to qawwali.

Another view of Mohatta Palace. —Photo from Mohattapalacemuseum.com
Another view of Mohatta Palace. —Photo from Mohattapalacemuseum.com

Another interesting fact about Mohatta Palace is that it was a centre for the movement against [Field Marshal] Ayub Khan (then President, Pakistan). It was at the palace that Fatima Jinnah announced her candidature in the presidential election against Ayub Khan, opening her campaign. There would be many a meeting here, too, in order to devise political strategies against the military ruler.

Fatima Jinnah breathed her last in the Mohatta Palace. She was found dead in her room one morning. Many believe it had something to do with Ayub Khan and his lobby because of the mysterious circumstances it happened in. However, like all political deaths in our country, from Liaquat Ali Khan to Benazir Bhutto, Fatima Jinnah’s death is still a mystery.

For as long as Fatima Jinnah lived, the Ayub administration kept the palace under strict surveillance. Ms Jinnah would always hold the death anniversary of her brother at the palace. Tents would be set up in the garden and biryani served. It was always cooked by a Bohri in Karachi.


No more politics


After Ms Jinnah died, there was a dispute in the family over the ownership of the Mohatta Palace. The High Court of Sindh handed over the palace to Ms Jinnah’s sister, Shirin Jinnah. Shirin died in 1980. It was her wish that the the building be used as a charity centre. She had dreamt of making it a medical college for women. However, soon as she met her maker, her relatives, too, began to throng courtrooms for getting their hands on Mohatta Palace. Then a court ordered that the building be sealed, and so it was.

In 1995, on application by the provincial Sindh government, then prime minister Benazir Bhutto gave the provincial culture department Rs 7 million to buy the Mohatta Palace. Rs6.1 million were spent on buying the palace, while the rest of the money was used for its renovation. An autonomous board of trustees was formed to look after the palace and with a great effort, the palace was restored to its original state with the pink Jodhpuri stone shining to life again.

The official name of the palace is Qasr-e-Fatima. However, as with many such places in the country and the region, no one knows it by that name. Mr Mohatta must be content with a kernel of revenge, knowing that after all the palace has been through, it is still known to the world as the Mohatta Palace. Even the website calls it that!


Translated by Ayaz Laghari from the original in Urdu here

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