Chiniot, a city in Southern Punjab, is famous for its wealthy traders and intricate woodwork. Chinioti tradesmen once expanded their businesses far and wide, but the fame of the city's woodwork surpasses all else.
The Umar Hayat Mahal is a symbol of this exemplary craftsmanship.
I incidentally stumbled upon this grand ‘mahal’ or palace, while searching for the remains of a 14th century fort in Rekhti Mohalla — an old locality of the city.
Also read: The wonderland of wood
I could not find anything of the Sultan Muhammad Tughluq Fort, except for a wall on a piece of land which was encroached by mohalla residents.
As I was studying the wall, my attention was diverted towards a fascinating structure — the Umar Hayat Mahal — which stood tall, exuding glory, despite lying in a state of ruin.
It was mid-day during fall last year. The main gate of the Umar Hayat Mahal Library (as it’s now known) was closed, but the unique structure could be seen through the iron fence.
The novel elegance of the edifice inspired me to inspect further. I got in touch with Amir Latif, a local historian, who also runs a web portal on Chiniot.
According to him, Umar Hayat — the owner of the haveli — was a member of the Vohra Sheikh clan, and had settled in Calcutta where he successfully developed a large business, and created a fortune for himself.
He dealt in hides and ship breaking, with innumerable investments in various other ventures.
Umar Hayat Mahal, a five story edifice, hints at the riches of its successful former owner. According to local versions of history, Umar Hayat had married against the will of his family and had to face a social boycott. This ostracism pushed him to leave his hometown and settle in Calcutta.
At the time, Calcutta was a major trade hub of the Indian subcontinent, where a large number of Chinioti Sheikhs had settled down in the early decades of the 20th century.
By the time his son Gulzar was born in 1920, Umar Hayat had already established himself as a distinguished businessman. But the pull he felt towards his birthplace never faltered.
Therefore wealth, combined with his love for Chiniot, and pride, made him return — he decided to build a house that was incomparable in beauty and grandeur.
He commissioned over the house's construction to his confidant, Syed Hassan Shah, who hired leading artisans of the time to build and embellish the haveli with elaborate designs carved in wood, marble and glass.
Two of these craftsmen were Rahim Baksh Pirjah and Elahi Baksh Pirjah, whose skill and mastery of woodcraft were acclaimed and celebrated from the darbars of Indian rulers to the Buckingham Palace.
Other skilled workers included mistri Ahmad Din who completed the brick work, Niaz Ahmad Jalandri, a celebrated artist, worked on stucco, and Jan Muhammad completed the frescoes.
The construction of the house began in 1923, and it was a challenge for artisans to build a haveli that could captivate its beholders.
Thus after seven years of continuous work and a cost of over Rs 200,000, the imposing Umar Hayat Mahal was finally ready in 1930.
Its dazzling exteriors astonished the people of Chiniot who had never known that a building of bricks and mortar could be crafted like an ornament.
The house became famous for its distinct features and so, in 1930, the writers of the District Gazetteer of Jhang ascribed it as a 'local wonder'.
The exquisite designs on its windows and doors, splendid jharokas, intricate stucco work on its ceiling, ornate frescoes and magnificent wood carving or munabat kari, made it the finest display of artistic splendour.
But as luck had it, the owner of the house did not live long enough to relish it. Sheikh Umar Hayat died in 1935, soon after the completion of the house. At the time, his son Gulzar was 15 years old.
When he turned 17, his mother decided that it was time to marry him. The marriage, no less than that of royalty, was planned for 1937. All the townsfolk were invited; the elders of Chiniot remember the lavish event to this day.
But the very next day of his marriage, tragedy struck the family once again. Gulzar was found dead in the bathroom. Toxic gases released by burning coals used for geysers were assumed to be the cause of death.
Gulzar was buried in the courtyard of his magnificent house. His mother could not bear the loss and died remembering her child. She was buried beside him. And so, this fantastic house was left as the only testimony to this once-powerful family.
After the tragic end of the Umar Hayats, the palace was considered to be a bad omen.
No relatives of Umar Hayat claimed it, although a servant family continued to live there for a couple of years.
In 1940, Anjuman-e-Islamia opened a religious school in it, which didn’t last long. In 1948, Sheikh Muhammad Amin, a philanthropist of Chiniot, established an orphanage in the house. Two years later, the orphanage was shifted to another building, and wilderness once again took over the Umar Hayat Mahal.
Afterwards in 1960's, the structure was ravaged by marauders and wanderers who almost destroyed it. Later, the people of Chiniot began dismantling doors, windows, fresco plaques and even its marble slabs. These masterpieces created by legendary artists were sold in Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.
Martin Enzner, a German researcher, has highlighted this pillage in his thesis “Carpenters of Chiniot, Pakistan”. He also wrote that antique wood trade in Punjab attracts many traders, westerners and smugglers.
Peshawar is an important hub of antique woodwork trading. Traders from the city regularly travel to Chiniot to buy historic wooden structures. Finally, most of the items end up in Western countries, and are oftentimes incorporated into new furniture.
The vandalism led to serious damage of Umar Hayat Mahal's two top floors. In 1970, the municipal committee ordered the demolition of the two higher storeys to save the structure from further damage or sudden collapse.
However, it took another 19 years for a deputy commissioner of Jhang to take notice of the crumbling structure. Considering its historic and artistic worth, Muhammad Athar Tahir the then District Commissioner of Jhang, took the building under official custody in 1989.
Muhammad Amjad Saqib was the assistant commissioner in Chiniot. To save this monument, he involved the local business community and collected funds for the restoration of the edifice. And this way, the decaying structure was given a new life.
By the mid-1990s, its ground floor, walls, ceiling and woodwork of the upper floors, were repaired. In June 1990, the district and local authorities decided that the edifice could play a dynamic role for the people of Chiniot.
It was converted into a library, museum and cultural centre. Thousands of books from the municipal library and private collections were donated to it.
A museum was also established with some old and new artefacts, and an employ of the municipal committee, Mushtaq Ahmad, was appointed the caretaker. He also served as a guide, curator and historian.
The idea of converting the building into a library, local museum and cultural centre proved to be successful., albeit for a short while.
There were concerns about the restoration work done on the house by the district government. The process lacked appropriate techniques and completely altered the original look of the edifice.
Nevertheless, this effort saved this architectural heritage from complete demolition. It also promoted local tourism, and generated people’s interest in reading and understanding local history and culture.
Unfortunately, the level of interest taken in the project did not last long. The district administration of Chiniot eventually refused to bear the expenditures of this valuable monument.
Books were dumped in the basement along with several other artefacts of Chiniot museum. The idea of further development and renovation was scraped.
Today, the building, once again, lies in ruins.
—All photos by author.