There was a recent scare that the ‘Mai Daru de Haveli’ inside Lohari Gate - better known as the Lal Haveli of the Maharajah of Kashmir – was up for sale and going to be knocked down by a trader of Shahalami.

Thankfully just two weeks ago a committee of the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA) declared this building as ‘protected’ property because it came under the ‘ever-shrinking’ list of ‘threatened heritage buildings’. My sources tell me that a trader of Shahalami Bazaar, who has the keys to this exquisite but crumbling building, has plans to build a huge concrete plaza after knocking it down. It seems he is not legally the owner, but has possession. Now it seems that his ‘recently elected’ political backer is the ‘real owner’, and the picture gets even more complex for legally the ownership lies with a lady allegedly living abroad for a long time. It is a messy affair.

But then as a journalist who has done most ‘beats’- from crime, to culture, to politics, to economics - my nose told me that something was not right about this matter. It reminded me of a visit made to this place in the company of that amazing book collector Saifullah Khalid in February 2014. After that detailed visit I wrote a piece about the place and how it was decaying. The ownership even then was vague. So the next day we returned and had tea with a shopkeeper opposite the prized ‘haveli’.

During the conversation he mentioned the name of an aggressive politician of Kashmiri origin as being the real ‘possessor’, and that his agents collect the monthly rents. We were also informed that he has possession of several other such prized ‘havelis’. The only clue is that a Shahalami trader has the keys, but again, is not the owner.

The same is true of another Sikh era ‘haveli’ now called ‘Butt de Haveli’ opposite the Khalifa ‘khatai’ shop whose owner, allegedly a lady, also lives abroad. The interesting thing is that all the owners are allegedly female, all allegedly living abroad. That beautiful ‘Butt de Haveli’ is now a complex series of shoe-making concerns and the stench of glue is overwhelming. But that is another messy story. I was shown this ‘haveli’ by the Aga Khan Trust consultant Masood Khan, whose wish was to conserve and save this beautiful place.

One hopes the WCLA does not let a transfer of Mai Daru’s ‘haveli’ come about. It would be great if someone can find enough resources to legally possess this amazing place. Mind you it will need a massive conservation job. It might not be a bad idea to convert this place into a library or a local museum, if that is possible at all.

Now most people associate the word ‘Lal Haveli’ with the colourful politician Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed who lives in Rawalpindi. The Lal Haveli of Lahore’s walled city is older by a 100 years than the politician’s house, amazingly also once owned by a courtesan lady. Maybe it has something to do with the colour.

This exquisite ‘Mai Daru de Haveli’ was built by Maharajah Ranbir Singh, the son of Maharajah Gulab Singh of the Dogra Jamwal Rajput clan. Mai Daru was a courtesan of his heir Maharajah Partap Singh and she lived here inside Lohari Gate. The maharajah stayed here when he visited Lahore.

Hence this ‘haveli’, built in red brick and red lime plaster, with beautiful wooden ‘jharokas’, is known locally as Mai Daru de Haveli. We all know that in the Sikh era the location inside Lohari and Bhati Gate bazaars was considered as prime property. It was, after all, then part of the trade carried out in the nearby Chowk Chakla.

Once the turmoil of 1947 came about, the migrating Muslim trading classes moved in, and immediately started knocking down historic buildings. The mess was truly setting in, only no one had an idea of the extent to which it would go. In these parts the law does not hold sway. With every property transfer a gang of influential traders, each belonging to a different political party, take a share in the proceedings. This has continued unabated ever since. Today their influence pervades in every sphere of life. My understanding is that since the WCLA was established their hold has weakened.

After the Partition thousands of traders from across the new border, who anyway had connections with Lahore as a major trading centre, moved in to a vacated city where non-Muslims had once prevailed. As the northern and north-eastern areas were closer to transport terminals, they started occupying every empty shop and building in those areas first. The ‘Claim’ racket quickly followed. People of standing seeing the degradation setting in thought it prudent to sell and move out to faraway colonies. It was in a way an ‘empty killing field’.

This meant that the areas to the southwest began to fall in value. Large-scale decay set in. It was in this context that the housing along Lohari Bazaar became the worst effected in the walled city. The prized building in the market was the Lal Haveli of the Jamwal Rajputs, who because of 1947 became irrelevant. The ownership of this unique house became vague.

During the 1947 riots and the burning of the nearby Shahalami area, a huge mob attacked the Lal Haveli, just as it had much earlier. It seems this building has faced more attacks than any other, but has withstood everything thrown at it. The spirit of Mai Daru is made of sterner stuff. But they say nothing destroys more than neglect, be it human or material. Today as the once amazing Lal Haveli crumbles it seems the time has come for a solution based on scientific conservation.

A bit about the ‘haveli’. The ground floor with a ‘baithak’ facing the bazaar no longer exists. It has been destroyed and shops constructed. Crude concrete support columns can be seen with concrete slabs protruding to protect iron shutters. The beauty of the face has been completely ‘defaced’. Shops are carved up by crude brick cement walls.

Inside the building, naturally, things remain to its original plan with a central court. Inside there is an empty ghostly set of balconies. Seeing it is depressing to say the least. The only cheerful part are the stories associated with this place.

A word about Maharajah Partap Singh is much needed to understand the original owner of Lal Haveli. He was the third Dogra ruler of Jammu and Kashmir and ruled the State from 1885 to 1925, a full 40 years in which he came to his Lal Haveli twice a year. Once in the winter months, and once in April when the budgets for his State were being finalised in Lahore’s civil secretariat. He is known as the most enlightened of the Dogra rulers and in his time he established excellent health and educational institutions. So the ‘partner’ of Mai Daru was an enlightened person.

Now comes Mai Daru. The scant information from manuscripts tell of a beautiful lady who wrote poetry, and every time the maharajah came visiting at weekends classical music sessions were organised on the roof. If you happen to visit this building it is interesting how the top floor converts into an almost seamless open courtyard. My presumption is that the cool breeze on the protected roof far away from the buzz of the bazaar provided an ideal environment.

It is about time that the mystery of the owner of Mai Daru’s ‘haveli’ is unfolded and that it be presented for conservation and use for the good of the people of the once-walled city. Seems like a tall order, but then heritage matters. Well, that is what dreams are made of.

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2018

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