The past is another country: Rawalpindi’s once-grand havelis hearken to their glory days

Amid the chaos of modernity, Darbar Shah Chan Charagh stands as a historical sanctuary, preserving the essence of a community's unwavering faith.
Published April 19, 2024

Some spaces are sacred — so sacramental, in fact, that they etch themselves into the very fabric of one’s being. This is the story of one such place — a sanctuary of peace and spirituality that touched my soul in ways I never expected.

At 8am, I climbed the stairs and stepped into the main courtyard of the darbar [hall]. Under the crisp bright March sky, petrichor from last night’s rain lingered in the air, carrying a touch of chill. I was enveloped by the serene silence; greeted with the fragrance of roses along with the scent of burning wood emanating from a nearby chillah gah — a sacred spot where the shrine’s custodian once meditated.

 View of the chilla gah at Darbar Shah Chan Charagh — image provided by the author
View of the chilla gah at Darbar Shah Chan Charagh — image provided by the author

Seating myself against a pillar, I marvelled at the grandeur around me. As the sun ascended above the neighbouring tall, aged buildings, visitors began to pour in at the Darbar Shah Chan Charagh to perform their everyday rituals.

Office employees parked their motorcycles outside and entered to touch the Alam (Shia ornamental motif) and seek blessing before starting their day. Women, accompanied by children dressed in their school uniforms, lit diyas (lights) and distributed sweets in the hopes of having their mannat (wish) fulfilled.

 Women touching the <em>Alam</em> at Darbar Shah Chan Charagh
Women touching the Alam at Darbar Shah Chan Charagh

Soon after, the shutters of shops outside squeaked open, announcing the start of another day in androon [inner] Rawalpindi.

Religion at the heart of Shah Chan Charagh

Shah Chan Charagh and the neighbouring Bhabra Bazaar, stand as two of Rawalpindi’s oldest settlements. What once comprised a few houses has now transformed into one of the busiest and most densely populated neighbourhoods.

Today, it is known for its 400-year-old shrine and the Tazia procession on the ninth of Muharram. Before Partition, it was primarily inhabited by Sikh and Jain communities living in grand havelis and houses adorned with intricate artwork. Among these architectural marvels stood Haveli Sujan Singh — once famous as the grand darbar of the city.

 A pre-partition house in the neighbourhood of Shah Chan Charagh — image provided by the author
A pre-partition house in the neighbourhood of Shah Chan Charagh — image provided by the author

As I stepped out of Darbar Shah Chan Charagh to explore the neighbourhood, a stall owner arranging his merchandise next to a pre-Partition house caught my eye. Inside his shop, the soothing tunes of a Sufi ghazal filled the air, as he placed diyas, candles, and posters of various Sufi saints on the table, including Khawaja Khizr (the saint of the sea who rode on the back of a fish to save a damsel in distress).

It felt as though the spirit of Shah Chan Charagh’s saint was reviving his legacy by guiding the boats of those distressed in the sea of souls.

khewanhaar ki laaj tumhi ko
daata khaṛi hoon, du’aare du’aare du’aare
du’aare darya kashti baandho
mauj aaye bahr-i-ulfat mein khizr

The boatman’s pride and honour rests in your hands;O benefactor, I am standing near the shore, near the shore, near the shore.
Tie the boar near the shore; let joyous waves surge in friendship’s sea, Khizr).

Guardians of heritage

I was called here by my friend Hussain Rizvi, who, aware of my interest in visiting historically rich places, invited me to explore his ancestral haveli, ‘Imambargah Syed Muhammad Agha Rizvi’. The bazaar retains its reputation for crafting Shia Alams till date. Recognised for its revered saint, it once saw numerous Jain and Hindu temples. However, the crumbling structures and dilapidated remains today, only echo tales of the past.

As we made our way towards the haveli, we passed by several shops parallel to houses embellished with detailed wood and brickwork. Tucked away on the street adjacent to the darbar, the haveli stood as a striking landmark.

 Facade of the <em>haveli</em> (Imambarah)  — image provided by the author
Facade of the haveli (Imambarah) — image provided by the author

With its expansive fading red facade, numerous arched windows, and blended elements of Sikh and Victorian architecture, the building struck out prominently amid its surroundings. Divided into two sections, the ground floor served as a spacious hall dedicated to the Imambargah, while the upper two floors were reserved for residential quarters.

Hussain Rizvi and his siblings are the first generation to be born and raised in this house. He traced his family’s origins back to being the caretakers of Bara Imambargah in Lucknow, who then migrated during partition and settled here.

As he opened the door, I stepped into the main hall of the Imambargah. It was a vast, carpeted space with cupboards and windows tucked in the corners. The roof soared open in the middle, supported by wide pillars and surrounded by balconies, reminiscent of the typical Sikh structures found in Gurdwaras across Sindh and Punjab.

The walls between the pillars were decorated with Shia motifs, perhaps once hosting Sikh symbols. Large banners showcasing the battle of Karbala were placed on the surrounding walls.

 Poster depicting the War of Karbala inside the Imambargah — image provided by the author
Poster depicting the War of Karbala inside the Imambargah — image provided by the author

“The white walls you see had paintings beneath them,” Hussain explained as he guided me through the hall. “We covered them with white paint, but the original paint is so vibrant that it often peels away, revealing the hidden paintings and figures beneath.”

As he guided me through the hall, his father, Syed Raees Abbas Rizvi, a retired engineer from PTV, entered and joined our conversation. Well-traveled and knowledgeable, he recounted his family’s migration to Pakistan after partition.

“We were allotted this house as we were among the caretakers of Bara Imambargah in Lucknow,” he reminisced. “Being displaced, I was determined to establish a similar sacred place here in remembrance of what we had back home.” He gestured towards the ground floor of the haveli. “I always felt this was sacred, so I continued its legacy by converting it into an Imambargah.”

Raees Abbas Rizvi shared a touching memory of when the original residents of the house visited from India. “The oldest among them,” he recalled, “removed his shoes to enter this hall, showing his respect. With tears in his eyes, he pointed out where his grandfather and father used to sit and read Guru Granth Sahib (the central holy religious scripture of Sikhism), while he played around.”

 Syed Raees Abbas Rizvi sitting inside his <em>haveli</em> (Imambargah) — image provided by the author
Syed Raees Abbas Rizvi sitting inside his haveli (Imambargah) — image provided by the author

He paused, his voice brimming with emotion, before continuing. “I’ve been offered to sell this place, but I will never leave. I communicate with the saint here. I was destined to occupy this place and keep it clean,” he said, gesturing towards the darbar visible from the door.

“It may not be the main Gurdwara, but it holds religious significance,” he added. “During construction, we discovered many religious paintings and murals that were later whitewashed.”

To my surprise, nestled between two houses on the left side of the street was the entrance to a Gurdwara. Adorned with the Sikh symbol ‘*Ik Onkar’*, the words ‘Gurdwara Baradari’ were inscribed atop the entrance door in Gurumukhi script. On entering, one could see the main Gurdwara building and its dome, now encroached upon by multiple Kashmiri settlers.

 Gurdwara Baradari inscribed in Gurmukhi script on the wall — image provided by the author
Gurdwara Baradari inscribed in Gurmukhi script on the wall — image provided by the author

Rukhsana Bibi (name changed), who politely declined to be photographed, graciously led us into the building, now her home, where remnants of Sikh names are still visible on the floor.

“Our families arrived here after Partition and claimed this space,” she explained. “As migrants, my in-laws, who once experienced communal harmony in the subcontinent, stressed that this is a holy place and should be treated as such.” Despite financial constraints, the resident families preserved the main hall while constructing extensions in the courtyard.

“The building appears to be deteriorating because we don’t have the means to maintain it, but we have preserved every symbol, including the Gurumukhi script, out of respect for this sacred site,” she added earnestly.

Adjacent to this street is the ‘Dhakki Mohalla,’ preserving its pre-Partition name. As you walk towards the bustling Chan Bazar, your gaze is drawn to an intriguing Urdu nameplate placed on the facade of an aged building, now transformed into a beauty salon. The plate declares the building’s heritage as the ‘Dharamshala Sardar Jawala Singh Nandrajog,’ erected by Jugindar Sindh in loving memory of his esteemed father Natha Singh, and grandfather Sardar Jawala Sindh in May 1927.

 Nameplate of the Dharamshala outside the beauty parlour — image provided by the author
Nameplate of the Dharamshala outside the beauty parlour — image provided by the author

Traditionally, Dharamshalas were sanctuaries for pilgrims, offering solace and shelter near revered temples. However, today, this historic site has morphed into a bustling hub, housing both a shoe shop and the aforementioned beauty parlour.

Despite the passage of time and numerous renovations, the current proprietors — migrants to this vibrant locale — have chosen to honour the legacy of the original builders by preserving the cherished nameplate. It stands as a tribute to their predecessors’ virtues and the enduring spirit of familial remembrance.

Yet, as you wander through the neighbourhood of Shah Chan Charagh, once home to majestic pre-Partition buildings, a sombre realisation dawns — these architectural marvels now stand on the brink of oblivion. Neglected and undervalued, they face an uncertain fate in the wake of soaring land prices and waning interest.

The setting echoes of bygone eras and the moving tales of the residents are gradually succumbing to the onslaught of modernity. With each passing day, a piece of history is lost, replaced by gaudy structures that stand as monuments to progress, erasing the cherished memories of past generations, one site at a time.

Unspoken wounds of the partition

The Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 stands as one of the most profound humanitarian crises in history. While numerous facets of this tragic event have been scrutinised, its psychological toll and the deep sense of loss remain largely unacknowledged — both by those who directly endured its horrors and by subsequent generations. As Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s inaugural prime minister, lamented, “The most dreadful aspect of Partition and its aftermath was the psychological trauma — the distortion of the human psyche, particularly among the younger generations on both sides of the newly drawn borders.”

Individuals like Raees Abbas Rizvi, who carried fragments of their memories into their new homelands, find themselves trapped in the anguish of identity and bereavement — their struggles etched into the very stones that surround them. Shedding light on Italo Calvino’s words from his book, ‘Invisible Cities,’ the characters discover in each new city the remnants of a past they hadn’t realised it possessed: “The unfamiliarity of what you once were or once owned awaits you in foreign, unclaimed territories.”

Today, while some religious sites from the pre-Partition era remain intact, cherished by an older generation bound by sacramental reverence, the succeeding generation grapples with economic turmoil and inflation — their connection to such emotional anchors growing ever more tenuous.

Sadly, there is little attention and support available to safeguard the memories enshrined within these sacred spaces. With time, it seems inevitable that they will vanish, swallowed by the shifting sands of history.

In capturing the essence of my experience here, I realise that some moments are too sacred to be confined to mere words — they reside within us, eternal and unchanging, even as the world around us evolves.

As Calvino said: “Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing [this place] all at once, if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”

Header image: View of Imambargah Syed Muhammad Rizvi from Darbar Shah Chan Charagh — image provided by the author