The Nawabs’ distinct architectural taste is tangible throughout the Bahawalpur region. Though some Mughal influences may be observed in some structures, it’s an independent endeavour for the most part. Bahawalpur, founded by Nawab Mohammad Bahawal Khan in 1748, was merged into the Pakistani province of Punjab about a decade after the country’s birth. The unaccounted for steps that led to this reduction of Bahawalpur’s standing still continue to exist as bitter memories in the conscience of the region. But these structures from a by-gone era stand testimony to the grand vision of the sons of this soil. The serene city still has many of the structures built by Nawabs, but sadly not in the condition or the purpose they were intended for.
Many of the palaces of the Nawabs are now in the Army’s control, and not open to the general public. The grand Noor Mehal, also controlled by the Army, stands as perhaps the lone exception to this (though even here admission rights are reserved). Built by Nawab Sadiq Mohammad Khan in 1872 along the lines of an Italian chateau, the legend goes that it was intended for his wife. The lady however, refused to spend another night in the palace when she discovered the graveyard nearby – and the building has remained unused ever since. Converted now into what should fit the bill of a museum, the ground floor plays host to a number of portraits and relics of the Nawabs – the upper storey remains locked and inaccessible.
Depending upon who you ask among the local populace regarding the Army controlling these structures, you’ll get different opinions. Some say they’ve been snatched by the Army. Others opine they’ve been rented out, and what the Army pays is negligible. Some claim they have been properly bought by the Army from the Nawabs. The local opinion leans heavily in the Nawabs’ favour – who still continue to elicit great respect in the region. Whatever the status of the Army’s acquisition, there is no denying that the buildings have been kept in an impeccable state, even though the ordinary people of Bahawalpur have been denied access to them.
The ancient elevators, the obsolete wooden refrigerator and the oven remind you of the advancement of the place in its day
However, the Sadiq Garh Palace, built in 1882 by Nawab Sadiq Mohammad Khan, is a sore sight. Beautifully constructed and imposingly built, it pales in grandeur as you near it. The palace has been empty for decades now since there’s a legal dispute regarding its ownership among the descendants of the Nawabs. The peeling paint, the shattered windows, the occasional defacement and the forlorn look of the mighty building tells the sorry tale of the palace vividly. Sealed by the courts, the palace is usually closed to the public. But you can visit it if you’re lucky, and it’s absolutely stunning. The ancient elevators, the obsolete wooden refrigerator and the oven remind you of the advancement of the place in its day. There are two floors in the basement, making it a five storeyed building. There’s also a mosque in the compound, full of colourful frescos and refined work. The current Nawabs, some of whom live just behind the palace, are said to pay a visit occasionally; but it’s unfortunate that no steps to improve the status of the building are on the cards.
The Derawar Fort, also owned by the nawabs, and the best surviving of a line of forts that extended all the way into Rajasthan and secured a trade route, is in shambles. Among other things, the stunning wall of the fort is defaced in many places. It has got 40 impressive buttresses on its walls – some of which lie completely crushed. There’s worse, though. Every year, people throng in consideable numbers to visit the Fort, which, interestingly, still hoists the flag of the Bahawalpur state. This time around, for the days that I was in the region to attend the Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally, the Fort was never once opened for the public. People would line up tirelessly each day, hoping they’d be let in; but to no avail. The reason: the Nawabs had had some acrimony with the government, and thus had closed their Fort for the public, as a reaction. It’s sad that those who’d come from thousands of kilometres away just to catch a glimpse of the great structure didn’t feature at all in their impulsive decision.
There’s a grand mosque in front of Derawar too, which is built upon the style of Delhi’s Moti Masjid; and is in comparatively better condition. But a good number of other heritage sites in the region (The Lonely Planet’s Insight Guide to Pakistan claims there are about 400 heritage sites in Cholistan desert) have been defaced completely, so much so that you can only spot the lone wall of one structure, only the foundation of another. These serve only about two eminent functions currently: as an abode for addicts and as public bathrooms. These are not built by the Nawabs and rather pre-date their era quite substantially (some say they belong to the Indus Valley Civilization), and deserve a lot of attention because of that.
The Royal Graveyard, which I had heard about and wanted to see, was again closed to the public by the nawabs. Maybe they should take a lesson from how the Indian Royal families of Rajasthan are running their majestic sites. It’s even more surprising to realize that these are the same families that contributed so heavily towards the betterment of a newly-born state; the stories of which are part of folklore in the region. How these Nawabs got Rolls Royces to clean their city is now a Pakistani urban legend.
Bahawalpur is a beautiful place that can be turned into a real tourist destination. Most locals blame the government but since most of these properties are privately owned there is little the government can do in this regard, other than offering to buy them and turning them into cultural heritage sites readily available to all.