Originally published in The Friday Times. July 10, 2015.
For most in Pakistan, visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra is plain out of question. The traditional ‘frenemies’ (the F and R being silent), Pakistan and India have devised such austere visa policies for each other that you’d rather visit twenty other countries in the same amount of effort. And while potential tourists from both the countries are kept at bay by the respective foreign offices, the prospect of never seeing Shahjahan’s wonder ails many on this side of Wagah. Here’s where Swat’s Walis come to play. Be warned though, it’s only a consolation.
Constructed with the maiden name of Swati Taj Mahal in the early 1940s, the building has since been rechristened Safaid Mahal (White Palace). It is located in Murghazar in Swat Valley, at a distance of about 15 kilometers from the center, Saidu Sharif. It was built by the first Wali of Swat Miangul Abdul Wadood as a summer residence. He was astounded by the scenery the place offered, and would shift all the government structure here during the summers too. Currently, it serves as a luxury hotel; and is popular among those visiting Swat.
Constructed as Swati Taj Mahal in the 1940s, it has since been rechristened Safaid Mahal
Rocky roads and lush vistas mark your ascent to the palace. Once you’re inside, everyone in the complex is a bit too eager to flaunt the relationship with Taj Mahal. And so it goes that all the marble used in the construction of the palace, which is a lot, has been imported from exactly the same quarry from Jaipur that provided for Taj – and is of the same supreme quality. “You can feel it, there isn’t such marble anywhere else in Pakistan”, you are excessively told. So much so that you actually have to feel it, and nod your head aggressively in agreement; all the while being absolutely clueless about judging the marble’s quality.
The complex is quite big and compelling. The main building of the palace is especially worth the visit. There’s a Royal Suite, where the king used to stay – and which now doesn’t boast of much royalty since most of the original furniture has been removed and replaced. However, the fans, switchboards and cupboards are still the original and impress you with their quality (the fans still work, for starters!) Also in the same building is the Conference room where the king used to hold meetings, the geometrically placed windows allowing him exquisite views of the lawn and streams. The hotel is now present behind these rooms. Leaving this building and mounting the outdoors staircase leads you to the other parts of the palace. Some of the rooms were added later, to accommodate the visitors; but the king had made a separate complex for his two wives – ensuring that both get just about the same number of rooms, servants, servant quarters and share of the lawn!
The marble has been imported from the same Jaipur quarry that provided for Taj Mahal
The king is said to have been very fond of nature, and that doesn’t come as a surprise given the huge number of plantation, along with water fountains, that you see in the place. The love for nature and aesthetics has been blended gracefully to give the place its charm. The palace also used to have a mini-zoo, but it doesn’t exist anymore. Constructional sense is another quality the king used to have enough of. He is said to have laid special attention to the ceiling, aluminium being one of its strong contents. However, the building very conveniently confides in you its tragedy, and you cannot help feeling that this is only a shell of what it used to be in its time and age. The floods of 2010-2011 are said to have caused a lot of damage to White Palace. Other than that, the building could be a lot better maintained – the fountains don’t work, the plantation at places has gone awry, the hotel could have a much better menu, the lighting and ambiance could use a tune-up and water drainage be put to order. It was raining when we went, and the lawn was more of a pond. But then, given Swat’s recent disastrous history, one can very well imagine the reasons. And for all its worth, the White Palace still enchants you with its glory. A shop has also been added just in opposition to the main building and you can fill your bags and empty your wallets with Swat’s local delicacies and clothes.
Moreover, the importance of White Palace also lies in the fact that a path just adjacent to it leads to the summit of Mount Illam, via a four hour long trek. Up until 1947, there used to be an annual pilgrimage to this site, since Hindus and Buddhists both consider it sacred. The folklore believes that Lord Ram spent some of his years in exile at this mountain, and the Buddhists hold that Buddha gave up his life at this summit in one of his reincarnations. Alexander the Great also made the trip once, for reasons too incomprehensible for most of us. While we were too ill-informed and drenched to make the trip, this should be on everyone’s list who’s planning on paying a visit. The trek run besides a stream and offers you some raw beauty.
Up until 1947 there used to be an annual pilgrimage to the site
Nestled between streams and mountains, soaked in all shades of green and caressed by pure air that’s only typical of heights, the White Palace in Swat is an abode fitting a king. And while you sit in the King’s Lobby (which is the veranda) and absorb the moment, you can very well feel the ecstasy that would’ve run through the Wali’s veins. A number of important people have paid visit to this palace, most notably Queen Elizabeth who stayed in the Royal Suite for three days in 1961. Others include Field Marshall Ayub Khan, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, Justice Raana Bhagwan Das, an Indian Commissioner D K Mehta, Ex Chief of Naval Staff Abdul Aziz Mirza, Mustansar Husain Tarar and so on.
And when you pay a visit to the palace, history may not remember you with the zeal it reserves for these people, but you will remember it for a long time to come. And that is all that counts!