Sunday, July 29, 2012

Haveli Soojan Singh— A Crumbling Heritage of Rawalpindi

Haveli Soojan Singh, Bhabra Bazaar, Rawalpindi
Text and Photography by: Shiraz Hassan

This is the voice of Rawalpindi – a city which has a lot to tell about its history and heritage— but only to those who commit themselves to the listening to the tales of this old city.

Recently my dear friend Osama Motiwala visited Islamabad/Rawalpindi. Like many Karachiites he had also heard of ‘boredom’ of the twin cities. So, instead of spending time in the lavish restaurants in Islamabad I decided to show him the real face of the city and not its facades - the old, but glamorous and sensational view of the city. We roamed around the different bazaars and streets of the old city of Rawalpindi. Thus started and continued our journey!

Wandering through the narrow streets of old city one could not ignore the amazing architecture of the pre-partition era - the magnificent buildings, beautiful wooden doors, the Chobaraas and Jharokhas. Just imagine life here some 100 years ago when these areas were best known for the people who lived here! Gurdwara, Temple and Mosque, all in one lane, now that’s what we call pluralism! But then, Partition wreaked havoc. What happened at the time of partition is a heart wrenching, sad history. Today the narrow streets of the city force us to revisit history. They tell us a sorry tale of being neglected and in ruins but still holding itself - strong.

It is a glaring fact the old heritage and architecture of the city are in complete shatters today. Among the overcrowded and narrow streets of Bhabra Bazaar area of Rawalpindi there lies a historic landmark. One of the most magnificent architectures of its time, Haveli Rai Bahadur Soojan Singh. But…Alas! the dilapidated condition of the haveli shows the gloomy picture of heritage crumbling right in front of our eyes and our negligence towards preserving history and its landmarks.

Haveli Soojan Singh was built by Rai Bahadur Soojan Singh in 1893 as a residence for his family. He was a distinguished personality of his era, a wealthy business man in Rawalpindi who had a flourishing timber business. He had a unique sense of architecture and design. But this house was not just another Haveli. It was a living museum – in a class of its own. The Haveli was deliberately decorated with pictures of Rai Bahadur’s family, antiques, Victorian furniture and a milieu of silver and gold-ware decorated its walls.

The four storied building is divided into two parts, either side of the street and the roof connected through a bridge supported by iron mudguards/railings and decoratively covered with wood.

The wooden artwork on the roof, floors and windows is just marvelous.

The covered area of the haveli was 24,000 sq.ft (2,230 sq. meters) spread over four stories comprising of 45 rooms lit on evenings by huge lamps and chandeliers.

According to historians, the haveli glowed and sparkled like gold in the evenings when all these lamps and chandeliers were lit in all its massive rooms spread over such a huge area.

Historians also say that it was almost like a royal palace with a majestic throne made of gold and bedrooms furnished with ivory furniture. In the courtyards tiptoed peacocks and a tiger strolled through its corridors. Live music filled the haveli in the evenings. The haveli had its own water supply system with a water-well connected to 30 lines.

Ms Shehla Shams, a student of Fatima Jinnah Women University, writes in her thesis on the Haveli:

 The Soojjan Singh Haveli was initially built as a residence for the Rai Bahadur’s family but then it was given to the Sikh generals to be used as a residential headquarters. It is a two-storied building with two viewing decks on the third and fourth floors that were probably built as lookout posts by Sikh soldiers in the 19th century.

Made from brick and timber, the Haveli reflects traditional building styles of the Sikhs of that era. The timber used was local and must have been easily procured since the Singh family had a flourishing timber business. The iron used in the pillars and embellishments of the doorways was imported from UK.

One thing that stands out about this building is that the staircase remains the same from the ground floor up to the fourth floor. The embellishments of the Haveli borrow a lot from Central Asian and European architectures. One finds intricately carved wooden false ceilings on the first floor. The pattern on the panels is clearly Central Asian and follows the same patterns as the Sethi Mohallas in Peshawar.

Over the years since partition of the Indian Subcontinent it has housed refugees from Kashmir until General Zia-ul-Haq had it vacated; handing it over to nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan to house a science college for girls but that project for some reasons did not see the light of the day.

Later the former Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed decided to turn it into a campus of the Fatima Jinnah Women’s University. However this plan too could not materialize due to its present overcrowded location in a busy commercial area."

Now, the government is mulling over an idea of starting a School of Cultures, Heritage, Architecture and Designs for girls. This project too may be shelved as there are no funds available for it.

The splendid haveli of Rai Bahadur Soojan Singh is in utter shambles these days due to lack of proper maintenance. One part of the haveli is completely damaged. Several parts of the roof have collapse and other parts are also fragmented. The majestic wood-work over the doors and windows are now being eaten away by termites and seepage through the walls has made the whole structure of the building weak raising fears that it could fall apart any day.

The grand rooms and halls which were once bright and echoed of gossips, music and laughter now lie vacant wearing a ghostly shroud. The haveli requires extensive renovation efforts to restore it to its original glory. Today, in place of the dazzling structure stands a haunted bungalow. One can sense the grandeur of its beauty in spite of the skeleton that it is today as through the passage of time, it has been robbed and looted of its shimmering ornaments.

However, it is obvious that among all the hue and cries raised by politics one cannot expect that Haveli Soojan Singh to really ever return to its glorious past. It is as if we are knowingly sending it on its way to a complete oblivion, a total wipe-out from the landscape of our collective memories.

With the current situation of the country where politicians have other, more important priorities, will the dying haveli ever be restored to its youthful charm?

I don’t think so. Nothing more heart-wrenching and frustrating than to see a living witness to history and our own heritage crumbling to dust and we are unable to do anything at all!

Haveli Soojan Singh, a view from outside

Main door at right side

Above, the bridge connecting both parts of haveli

Chaubara [Balcony]

Sign Board, Just a sign board.


From stairs

3rd and 4th floor

The iron pillers. Made in Glascow, UK.

Roof top
Windows, Rooms and all

That tells us the complete story 

The Pavilion 

Balcony and Pavilion

Queen Victoria? Still hanging here.

The marvelous wood work at ceiling 

view from 1st floor

The Main Door at Left side.