Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Clean Break - Governor’s House, Peshawar

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The final battle that undid the Punjabi empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was fought between the Sikhs and the British at Chillianwala in January 1849. The Punjab that was thus annexed by the East India Company at that time included the territories that we today know as Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa.

The East India Company moved in swiftly to establish its hold on the new territories and cities such as Mardan, Kohat and Bannu became headquarters from where the arm of governance stretched out to outlying areas. Peshawar, that had through the long and creative passage of time always been the principal city on the frontier, retained its position as the capital for the new rulers of the land.

In 1849, the new masters laid out plans for a cantonment in Peshawar in an area of orchards and gardens some four kilometres to the southwest of the bustle of the walled city of Peshawar. Most of the buildings that survive to our time did not come up for another decade and a half. But one building that dates back to the early 1850s and still survives was the Deputy Commissioner’s residence.

Situated on a low hillock that most likely conceals the remains of an ancient township, the building is a clean break from the traditional fortified residence of tribal elders just outside the cantonment limits. For visiting Pathan dignitaries, the exposed veranda and the absence of crenellations or loopholes along the parapet or the well-placed defensive tower would have been either madness or some hidden strength they failed to recognise. Howsoever they looked at it the house remained unchanged through those uncertain years.

No building records seem to survive. What is known, though, is that the house served as residence to Colonel Herbert Edwardes, Commissioner Peshawar, from 1853 to 1858. In the turbulent months leading up to the Indian Mutiny, also called the First War of Independence, Edwardes and his Deputy Commissioner John Nicholson shared the roof before the latter marched out in May 1857 to play his part in quelling the trouble.

With the end of the bloody events of that fateful year, the East India Company ceded control of the subcontinent to the British government and the house on the hill in Peshawar cantonment became the official residence of the deputy commissioner. In 1880, the building underwent some renovation and reconstruction work. It can be assumed that the pediment that crowns the front and the pillared portico were both added at this time. That is how the earliest known photograph dating to the 1920s shows the house.

In 1902, the part of Punjab west of the Indus River was detached to form the North West Frontier Province and the deputy commissioner’s residence passed on into the use of the divisional commissioner, Peshawar. That is how it remained until 1932. That year, the house was upgraded to become the residence of the provincial governor. The status remained unchanged after independence, except for the period between 1955 and 1970, when the provinces were amalgamated under ‘One Unit’.

Raj officials were fastidious about commensuration of housing with the occupant’s status. Built, as it was, for the deputy commissioner and appropriated for the governor nearing the tail end of the Raj, the house on the hill was of rather modest proportions for the new resident. With the end of empire a mere decade and a half away, the administrators of the Raj may have sensed the future and therefore no additions to improve the building or to add to it were undertaken.

But years later, in order to suit local sensibilities of grandeur and status, additions were grafted upon the original building. In 1974, the ‘Presidential Block’ was added to the left or north side of the building. Again, in 2007 - 2008, a similar block balanced out the opposite side. Thankfully, the best architects were called on on both occasions and the additions cleanly blend with the original construction.

This was just as well, for even though the Governor’s House in Peshawar is modest in comparison with similar structures in other provinces, it is, but for the church in the cantonment, the oldest government building in Pakistan still in use.

Note: This story first appeared in Stones of Empire - Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL) book of days 2013.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 19:22,


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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