Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

When art cost two annas a day

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Raja Afrasiab, the Sarangal Gakkhar, lives in a lovely old haveli of the classical design in village Hur Do Chir. I had imagined this meant there were two neighbouring villages where chir trees grew, but I was wrong: there wasn’t a pine tree in sight and there was only one village of this name. Nor too did Afrasiab know the origin of the name. He told us, however, that the village was formerly called Soga Dutt, apparently after an early local influential man.

Salman Rashid

We had left the Mandra-Chakwal road at village Sahang and motored through undulating country to fetch up in the village and had found Afrasiab waiting. He told us his family had not one, but two havelis to show. The first one, itself rather austere, had a hugely beautiful carved door. Here were flowers so extravagant that they could only have emerged from an artist’s mind intertwined with vines of equally exaggerated style and beauty. Here were sets of pilasters growing out of pots that, according to Kamil Khan Mumtaz, the noted architectural historian, symbolised the treasure of Laxmi.

Salman Rashid
The jamb and the lintel were profuse with curvi-linear forms and the arch above the door was another abundance of similarly rich flowers and leaves. In the spandrels shone two sunflower-like designs and the outer rectangular panels were again filled in with more pilasters, geometrical patterns and phantasmagoric flowers and vines. One had grown to expect such artistry in Chiniot and Multan or other larger towns. Hardly in a place as remote as Hur Do Chir.

Remote today, the village, situated as it is amid ravines and broken ground, would have been all but inaccessible in 1926 when Zaildar Sultan Mahmood, Afrasiab’s grandfather, had undertaken to build this haveli. Timber for the door, so Afrasiab relates, came from the market in Jhelum town, carted across the Salt Range by camel. Azeem, the master whose celebrity spread wide as the greatest woodworker of the area, came from a neighbouring village and was hired at two annas per day. Such a master would surely have worked with a complement of helpers and this sum would have paid for the lot. For eight months the Azeem and his team laboured over the timbers before they could all be put together to make up the door.

Two annas per day translate into sixty per month or four rupees and twelve annas per month. Which in turn would mean thirty rupees in all for the eight months it took to complete this fantasy in wood. Other than that Afrasiab did not know how much the timber and its transportation from Jhelum had cost. Nor did he know the full cost of the haveli.

Done with the door he led us into the main room where Zaildar Mahmood would have entertained his guests. The walls were plain, but the roof was another festival of colour. Every inch of the massive rafters was painted over with elaborate designs not very different from what we saw on the door and the panels between the rafters were aglow with what appeared to be pearl. But of that I could not be sure. A frieze running around the top of the wall just below the roof was yet another riot of colour and design. One of these panels had been retouched at a later date, which clearly demonstrated that the earlier finesse had been replaced with gaudy crudity.

This beauty was now all but abandoned, but the other haveli was occupied by Afrasiab and his family. Begun in 1948 by his father Abdur Rauf, the building was completed two years later. This one too was endowed with an elaborately carved door. Though somewhat simpler, it was yet a sight to behold. Added to the pilasters, the curving vines, the fantasy of flowers and the geometric designs was a panel of leaves that went around the jamb and above the arch. These leaves, I imagined, symbolised the hooded serpent so common in temple architecture.

The haveli itself followed the classical plan with rooms around a central courtyard. Interestingly, the baithak where male visitors were entertained, was not in front, but to one side of the building. The ornate door was thus not laid in the façade, but on this side. Raja Afrasiab disclosed that he had received offers to sell the door, offers that he had rejected. I hope he continues to rebuff such offers in future as well.

An interesting footnote to this tale is the fate of mistri Azeem who crafted the more elaborate of the two doors. As time passed and people gave up spending money on such works of art, his family began shifting their craft to the bigger market at Rawalpindi. Today the descendents of that celebrated artisan run a successful furniture showroom there.

Raja Afrasiab did not know where the showroom was or under what name it went. But he said he could find out. If he does, there will surely be another story.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 9 July 2014 at 11:06, Anonymous Carol Yates Wilkerson said...

The wood for this door came across the Salt Range. I loved this article. The artisan didn't lose his skills, he just moved on to other ways to use them, and his family followed suit.

At 9 July 2014 at 16:13, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Is the structure still there sir?

At 9 July 2014 at 17:37, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Very much there, Nayyar. For all to see and admire.

At 9 July 2014 at 17:39, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

The Salt Range no longer has these fine craftsmen, Carol.


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My Books

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

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days