Forlorn and abandoned amid mango and citrus orchards, mehal (palace), as the locals call it, sits in an open dusty plain. This is the country of the Hiraj sub-clan of the Sials who left their native Jhang district to the northeast to settle here some two hundred years ago. The name of the village that this small group established to stake out its claim, gives away a sense of insecurity of those long ago times: they called their habitation Chowki Hiraj.
Some twenty kilometres north of Kabirwala (Khanewal district) and a mere kilometre from the Ravi River, the chowki, or defensive post, would have been a need of the time: the Sikhs under Maharaja Ranjit Singh were coming into their own and raiding the land in order to assert their dominance. Not long afterwards, their influence was to reach this area as well. Remnants of that old fortified chowki stand to this day together with its surrounding mud-brick wall. It is today home to the servants of the Hiraj family.
Over the years the family grew in wealth and status and by the beginning of the 20th century was politically rather well placed. The early decades saw the Hiraj family of Kabirwala being led by Sardar Wali Mohammed, a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) of India, who received the title of Khan Bahadur for services rendered to the British crown. It was he who commissioned the building of this handsome building.
Though the family has no record to show, local lore recounts how the Khan Bahadur received word that the governor of Punjab, the Laat Saab (Lord Sahib), sent word of his desire to visit the area. Now, in those days when roads were scarce and time had a different quality, such programmes were sent a couple of years in advance. Consequently, the Khan Bahadur had sufficient time to raise an edifice that would suit the office of the provincial governor.
The exact period of construction was not known because of a lack of documents. Sardar Ahmed Yar Hiraj, the current custodian of mehal, great-grandson of the Khan Bahadur, recounts the various traditions that placed its construction from the early 1910s until sometime about twenty years later. Tradition also recounts that the building, rather like Sher Shah Suri’s Rohtas Fort, never fully served the purpose it was built for. As the governor, having left the train at Khanewal, was being driven by buggy the nearly forty kilometres to Chowki Hiraj, he was confounded by the men who lined the road all the way from the station to the village. Uniformed in immaculate white dress with red cummerbunds wherein gleamed well-handled swords, they seemed a very proper army.
The man panicked. He was not sufficiently well protected and with memories of the mutiny of 1857 still not very stale, he refused to stay overnight. It is not recorded how his Lordship reacted when told (for told he surely must have been) that the guesthouse had especially been constructed for this visit. One wonders if the Khan Bahadur was commended for his foresight or if his Lordship was too flustered to go into that formality.
Done with dinner, the governor insisted on being driven back to Khanewal. His bidding had to be done. But the worthy Khan Bahadur Wali Mohammed Hiraj had stocked up on a vast amount of ghee for the meals planned for the governor and his entourage. There being no other use for it now, every single one of the torches that lit the forty-kilometre long route back to Khanewal was fuelled by real ghee! There could scarcely have been a better expression of allegiance to the crown.
During the lifetime of the Khan Bahadur (died 1960), mehal occasionally served as a guest room for important visitors. But for the past half-century or so, with the family living permanently at Khanewal, mehal has been virtually neglected. The floods of 1973 sent water lapping through the building up to a height of three quarters of a metre. From then on, the building was abandoned. Decay had set in when young Ahmed Yar undertook to renovate it in 1994. Strangely enough, without any training or external input, Ahmed Yar preserved the building as original, both in terms of shape as well as materials. Only, some bits of rotten roofing timbers had to be discarded and being unable to figure out the mortar used by the original builder, he relied on modern cement in the more badly damaged parts.
As the ceiling of the main hall was dismantled the main timber – a hefty trunk of teak, was found to bear a signature and a date: Mistri Allah Buksh, 1926. Since this was the ceiling that would have been finished last of all Ahmed Yar concluded that 1926 was the year of completion of the building. Conscious that disuse will hasten the demise of the building Ahmed Yar hopes to make mehal liveable for use on weekends and other holidays.
Kamil Khan Mumtaz, the noted architectural historian, says this, like others of its kind, is an important building in that it is a significant historic document. It is by studying such construction that we understand the building trends of that time. It is a window into the social attitudes, life style, and relationships between the different sections of the society. These buildings are evidence of the dominance of the British and the allegiance that our upper class offered them. As such, they are a part of the history of Punjab, he says. That it is a hybrid makes it all the more important for it records the relationship between the ruler and the ruled.
Odysseus Lahori one year ago: The Silk Road
Labels: Heritage, Punjab
posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,
At December 27, 2014 at 9:54 PM,
Iftekhar Khokhar said...
At December 28, 2014 at 2:42 AM,
Again the year is 1926.....Salman Sb...if u recall the havaili we covered in the area behind Mandra, Tehsil Gujjar Khan with a grand roof-high entrance wooden door, was also built in 1926....and a school at Hassola village near Union Council Town of Mulhal Mughlan, Distt Chakwal was also built around same period....it appears as if the bricks introduced by the Britishers were easily available in those days
..mainly used in setting up the Railways infrastructure ..!!!
At December 30, 2014 at 9:11 AM,
Salman Rashid said...
Very right, sir. I do remember our visits. The places you mention which we visited together are included somewhere on this blog.
At July 20, 2015 at 5:18 PM,
Tariq Amir said...
Mr Ahmad Yar seems to be a man who values the value of preserving our heritage. Otherwise I have seen some havelis totally abandoned by the owners and left to decay and destruction.
Salman sahib, you keep a wonderful blog and I envy you for seeing and knowing so many places. But please give exact location of these buildings. You can give the coordinates or simply insert a google map.