Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Palace of Fairies

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Sea Monsters and the Sun God is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

Among other Mughal buildings mentioned by S. M. Latif in his book on Lahore written a hundred years ago, there is one called Pari Mahal: ‘The Pari Mahal, or the “palace of fairies” is situated in the Shah Almi Gate quarters. It was founded by Nawab Ilmud Din, surnamed Wazir Khan, Minister of Shah Jehan, and was his private residence. He also held court here. It was furnished with magnificent halls, gardens, baths and other elegant buildings; but the three governors of Lahore, and, after them, Ranjit Singh, stripped it of its costly materials. The shops attached to the haveli, together with certain other buildings, still exist and are substantial works of architectural beauty.’

Latif does not say anymore and the ‘three governors,’ one can assume, were those who ruled over the city immediately following Wazir Khan. But the fact that the building was called Pari Mahal and that it was his ‘private residence’ implies explicitly enough that Wazir Khan housed his wife (or wives and concubines – the last if he kept them) in it. So when friend and fellow writer Sarwat Ali read out this passage to me, I resolved to see this 17th century building that had missed my notice thus far. Even before I set out for Shah Almi, I harboured little hope of re-discovering a grand Mughal relic. I knew there would be no more than a crumbling ruin rendered ungainly, almost ugly, by the growth upon it of cement concrete excrescences – as is the wont in our country.

Sarwat remembered seeing the address ‘Pari Mahal’ on certain businesses in Shah Almi, and so, we concluded, there must be something left of Wazir Khan’s seraglio. But he also reminded me of stories of the great fires that had raged through this quarter of the old city in August 1947. Indeed, Bapsi Sidhwa in her Ice-Candy Man mentions how the sky-scraping flames of Shah Almi could be seen from afar. There was thus also the possibility of this grand building having been burnt down during the partition riots.

As one enters Shah Almi, the large shopping centre set some thirty metres in the road to the right is known as Pari Mahal. The modern tradition of building in Pakistan lays down the unwritten law that all shopping malls must be as hideous as they can get, consequently Pari Mahal is an eyesore too. The unsightly building with cubicles on the ground floor serving as shops rises two floors above the narrow alley in a grey block of concrete. It has every look of impermanence, of having been hurriedly constructed to last only thirty odd years before it is pulled down to be replaced by an even uglier monster. Where beauty was once as essential to a building as functionability and durability, the only consideration now is monetary profit.

The signs above the shops all marked the place as Pari Mahal. Yes, said the man who claimed to have done business in the area since the early 1950s, there used to be a haveli at the site of the ugly building. It was called Pari Mahal because the arch above the main entrance featured a stucco fairy with spreading wings. Others said there was no fairy; only the building was so called because of the ‘fairies that lived within.’

Some remembered the protracted litigation that began as early as 1952 and only came to an end forty years later. Until then, said my informant, Pari Mahal was still standing. Then, with the case settled, the ‘rightful’ owners (read: 1947 refugees) quickly tore down the old edifice and raised the concrete eyesore. The man only remembered the exterior of boarded up windows and padlocked main entrance, for no one had entered the haveli since the commencement of court proceedings. He seemed surprised that anyone should have considered saving a ‘worthless old building’ that was anyway on the verge of collapse. It was news for him that a law deemed all buildings whether public or private older than seventy years protected. He was surprised that even the owner of such a property could not alter it, much less tear it down.

According to the account of local shopkeepers, Pari Mahal had stood until less than ten years ago (about 1989). Strangely, however, not one person could describe the building – save for the boarded windows. Some said it had a rich reddish-brown wash, others said it was washed yellow. No one was certain how many floors it had and its attached gardens as mentioned by Latif were completely forgotten.

Elderly men remembered the conflagration of 1947 when a ‘Syed of Bhati Gate’ led a mob of arsonists to this largely upper class Hindu and Sikh precinct. When they were finished, innumerable buildings had been burnt down, untold wealth plundered, even more destroyed and hundreds of lives lost. But nobody remembered if Pari Mahal had suffered from arson as well. Nobody remembered, too, who lived in it before and if it was ever inhabited after Independence. The only memory was of the boarded up exterior and the plaster fairy that may or may not have adorned the entrance.

The status of this once impressive building became more and more intriguing and so the quest for the answers led to the works of early travellers and writers. If anything, it was by a singular fluke of good fortune that I chanced upon a paper written by J. P. Vogel, an early 20th century historian. This paper deals with the deputation in the early years of the 18th century of a Dutch ambassador to the court of Shah Alam, the able king of the moribund Mughal Empire.

Jan Joshua Ketelaar, a businessman of good standing from Surat (Gujarat, India), was appointed ambassador to the Mughal court and arrived in Lahore in December 1711. Eager to impress the freshly arrived diplomat, the king inquired if the ambassador would be ‘inclined to see the Imperial pleasure-garden, situated outside the town of Lahore and named Salamar (sic), likewise the Palace Paerimahal standing inside the town.’ That the king placed Pari Mahal in the same class as the Shalimar Gardens to be showed off to visiting dignitaries implies that it must indeed have been an edifice of remarkable beauty and grandeur. The envoy visited both sites and having waxed eloquent on the Shalimar left a brief description of the haveli as well.

In Ketelaar’s account Pari Mahal was, ‘a fair edifice wherein in a large gallery the image of our Saviour surrounded by the Angels is carved very skilfully in alabaster.’ The rendering of Christ on the walls of the private residence of a devout Muslim is somewhat hard to understand, it is likely, therefore, that Ketelaar simply misunderstood the painting. Of course the possibility cannot be ruled out that Wazir Khan, connoisseur of the arts that he was, might have hired the services of a wandering European maestro to adorn his palace. In which case the artist would have created what was right and proper according to his own religious sensibilities. But one thing is certain: that there were in Pari Mahal paintings of fairies or angels that could have been the reason for the name. A reason and a name that persisted long after the building had crumbled.

Not finding anymore material, I returned to Latif. It then occurred to me that even a hundred years ago he spoke of the haveli in the past tense and that only the attached ‘shops together with certain other buildings’ still existed and were ‘substantial works of architectural beauty.’ Could it mean then that the main edifice of Pari Mahal had not weathered the treatment meted out by the three governors who succeeded Wazir Khan and by Ranjit Singh?

It seems, therefore, that Wazir Khan's mansion was no longer extant from sometimes in the latter part of the 19th century. The shops and the outhouses were probably what the mob might have tried to set alight in 1947. These same buildings became the subject of the lengthy litigation that lasted until the early 1990s. Surely these last surviving structures would not have been decorated with angels or fairies. The fairy that the men told me about was merely what is a part of the collective memory of the residents, something that they had heard mentioned by elders who in turn had heard of it from their elders. This was something they had never actually seen, something that only their minds had conjured up.

As so it is that years after the original disappeared, the ugly block raised in place of the seraglio of Wazir Khan is still called Pari Mahal. Only because the exquisite beauty of the paintings in the interior of the long gone palace have been a part of the collective memory of the Shah Almi quarter of Lahore.

Odysseus Lahori two years ago: North Face of Chhogho Ri

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 9 March 2015 at 13:24, Anonymous meher said...

Sir.....there s a Pari Mahal in Srinagar, Kashmir as well......views are breathtaking form there as its situated in the Zabarwan Mts overlooking the city of Srinagar.
Just a thought that passed my mind when I read your article.

At 9 March 2015 at 21:04, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Meher, how very interesting. I wonder if they too have fairies painted on some panel.

At 10 March 2015 at 10:18, Anonymous meher said...

Sadly no Sir......maybe they were there in time forgotten.......believe it was once a Buddhist observatory......I will recheck when I visit next now that you have brought it up. thanx for your response Sir.

At 10 March 2015 at 12:14, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Meher.

At 22 March 2015 at 19:33, Blogger Mudassar mushtaq gill said...

Nice Read.


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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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