Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Where his Highness tarried

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Jajja Abbasian is the kind of place one would scarcely ever notice. To begin with, it lies on a road and a defunct branch railway line that very nearly goes nowhere. I say very nearly because it lies fifteen kilometres northwest of Khanpur (south Punjab) on the highroad to Chachran. I hadn’t noticed the place when I passed through to Chachran some twelve years ago on my way to ride the Indus Queen across the Sindhu to Mithankot. I would not have known of it had my friend Omar Sheikh, the good police officer currently keeping the law in Bahawalnagar, had not told me of it.

There was in Jajja, Omar said, a mansion built by Nawab Sir Sadiq Mohammed Khan Abbasi V. As well as that, Jajja was also the birthplace of Birbal, one of the Nine Jewels that adorned the court of Akbar the Great. He wasn’t certain however whether or not there was a 16th century monument to commemorate the coming into this world of that remarkable Birbal. This he left to me to ascertain. And so it was that my friend Raheal Siddiqui packed me off from Bahawalpur. I picked up a guide in Khanpur and we drove out along the old railway line to Chachran.

Back in 1994 when the government was busy succumbing to the pressure of the transport mafia (that should rightfully be tried for high treason and hanged) and axing line after railway line, I hadn’t felt very confident for the survival of the thirty-kilometre branch line from Khanpur to Chachran. Not long after that trip, I heard that service on this line was suspended for being financially unfeasible.

And now, my guide Khalid pointed out, even the rails had already been uprooted. The raised line bed sans rails was still there, but in time this will be levelled by local farmers and incorporated into their lands. As the line was phased out, so too will be the people who carry the memory of the strident whistle and the woof-chug of the old steam engines that worked the service until its demise some years ago. But the line will not pass into history; it will simply be forgotten. That is our way.

We drove past a row of houses and stopped by a dusty single storeyed brick building. The place certainly did not become a Nawab, but Khalid said this was it. I was disappointed. Nawab Sadiq Mohammed had extravagant and fine taste – as anyone who has seen the Bahawalpur palace built by him will know. So how could he have ordered such a drab piece of architecture for his own use, I thought. A couple of men hanging around came up to chat and told us we were looking at the followers’ quarters. The main building, said one of them who was an Abbasi family retainer, was past the wide-arched entrance to one side.

We followed the man into the entrance. There it stood forlorn and forgotten: the stopover place where the Nawab tarried when he travelled from Dera Nawab near Bahawalpur to the shrine of Ghulam Farid, his religious mentor, at Mithankot on the far bank of the Sindhu. Khalid said he had heard that the place also served as a hunting lodge for in the 1920s this was largely riverine forest. We went in through the arched portal wide enough to permit a light lorry to pass and I was immediately captivated by the spreading banyan smack in front of the façade.
‘This was planted by the Nawab himself when he built this palace,’ said the retainer. I told him he didn’t know the first thing about banyan trees: one this size would be no less than a few hundred years old. It could not have been planted in the 1920s when this building was raised. Once again I had not endeared myself to a helpful stranger.

The semi-circular central veranda was joined by a wing that swept in a graceful arc from the gateway. This side wing contained the guest rooms reserved for the nobility that accompanied the Nawab on his hunting expeditions. Years of a lack of maintenance had caused most of the plaster on the entire building to peel off exposing the brickwork. There were no frescoes or stucco ornaments on the walls, but immediately in front of the main door in the circular veranda the floor was embellished with a large black-and-white device showing blossoming irises amid sinuous branches. This was a Nawab’s residence, after all. Built of brick and mortar, the building typified the colonial vernacular architecture that became popular with the upper classes of undivided India from the latter decades of the 19th century.

The door was askew in its housing and the arch above it cracked. Though the plaster was peeling, the naked bricks had luckily not yet been attacked by salinity. With the retainer’s permission, I pushed in the unlocked door and entered the dusty audience hall. No echoes of past glory rang in my ears, only my footfalls bounced off the bare, dusty and cobweb-draped walls whose whitewash seemed ready to shine with a mere dusting The high ceiling above was made of timber planking, its border decorated with a catenation formed by a series of two-lobed devices in green and orange. The devices were either kidney-shaped or resembling an irregular figure of eight. The chain was interspersed with circular motifs. Good bit of work, I thought.

On the other side of the audience hall was another adjoining building. The retainer said this too was a guest house, but clearly it would have been used by the Nawab himself for it was a pucca Raj façade with colonnades, Corinthian capitals and arches. The steps leading into the veranda were framed by balustrades on either side. These latter ended in a delightful leaf ornament that formed a serpent head which, in turn, was shaded by an acanthus leaf. Lovely it must have been to behold when they still kept it in good fettle.

But that was long years ago before the State of Bahawalpur was amalgamated by the Government of Pakistan. Abbas Abbasi, the last acknowledged Nawab, struggled to keep the family together and when he died, disunity among the many heirs soon frittered away past glory. While they bickered over the division of spoils from the richer properties, the Jajja palace seems not to have escaped their malefic attentions either: local lore has some vague stories concerning the breaking in and plundering of the household effects by some members of the family. Surely when the family was not looking, others would have helped themselves as well.

The front door of the Nawab’s quarter was padlocked, but the retainer led us around to entry from a side door. Early morning light slanting in from high ventilators gave the empty corridor an eerie look and I asked the man if there were stories of troubled spirits that roamed here on dark nights in quest for peace that they may yet never find. But there were none, said the retainer whose name I never learned. No ghost stories, no yarns of treachery and murder or dancing girls who were wronged by the mighty of the land and who thereafter disappeared mysteriously. Nothing. Nary a tale to be gleaned. Only the plunder of family heirlooms by members of the family. What a shame, I thought.

The corridor that had a splendid tiled floor was lined with rooms on either side. These were either bare or at best were left with a webbing tape bedstead or a rickety chair. Folks really had been hard at work here for even the wash basins and commodes were ripped out of the toilets. A room connecting this part of the building with the large audience hall contained some items of furniture that were left over after the plunder. Here was an assortment of chairs, a couple of tape beds, a dressing table without a mirror, dining table and what we called a doli – the airing cupboard with wire meshing. There was also a wash basin.

I asked the retainer how this little bit was saved and he shrugged his shoulders in a way that said he’d rather not talk. I would give anything to know what happened when they were removing this stuff. Could it be that as one part of the family was at work, another arrived to throw a spanner in the works? Each party accusing the other of theft, nobody was able to make off with this little bit that remained and by common agreement it had to be left here to be auctioned at some time.

Khalid had earlier told me that Nawab Sadiq Mohammed Khan always came by his special railway coach which was parked at the station. Leaving the palace we drove the half kilometre to yet another forlorn building. The dado stone on the façade read ‘Jajja Abbasian’ distant 17.75 kilometres (from Khanpur). The year of construction was 1908. That was long before our blighted Forest Department had discovered the accursed eucalyptus (or the several species of ornamental rubbish and the date palm that we now know as trees) and good people who raised public buildings planted the magnificent pipal. And so both flanks of the station were shaded by tall pipal where koels sang even on a dry beginning-to-get-hot April morning.

We returned to the town centre to ask about Birbal’s birthplace. Word was that he was born here but there was no monument to mark the spot of that event. Nor too was there any other building dating back to the Mughal era. Abu’l Fazl, another one of the Nine Jewels, who wrote that famously interesting Ain e Akbari was not very fond of Birbal (as the Ain tells us) and he would not have made mention of where his rival was born. There was consequently no way of knowing if this bit of lore sticking in the collective memory of Jajja Abbasian and refusing to go away was true or otherwise. I suspect, one day a casual re-reading of the Ain might just solve this puzzle either way.

That we shall see. And if it did happen, it will go to show that if you possess the right stuff, you can rise to positions of excellence even if you were born in a place as utterly backward as Jajja.

Postscript. Jajja is a Jat sub-caste which very likely gives its name to the place. The Abbasian was appended in the last hundred odd years when this part of the country was included in the Abbasi fiefdom.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 18 January 2016 at 10:37, Anonymous Nadeem Akram said...

Great find!

At 19 January 2016 at 09:06, Blogger Arslankataya said...


At 19 January 2016 at 10:19, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

I visited this place way back in 1978 while serving in the area. Neglected but beautiful place.

At 21 January 2016 at 12:12, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Nadeem and Arsalan. Athar sahib, you are a well-travelled guru.


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