Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Palace on the Rock

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It is a handsome complex of stone-and-timber buildings virtually smothered with various fruit trees and grapevines. Here and there willows, their branches drooping narcissistically over water, are dwarfed by towering poplars where golden orioles sing and magpies engage in noisy arguments. Outside its boundary wall a tumultuous river crashes over rounded boulders on its way to pay tribute to the glacier-born stream that is here known as the Shigar. Not many miles to the southward, right outside Skardu the capital city of Baltistan in the Northern Areas, the Shigar River in turn yields its waters to the great Sindhu.

Outsiders simply know it as Shigar Fort, but for the people of Baltistan it is Fong Khar – Palace on the Rock. An apt enough name for the main wing of the building straddles a huge rock. Admittedly although the rock could not be moved, there being ample space, the palace could have been designed differently to avoid building around its protuberance. One wonders, therefore, why the builders incorporated the rocky mass into the design for it serves no apparent purpose other than giving the place its name.

Legend has it, and it is little better than legend for the history of Baltistan is at best amorphous, that Hasan Khan, 20th in the line of Amacha rulers of Shigar, built the Palace on the Rock. Having lost his kingdom to the Raja of Skardu, Hasan Khan had fled into exile at the court of Shah Jehan, the emperor of India. The exact date is not known but it was in the early 1630s that Mughal support enabled Hasan Khan to return to reclaim his kingdom. The Raja of Skardu was defeated in battle and imprisoned in Shigar where he eventually passed away.

To assert his ascendancy, Hasan Khan abandoned the old fortress perched high on a ridge and chose this spot right under its shadow for his new palace. Here he set to work the host of wood workers, stone masons and other artisans that had accompanied him from Mughal court to Baltistan. Not surprising then that the palace still retains several fine examples of Kashmiri and Punjabi wood carving along with other architectural features.

Since the time of its construction in the 1630s, Fong Khar remained the seat and residence of the Raja of Skardu. Hashmatullah Khan, a bureaucrat of the Raj who spent some two decades of his service in Kashmir, visited Fong Khar in the 1890s and found it in a reasonable state of upkeep. At that time it was still the residence of the Raja of Shigar. Photos from the 1930s, however, show a rundown and all but abandoned complex of buildings. As newer annexes were raised within and outside the Fong Khar complex, older parts of the palace were abandoned. As late as 2004, the part known as Garden House and built about 1950 served as residence for the Raja and his family.

A visitor to Fong Khar in the late 1980s would have despaired. Then this priceless exemplar of the building tradition of Baltistan had totally gone to pot. The roof of the top floor of the main wing was missing, as indeed were some other ones as well, walls had crumbled to heaps of masonry, timbers all around were rotting and the gardens were unkempt with cattle roaming about them. The whole seemed just about ready to bite the dust. But while government agencies entrusted with the upkeep and preservation of the country’s national heritage were deep in slumber, someone was awake.

Then the little known Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) was setting about renovating Baltit Fort in Karimabad, Hunza. By 1995 Baltit had been rescued from the very brink of oblivion. Having expanded its work to Baltistan, AKDN deemed Fong Khar a site worthy of preservation. When approached by the organisation, the Raja of Shigar, Mohammad Ali Shah Saba, did a commendable thing: he bequeathed the fort, his family’s private property, to the people of Baltistan. Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), a subsidy of AKDN, was entrusted with the task of its restoration.

Work began in 1999 and took some five years to complete at a cost of US$ 1.4 million. Fong Khar has now been brought back to life ‘following a careful strategy of adaptive re-use and restoration.’ Its main door was thrown open early in 2005 as portal to the finest hotel in all Baltistan. Ranging from the Heritage Royal Suite that can make you the poorer by $ 200 per night, the accommodation moves gradually down the scale to Garden Balcony Rooms for an affordable $ 60 per night. In all there are twenty rooms in the various categories.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:30,


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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

Books at Sang-e-Meel

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