Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Renaissance in the Punjab, Mahal Nagar Mal, Minchinabad

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As early as the middle years of the 19th century, when British rulers had just started to raise their first edifices in northern India, the moneyed class of the Punjab had become deeply enamoured of this new building tradition. It is known that elite families who retained their own mistri would instruct him to visit upcoming cantonments to study new and upcoming buildings. The design would then be duplicated for the homes of the rich.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the sea change of acceptance of vernacular architecture as an integral part of colonial buildings had already occurred. By this time, the mistri had acquired his own elaborate vocabulary of European architectural elements. He had developed his skill to a degree that he was blending the vernacular with the European to delightful advantage. Scores of little-known private residences dating back to the early 20th century across the country are breathtaking examples of local craftsmanship.

Mahal Nagar Mal in the town of Minchinabad, Bahawalnagar District is a case in point. The Agarwal brothers, Nagar Mal and Bhajan Lal, were merchants of good standing with business interests across much of the country and even in distant markets abroad. When they built their mansion in the 1930s, they clearly meant to showcase the wealth and connoisseurship of the family.

The brothers were wealthy enough to hire a European architect or the very best among local experts. But they remain unknown along with the construction history of the priceless building that was possibly lost due to the turbulent events of 1947.

Behind the low outer wall and gateway, the house is hidden by a row of guest rooms. A high arched doorway leads into the first courtyard of the mansion with sets the pace for the aesthetic high waiting to be experienced. A short flight of stairs leads to a marble doorway inset with a timber door that leads into the inner courtyard. The entire courtyard is exquisitely carved with an abundance of grapevines and other floral and curvilinear motifs. On either side of the spandrel, Lord Krishna strikes his signature pose playing the flute.

Inside is the central courtyard, a tradition reaching back some nine millennia. Around this the rooms are arranged behind a veranda in a regular square. The arches of the openings to the veranda strictly follow the later Mughal design and are richly painted with floral and curvilinear designs. The top of the each arch carries a human likeness, perhaps of members of the Agarwal family. While the ground floor stringently follows the vernacular vocabulary, the upper floor is an Italian delight. Some 200 kilometres to the southwest, the Nawab of Bahawalpur had been and gone with his orgy of building his Italian showpieces. If the Agarwals employed a local mistri, he would surely have visited the capital and was well acquainted with Italians features.

The Agarwal brothers could only enjoy the mansion for just over a decade and a half as they left in the great transmigration of 1947, abandoning Mahal Nagar Mal which later came to be occupied by the Sukhera family. The Sukheras have since lived in it and kept the lore of the mansion alive.
Note: This story first appeared in Stones of Empire - Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL) book of days 2013. The complete book of days is here.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:58,


At 4 March 2015 at 12:47, Blogger Muhammad Imran Saeed said...

The craftsmanship, both, that of architectire and of diction make this piece a delight. Enjoyed reading on a bright sunny day at Lahore. On one of recent trips from Bahawalnagar to Lahore I detoured n skipped Sukemanki, little did I know that I also skipped a gem in Minchinabad!

At 8 March 2015 at 11:41, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

We could go there together one day, Imran.

At 19 May 2016 at 22:46, Blogger Unknown said...

Under Janey dety hai ager dekhna ho to

At 19 May 2016 at 22:46, Blogger Unknown said...

Under Janey datey hai


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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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Books of Days