For whom the bell tolls
The 16th day of April in 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.
Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have a few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-Fi communications, I hope you will like them.
On its way out from Multan, the train has multiple options but the invitation from Bahawalpur, is the most tempting. Set in the neighborhood of centuries old Derawar, this state came into being in the first few years of 19th century. Initially, it was the scene of Afghan Durranis and Sindhi Kalhoras who fought for their rule but when Bano Abbas entered the conflict, the dusty days were over.
When Nawab Bahawal Khan ascended the throne, there was nothing on the other side of Sutlej. After few months, the Rajputs of Jaisalmeer attacked the Derawar Fort and conquered it, a victory that upset Bahawal Khan. As soon as the ruler of Multan granted him the estate of Adam Wahn, Nawab laid the foundations of the new city and called it Bahawalpur.
As the state prospered, the neighboring Multan was conquered by Ranjit Singh. The rulers of Bahawalpur did not approve of Sikh rule; hence some of the grievances between Lahore and South Punjab can conveniently be traced back to those days. After a few years, the Sikh empire started fading away and lost Multan to the British. Nawab, at that time, did not forget to send in his army to support the British campaign, an effort which was appreciated in every formal durbar for almost a century.
From its initial years, the British saw Bahawalpur as a “strategic ally”. The two signed the treaty of 1833, an agreement that kick-started a new era of development in Bahawalpur. Every Bahawal worked hard than his predecessor Sadiq and every Sadiq set a promising goal for an upcoming Bahawal.
The 20th century brought along the nomination of Nawab Sadiq Khan the fifth, who is considered to be the greatest reformer in the lineage of the Nawabs. It was under his leadership that the calm Bahawalpur was converted into a modern city that could compete with any capital. From stadium to library, and hospital to cinema, Nawab Sadiq made sure that Bahawalpur was the first city in the deserted south to claim anything contemporary. The prosperous state was home to some of the most promising men of craft and had made its mark amongst the 562 princely states. Balancing the course of prosperity and contentment, it became a novel combination of humility and grandeur.
Famed for its palaces across India, Bahawalpur basked in the aura of royalty, yet a kind of mysticism remained a high point in the life of every ordinary resident. Besides the grand palaces like Noor Mehal and Durbar Mehal, mansions like Nishat Mehal, Gulzar Mehal and Farrukh Mehal were equally artistic.
Frisking through all things majestic can be done with the exception of Noor Mehal, a marvel of architecture and emotions that represented a royal love.
The palace was commissioned by Nawab Subah Sadiq Khan the fourth. This Shah Jehan of Abbassids gathered all the best craftsmen for the purpose and put no restraint on resources. Heenan, the European architect of the Palace gave it the appearance of a chateau, but the arches and columns helped established its oriental residents. After the basic drawings were done, the map of the city along with a few coins were buried in the ground as a good omen and the foundation stone was laid. Chandeliers and furnishings were selected from across Europe, but because luck and happiness did not qualify as a merchandise, they could not be procured, something that was to be greatly missed in the days to come. Upon completion, the queen went around surveying her royal home. As she opened a bedroom window, her sight locked on the neighboring graveyard as the absurdity of life dawned on her.
The lady refused to live in the palace even for a single day and after one hundred years of solitude; it finally ended up becoming a club. The recent renovations by the army has helped the palace reclaim its magnificence. When the sun sets, Noor Mehal dons its true colors, only that the places which had the sole prerogative of royal solace are now venues of public joy.
A few ancient gates remind the city of its past associations. Of those reminisces, Farid Gate, Derawar Gate and Shikar Puri Gate can be traced but the others have lost their existence to time. Bahawalpur also carries one or two signatures of almost all the Nawabs and the pelican is one such reference. Loved because of its parental affinity, this bird was so close to Nawab’s heart that it stood on the royal coat of arms atop the inscription of the state motto “Sadiq Dost”. The myth explains that when other birds abandon their off-springs in times of hunger, the pelican feeds its chicks with its own flesh. In the fraternity of birds where the cukoo lays eggs in a crow`s nests and young eaglets are pushed out to fetch their own food, this sacrificial attitude is exceptional. Nawab took this tendency as the baseline of governance, where the ruler must sacrifice his own good for the public. And it is no wonder then that some pelicans can still be spotted at the Darbar Mehal.
Like many states of un-partitioned India, the people of Bahawalpur loved their ruler. A few weeks after the independence, Nawab Sadiq Khan Abbasi decided to annex with Pakistan and another princely state merged into another “ideological” state.
After shunting for quite a while on the railway track, there is finally a city where nothing has changed or … nothing much has changed. Despite the Abbasis, Nawabs and Amirs, Bahawalpur is the least royal in its nature. It is a place where life goes on, slowly and silently. This former capital of a princely state is neither awed by the future nor paralysed by the past and if this virtue could win cities, the sainthood; Bahawalpur was definitely on the qualifying list.
The misty mornings and the dusky evenings of Bahawalpur are the gifts from neighboring Cholistan, quite a view from the train window…