Special Reports

Qila of Mahmoodabad on World Monument Watch List

By Haider Abbas

Lucknow: There are some moments of relief and contentment too, for instance, in the otherwise stiff circumstances, since at least 2005, when Raja Amir Muhammed Sulieman Khan of Mahmoodabad, district Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, India, could finally regain the status as the rightful ‘owner’ to his own properties, once occupied by Custodian of Enemy Property (CEP) of Government of India (GOI) after about 35 years of litigation, which he had won from the Supreme Court (SC) of India. CEP Act is in force, since the India-Pakistan war of 1965.

Now, a small recap. On 21 September, 2001 the High Court, Mumbai ordered the ‘properties’ to be diverted in favour of Raja. The Union of India and CEP filed an appeal in SC which was decided on Oct 21, 2005, in favour of Raja, thus, confirming the diverting of properties. It also directed the Union of India and CEP to handover physical possession of all properties to Raja “within eight weeks”. This was followed by a Review-Petition by Union of India and CPE which was dismissed on Dec 16, 2005 by the SC. The (illegal) occupants, however, are still to hand over the possession which now depends on the cardinal question of whether they are pre- or post- 1965, depending on the valid tenancy papers, as being probed by a Commission headed by Justice Wadhwa -- constituted on orders of the SC. The hearing continues.

Raja, no doubt, is a bit relaxed but sometimes gets irked by the details dished out by the District Magistrate office, Lucknow, state capital of UP, which still categorise his properties under CEP! There are around 98 properties in and around Lucknow which belong to Raja and are still bracketed as ‘Enemy Property’. The value of some of them runs well into thousands of crores at today’s real estate value. It might be known that Sulieman’s father Amir Muhammed Ahmed Khan was the youngest treasurer of All India Muslim League and had played a pivotal role at the time of Partition and transferring areas to Pakistan out of the United Provinces of those days. Sulieman never shifted to Pakistan.

Sulieman has now regained the Butler Palace (after 2005), one of the many of his sprawling buildings, situated in the prime location of Lucknow. This huge palace remains unfinished as per its original plan, which is still available, but its vicinity has undergone drastic changes with small, crude apartments dotting the whole landscape! The palace’s gates have been shut-down, one even has been encroached by shanties! The issue for Butler Lake is still to be decided. Butler Palace was built in 1917 and is supposed to have had the first mechanised lift -- its shafts and cabin are still intact.

So, the Raja chose to organise a ‘moment for celebration’ inside Butler Palace to announce that the Qila of Mahmoodabad has been selected for inclusion into the 2010 World Monument Watch by World Monument Fund (www.wmf.org) - an organisation based in New York. The Qila is the first such monument from UP - which is itself a special sobriquet for the state. The other three from India are Chiktan Castle of Kargil, Dechen Namgyal Gonpa-Nyoma and Historic Civic Centre of Shimla. The Old City of Herat in Afghanistan along with Petroglyphs in the Diamer Basha Dam Area, Northern Areas and Shikarpoor Historic City Centre in Pakistan have also been selected. This provides ample proof of the enormity of our civilisational continuity in this region. Actually, the Raja had wanted Butler Palace to be listed but it did not qualify for the status.

The Raja was in his traditional best. He regaled the audience with his suave and magical charm when he recalled the cultural heritage associated with the Palace. Dr. Aseesh Srivastava, a Conservation Architect from the York University spoke of the commendable work being done by the World Monument Fund.

Aseesh found it a privilege that the ‘fort’ is the first site from UP to be listed. “There were thousands of applications but only 93 from 47 countries could qualify as per the strict selection standards. The World Monument Watch was launched in 1996. Every two years it invites international attention to cultural heritage sites which have been threatened by neglect, vandalism, conflict or disaster. The sites are observed for their selection by a panel of experts in archaeology, architecture, art history and preservation. Then it requests to WMF for assistance for select projects. “The buildings which have a historic and cultural past and coupled with a cultural presence too is our criteria. It is quite a tangible exercise,” informed Aseesh. He recalled that the Qila was a center of activity in the war of independence of 1857 as Begum Hazrat Mahal, wife of the last king of Avadh, Walid Ali Shah (1847-56), had once stationed herself inside the Qila while on her way to Nepal from Lucknow. She was on a retreat from British who had deposed the king.  

The kothi inside the Qila was completely destroyed by the British but was later rebuilt on the same original plinth by way of the use of technology prevalent then. Use of jack arches on girders, FPS brick wall, cast iron pipes complemented by older technologies like earthen tile roofing and lakhori brick walls. Besides, this Qila has all been replicated by features of architectural brilliance like ‘Jharaokas’ style balconies, intricate  stucco work, stencil cut lime print interiors, exquisite paintings, decorative parapets and cupolas, complimented well by a hall decorated with exclusive Zink paneling. The Qila, however, had to endure a major damage from an earth quake of 1932. “The second, of course, when it witnessed a huge theft in-between 1965-1967 along with structural damages. Fortunately the library with its rich treasure of books remained intact and which still caters to scholars of Arabic and Persian languages.” The Qila still resonates with the traditional form of Soz, Salam, Nauhas, Marsiyas - all hallmarks of Muharram.

Today the Qila stands endangered. It is 60 kms to the north of Lucknow and covers a huge complex of 2000 acres of land. This includes Kothi, Baradari, Mahalsara, Muhafiz Khana, Imambara and Bawarchi Khana. Kothi enjoys an iconic symbol inside it. This four-sided structure measures 6285 square meters with a built-up area and plinth-area of 2775 square meters. The whole building is connected to a religious structure called Baradari which is an Imambara - the central hall of all religious activities as major Muharram processions start from the same point. The site is well accessed by train as well as road.

“The living tradition of the Qila like the people’s activity during Muharram along with it being a reservoir of Colonial, Muslim and Rajasthani architecture made us to finally list it. The whole exercise took eight months for a decision. It is a mushtarak virsa (joint-heritage),” quipped Aseesh.

The Raja lamented the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan and obliteration of ancient architectural articles from the museums of Iraq. “It is extremely sad that we are ourselves bent upon killing living past.” He declared that he would do his best to make The Butler Palace one of the finest aspects of Lucknow, restoring its music, cuisine, calligraphy, perfume, embroidery chicken work etc in order to make it a living embodiment of what all Lucknow stands for.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 November 2009 on page no. 17

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