Chiniot: The Vanishing Landmark

IMAGE_6_Wood and Plaster Interior
If you watch the [Umar Hayat] Palace from the high roof of an adjoining building, even in its present state it defies all notions of corrosion and decadence. It stands tall, proud and magnificent among rapidly rising concrete structures around it. ‘Houses are built to live in, not to look on,’ wrote Francis Bacon, but Umar Hayat Palace exists beyond the perception of modern wisdom. It was built to live in, but now just a spectacle to look on in its alluring existence. [Image above: Interior of the palace done in wood and plaster].



by Umair Ghani


Note for WoP readers: Chiniot also called Chaniot, has traditionally been a town of the super rich. I know certain families from Chiniot doing business in billions of dollars, in Faisalabad, in Karachi and abroad. They seldom visit this town; but one unique character in the personae of every Chinioti, the original dwellers of this town is their special love, a deep rooted attachment they have for the city.

Alas! for a mere longing of the city they have had their roots in , a city where they spent the beautiful days of their childhood, a feeling of déjà vu, there is much of a nostalgic lip service. Yet one hardly finds a semblance of some tangible evidence of contribution by sons of Chiniot to their mother town. The roads are full of dust and trash, gutters are spilling over the walkways, sanitation being centuries old, is in a pathetic condition. Last but not the least its marvel of architecture, the Umar Hayat Palace, which laments the indifference, the apathy of all Chiniot walas living in and outside of Chiniot toward their mother city and its historic landmark. [Nayyar] 


   “Ah! To build, to build!

That is the noblest of all the arts”


So said the English poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Seth Umar Hayat of Chiniot took the noblest of all the arts [probably in 1923] by ordering construction of Gulzar Manzil in his city; a grand wooden palace of exquisite design named after his beloved son Gulzar Mehmood.

Today this marvel of architecture stands in silent oblivion. Its glorious past wrapped in mystery and speculation, but what remains, still has enough power to spellbind the visitors in awe and wonder.

Sheikh Umar Hayat, a rich merchant whose family originally migrated to Chiniot from India had an unbound appreciation for this grand architecture. ‘Once visiting a village fair at Panda Haitian, Umar Hayat fell in love with a girl named Fatima and married her’, narrates Mushtaq Ahmed, librarian of the palace, in his most fascinating style of an accomplished story teller. ‘She bore him a son and a daughter [some historians / families in Chiniot say that Umar Hayat had no daughter].

Since the birth of a son brought much pride and happiness in his life, out of sheer affection Umar Hayat named him Gulzar, a rose garden. As Gulzar grew up, his father wished to attribute something grand to his son’s name. He asked finest artisans of his time to go to India and watch great architecture, come back and construct a palace preceding finest traditions of classic architecture’. 

IMAGE_2_1st 2nd floor view from North West
1st and 2nd Floor of the Palace as viewed from the Northwest

‘I don’t want it to be built in haste,’ said Umar Hayat, “I’ll pay you in full even if you place one brick in a day, but it should captivate the eyes of the beholder.’ Such was the passion and zest of the Seth for the construction of Gulzar Manzil. Another version of the story tells that Elahi Bakhsh, the renowned artisan of Chaniot offended Umar Hayat. ‘All the gold in the world can not match my art,’ said Elahi Bakhsh. Enraged by such lofty comment, Umar Hayat lavishly spent money on the construction of this grand architecture saying, ‘I will buy all the art and all artisans of the world with my wealth.’ 

Whatever the cause of initiation, the building indeed encapsulates finest display of wood, fresco, jali, glass, plaster and brick work. Some sources say that the supervision of the construction of Gulzar Manzil was assigned to Syed Hassan Shah who invited artisans [and carried out work for ten years]. Elahi Bakhsh and Rahim Bakhsh of Pirja family [renowned for wood work] did the wood carving, for which the palace is known. This splendor of craftsmanship took eight years for completion and Umar Hayat shifted there in 1935 with his family before it was fully constructed. Four hundred thousand rupees [a huge amount in those days] were spent which comes to thirty million rupees in present day estimation.

Originally it was a five storey building with a basement, but neglect and ravages of time diminished it to three stories only.

IMAGE_8_Wood Glass Work 1st Floor
The art of blending carved wood with intricate glass patterns (1st Floor)

The German philosopher and poet Goethe terms architecture as frozen music. The rhythm and flow of exotic craft and aesthetic delicacy of Gulzar Manzil sings symphonies of splendor and glory. Artisans created ineffaceable designs everywhere. Stucco work, frescos and finest carving and patterns made in wood in form of priceless jharokas, doors and window panes.

 ‘Umar Hayat did not live long to cherish the joy of his miraculous accomplishment,’ continued Mushtaq Ahmed as we stepped onto the creaky wooden stairway. ‘He died in 1935, the year he moved to the palace and an ominous fate struck Umar Hayat’s family since then. Mushtaq led me to a tiny bathroom where the tragic saga of Umar Hayat Palace actually began. In 1937, Gulzar Mehmood decided to get married. Records in the Palace library relate that wedding ceremony was carried out with unprecedented pomp and show. Elderly people of the city talked about it till many years in nostalgia and sorrow. ‘The ceremony was so grand that all the poor of Chiniot were invited along with the rich.’

 IMAGE_7_Wood Carving Enterance Ceiling
Artistic wood carving done on ceiling of the entrance (the jharoka)

Narrators reported there were announcements in the city that whoever saw the smoke rising from the cooking near tents, could join as a guest at the wedding feast. As the wedding fireworks subsided, the tragedy struck. The same night Gulzar Mehmood was found dead in his room next morning. Sources say that it happened because the gas from coals filled in the room and killed him. Suffocation was the cause of death, but mystery is not resolved till date. Young son’s death was too much to bear for a widowed mother and she also died shortly. Both mother and son were buried in the ground floor.

Gulzar’s widow left Chiniot and settled in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) where she remarried and died only a couple of years ago.

Ill omens were associated with the place and Umar Hayat’s relatives migrated from the magnificent palace considering it a mark of perpetual bad luck. Like a haunted house the Palace presented a pathetic picture of agonized splendor for many years. Gypsies moved in and ruined remaining part of the deserted residence. They began to tear down some of the finest plaques and frescos by subcontinent’s legendry artisans and sold it for petty sums. The looters stole window panes, doors, cupboards, decorative items and even marble slabs from the ground floor and most of the two upper stories. They even made attempts to alter the structure of many areas and installed a donkey-pump in the courtyard.

One time Deputy Commissioner of Jhang district, Muhammad Athar Tahir, acted in time. To save this marvel of architecture from total disaster, he declared the building as a ‘government property’ and with help from Dr Muhammad Amjad Saqib, Assistant Commissioner Chiniot, involved business community of the city to raise a fund for the renovation of this precious national asset. Backing up the vision of these two great benefactors of Chiniot, the people of the city generously contributed.

On 14th August, 1990 the Municipal Committee Chiniot inaugurated the renovation project. The first phase of this monumental project was completed in December 1990 and involved reconstruction and renovation of the ground floor. An estimated amount of Rupees ten hundred thousand were spent for this phase of work.

The second phase of restoration work began on devastated wood work, walls and ceilings of the upper floors. The Palace of was then officially renamed as Umar Hayat Library. With the passage of time initial fervor for refurbishment began to weaken and the caretakers became more and more detached in wake of their other official engagements. In 1997 the municipality cut down expenses of Umar Hayat Palace. After a prolonged controversy for the ownership of Umar Hayat Library, the Auqaf Deptt. took over its custody in 1998 and made a feeble attempt to restore and manage the dilapidated historical structure.

I watched Umar Hayat Palace from the high roof of an adjoining building. Even in its present state it defied all notions of corrosion and decadence. It stood tall, proud and magnificent among rapidly rising concrete structures around it. ‘Houses are built to live in, not to look on,’ wrote Francis Bacon, but Umar Hayat Palace exists beyond the perception of modern wisdom. It was built to live in, but now just a spectacle to look on in its alluring existence. 


You may also like: Chiniot: The City and its Mosque

Note: All photographs have been shot on location by the writer (Umair Ghani).



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8 replies to “Chiniot: The Vanishing Landmark

  1. Hi, Dear!
    Thanks for presenting us to the world, this “frozen music”. You have really done a great job and a great favour to the Chinioties by paying tribute to their craft.

    Congratulations and thanks.
    S M Saqib Chinioty

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