While most historical research work regarding Partition talks about the violence in Lahore, many are unaware that the city of Rawalpindi was equally affected by the horror and destruction that took place in the wake of Partition. Now, only the dilapidated Hindu and Sikh mansions hidden in Rawalpindi’s busiest bazaars give a glimpse into Rawalpindi’s vibrant multicultural history. One very vital example of this tragedy is the story of Sujan Singh Haveli, located in the congested streets of Bhabra Bazaar.
The haveli was built in 1893, by wealthy timber businessman Rai Bahadur Sardar Sujan Singh. Singh was loyal to the British, but was known to society as a man of enterprise and culture. He built the Odeon cinema house and a library for the Rawalpindi cantonment, and dedicated the entrance of Saddar Bazaar’s Massy Gate to Brig. Gen Massy.
Amongst his many gifts to the city, was Bagh Sardaraan (the garden of Sardaars), a lush garden with date palms and spires, servant quarters and a gurdwara. During the post-Partition violence, the Singh family left for India, never to return. Singh’s taste in architecture was both exquisite and tasteful, and one can still see his keen eye for design in other buildings he once owned.
This was an architectural marvel, spanning 24,000 sq. ft. (2230 sq. meters), with four stories connected via a grand staircase with wood and ivory embellishments, and a total of 45 rooms. The skillfully carved door opens to an entrance hall which leads into a large veranda.
Sujan Singh Haveli was initially used as a residential building for the Singh family, till they vacated the premises and settled in the cantonment. Their last residence in Rawalpindi now belongs to Fatima Jinnah Women’s University (FJWU). Rai Bahadur donated Haveli Sujan Singh to the state, to be used as residential headquarters for Sikh officers. The top two floors were most likely added later as lookout posts during the 20th Century, as they offered a panoramic view of the city.
The haveli was fashioned in typical Sikh architecture, with mixtures of Mughal and British motifs. It boasted elaborate carvings, airy verandas, and intricate diyar tree woodwork, often decorated with Central Asian designs, much like those found in Peshawar’s Sethi Mohalla.
The foundations were mainly timber and brick and embellished in iron imported from the United Kingdom. Tiles and furniture came from Victorian England, while Chinese silverware filled the rooms. Records say that the walls were covered with photos of Sujan Singh’s family and ancestors, who were said to be noblemen in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s courts.
Such a grand mansion could only be accompanied by stories of grandeur and extravagance. It is said that the compound had its own water supply, courtesy of an aqueduct that was connected to 30 lines, all leading to the house. According to records, the haveli glittered and sparkled as all the lamps and chandeliers were lit in the evenings. Some say they could hear live music, and smell the delicious food wafting through the air. Others saw exotic animals like tigers and peacocks roaming the halls, through haveli windows.
Much like many other heritage sites in Pakistan, the Sujan Singh Haveli has fallen to decay and neglect. Parts of the haveli are completely destroyed, with collapsed roofs and termite-ridden walls. The delicate woodwork and patterns have been looted and left to rot. Bagh Sardaraan was taken over by the mushrooming houses, which enveloped the once-dazzling mansion, forcing it to slumber. Some sources claim that Kashmiri refugees lived there till the building was vacated during the Zia-ul-Haq era.
In the recent past, the building served as a campus for FJWU, but was never fully used. As of 2015, the haveli administration belonged to the National College of Arts (NCA) Rawalpindi, to build a museum and field school for historic preservation. In 2019, the Punjab government had formally asked the district administration to begin preservation work on the building and the establishment of artistic spaces to pay tribute to Haveli Sujan Singh’s memory.
For many, Haveli Sujan Singh is a ghost looming in the background of Rawalpindi’s bustling business centre. And there are many such phantoms in the streets of old Rawalpindi, which sit in silence and evoke memories of their majestic past.
People continue to venture to these locations, out of curiosity and genuine concern. But what is needed is a commitment on a governmental level, to declare and pay attention to these decaying buildings as heritage sites.