Seeking history, culture and spirituality in Chiniot and Faisalabad

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The journey started at 8am on a pleasant, spring day with a cold sandwich and a bottle of water. After travelling on the Motorway for almost one and half hour, conversing on topics from religion and Sufi-ism to harmless gossip, my travel companion and I exited the motorway at the Sahiawala Interchange and headed towards Chiniot.

The road, unsurprisingly, was in rather a bad shape but the scenery was green and lush, making the journey much more bearable. Our first stop, which was sudden, was at a potato field, where labourers, both men and women, were packing potatoes in sacks while a machine was pealing them out from the ground. The entire process was fascinating for us ‘city burgers’ and we stood on the side watching in awe as we discussed the rates of potatoes and conditions of farming with the labourers present on the field. As we bade goodbye, the labourers generously offered us a sack of potatoes which we had to sadly refuse as there was no space in the car.

45 minutes later, with the help of Google Maps, we reached the city of Chiniot. Much like any other small city in Pakistan, the roads of Chiniot were clogged with rickshaws and motorcycles and after a lot of navigation and getting lost in the streets, we finally arrived at our first destination: Umar Hayat Palace. Luckily, since it was a Friday, we got parking space for our car in the bazaar.

Umar Hayat’s grand Palace has a very interesting, and somewhat haunting, history. The five-story palace was built by one of the riches trader of Chiniot of that time, Umar Hayat, in 1930 at an estimated cost of Rs 0.4 million but soon after its completion, Hayat passed away.

According to the guide at the palace, Muhammad Aslam, his son-Gulzar Muhammad Hayat, decided to wrap up its business from Calcutta and moved to Chiniot.  He got married in 1937 which was as per Aslam was one of the biggest marriage ceremonies in the city. But on the very next day of his marriage, Raza died under mysterious circumstances, followed by the death of his mother. Both the deceased were buried inside the palace and since then the palace has been labelled as haunted. The Hayat-family soon left the place and it was handed over to servants to caretaking but it slowly turned into due to neglect. In the 1980s, the top two stories of palace fell.

After demolishment of the top stories, the then-Chiniot Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Tahir took notice of the incident and bought the palace as a government property and started renovations, slowly restoring its lost glory. Three stories of the palace have been restored and now house a public library.

The palace has beautifully-coloured glass-work on windows and doors along with neatly-decorated ‘embroidered walls’. Being a Chinioti monument, Hayat Palace has well-crafted woodwork throughout the building. The hand-work of expert craftsmen can be seen on doors, windows, and jharokas in the palace. The building, however, has a dim-feeling in it, which may be due to the story related to it, or because it has been ignored and neglected for a long period of time.

As our tour of the palace concluded, we bid the guide farewell and proceeded to look for the Shahi Masjid. The Shahi Masjid of Chiniot was built by Nawaz Saad Ullah Khan during the regime of Mughal Empire. The masjid is breathtakingly beautiful, graceful and comparatively simpler as compared to other Mughal era monuments. It was built with hewn-granite stone obtained from the hills near Chiniot. The building of the masjid is set on a single-storey podium with perimeter shops. The court of the masjid has an ablution pond and three domes over a gallery bordering the main prayer hall.

The real beauty of the masjid is its simplicity and minimalism. The structure itself appears to present an architectural mixture of Lahore’s Wazir Khan Masjid and Badshahi Masjid. The prayer hall, with its symmetrical and precise pillars and arches, bears a striking resemblance to Mughal architecture. The masjid gave a strong feeling of serenity and calmness, which can be attributed to the fact that it is still standing tall in its original condition.

When we arrived at the masjid, people had started congregating for the Friday prayers. However, nobody, not even any individual from the masjid’s administration, stopped us from photographing the monument. In fact, they even opened the door leading to its roof, without any request from us. This was a pleasant change from other such historic places, where you literally have to plead to the administration and give them monetary compensation before they allow access to the different areas.

The best experience for me personally in Shahi Masjid was the Friday sermon without loudspeakers. The cleric gave the whole sermon without any microphone and it was probably the first time, that I heard it just like the people in olden times used to listen. I was in awe at how the voice of cleric can be heard across the prayer hall and even in the courtyard of the masjid. The feeling was great and rather peaceful.

After the prayers, we left for the tomb of Hazrat Sheikh Ismail Bukhari, which is another popular tourist destination in Chiniot. His tomb is a unique mixture of modern and archaic architecture style. Sheikh was a famous saint of the city. Born in 761 Hijri (the 1300s), he belonged to the kin of Syed Sher Shah Surkh Bukhari. Sheikh Ismail came to Jhan on the command of his religious teacher, Hazrat Charagh Dehlvi and devoted his life to the propagation of Islam.

The shrine of Sheikh Ismail is almost 75-feet high and stretches over an area of fifteen canals. The walls of the tomb are made of white cement, but give the impression of being marble. All four walls of the shrine have ventilators and Sura Yaseen is engraved on each of them. The vault of the shrine features two moons with one big star in the middle of both.

The visit to the shrine was short and with that, we concluded our trip, much earlier than we expected. We had initially planned on going to the Chenab River but considering it was around 2 pm in the afternoon and the sun was high, we dropped the plan. At this point, my fellow-traveller and the tour planner suggested a visit to the grave of music maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in Faisalabad, which is almost a two-hour drive from Chiniot.

But since we were feeling spontaneous and adventurous, we embarked on the bumpy ride to Faisalabad, reaching the city around 4:30 pm in the afternoon.

Before entering the city, we asked a rickshaw driver on the road about the route to the graveyard. While the driver explained the route to us, he also dropped a subtle juggat (pun). And at that point, I knew that we have entered Faisalabad.

Our ride to the graveyard was full of unexplained excitement and a bit of blood rush as a qawali by Nusrat played in the background. The feeling, as my friend so eloquently put it, was the excitement of meeting someone special.

Upon reaching the graveyard, we bought some rose petals and walked towards his grave which was near the entrance. A small area has been designated for Nusrat and his family, where his father, brother and grandparents are buried.

Standing in front of the grave of the person whose voice, you have been listening for years gave a strong feeling of bittersweet.

However, the attendant, appointed by the government as caretaker of Nusrat’s grave, stood with us throughout the time we were there, despite our several requests to be left alone. This somewhat dampened our mood. However, we still sat there for almost an hour, listening to the maestros qawalis, and watching the sun set over his grave.

Fully satisfied with the day, we started our journey back home, with Nusrat’s qawalis accompanying us.