Hazara's Sawhney Haveli Crumbling Due To Neglect

Hazara's Sawhney Haveli Crumbling Due To Neglect
Nawan Shehar, one of the oldest towns in Hazara, is located seven kilometres north of Abbottabad. The town once served as a serai (centre-point) for commercial activities on the ancient silk trade route.

The origin and history of Nawan Shehar is mostly indeterminate but what is worth noting is that a picturesque landscape nestled in the lap of the mountains is dominated by Muslim and Hindu architecture of historic significance.

Beside the havelis, temple, and mosque that were built back at the time of Britishers, Nawan Shehar was then a hamlet of stone and wooden houses with mud-plastered walls.

Although much of the elegance has crumbled with time, the architecture still boasts signs of its former glory. For instance, the remaining frontage of Sawhney Haveli of the Ishwardas family recalls the times when its residents were the elites of the region.

Built in 1900 by Rai Bahadur Isher Das Sawhney, a wealthy Hindu who was a honourary magistrate of the Nawan Shehar, this resplendent mansion once remained the centre of politics and today, after 121 years, its extravagant architecture is a testament to the wealth of the owner.

Covering a vast area, the haveli in its time was considered among a few attractive buildings in Hazara. Its architectural design reminds one of the oldest Hindu architecture.

The exquisite exterior of haveli has a unique architectural character noted for its wooden windows, stunning fireplaces and ornately carved doors. The owner hired masons and craftsmen from Kashmir and the erstwhile NWFP to construct the structure and carve out wooden doors and balconies.

Reminiscing the glory

An oral historian and environmentalist Mahmood Aslam narrates the haveli's fate from the pre-partition times. He says Nawan Shehar was predominately inhabited by Hindus and Muslims before the partition who shaped the economical outlook of Nawan Shehar and its neighbouring towns like Dhamtour and Qalandarabad.

The haveli was constructed using the finest building material as despite being in a terrible condition, one can see the love and aesthetics of the masons and artisans in it's every nook and corner carved with intricate designs.

Aslam is considered an expert on the oral history of Nawan Shehar and according to him, the owner of was a Hindu businessman known for lending loans on profit basis to the locals and was considered among the richest of the Hazara.

His family was also among the wealthy ones and he was eminent in the city. Historic references tell that his forefathers were timber merchants who set up their own palace hotel, match factories, and a sugar mill, and later controlled and influenced the businesses of Hazara.

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They migrated when the subcontinent was divided into two dominions and they found themselves on the wrong side of the border.

Among other prominent characters was Vijay Sethi, 72, a resident of Dehradun, Uttarakhand. He was born after his parents moved from Abbottabad to India in 1950 after the partition but he proudly calls himself a son of Nawan Shehar.

His family had a share in the business of Sawhney family who were the owners of Garhi Habibullah match factory, Premier Sugar Mills, Mardan, NWFP, and state-of-the-art Palace Hotel, Abbottabad.

Chaman Laal Jee was about 15-years-old at the time of the partition and was living in Nawan Shehar. Sitting in his home in Dehra Dhun in Uttarakhand, he still remembers the names of his close Muslim friends. To him, visiting the  birthplace was a strong desire before he dies.

Professor Ghulam Jilani Khan teaches the history of architecture in an affiliated institute of Abbottabad University. He says, "The building was an exquisite blend of Hindu and British architecture."

According to him, the grand structure of the haveli helps one visualise the glory and majesty of the pre-partition period while standing in front of the main entrance.

The carved wooden doors, extravagant artwork, and masonry were left behind by the dwellers and tell their own tale.

Restoration strategy

Shabnam Nawaz and Amna Sardar are civil society activists. They represent a group of environmentalists that has filed a petition in Peshawar High Court for the preservation of colonial heritage of Abbottabad.

Shabnam, also a lawyer by profession, is realistic about the future of the cultural heritage as she rightly points out that scores of magnificent historic buildings lie in complete neglect. She says there is an immediate need to undertake preservation work but is afraid the structures may die until then.

Amna Sardar says, "Unfortunately, we, as a nation, look into history with lenses covered with prejudices. We need to start owning our heritage and being proud about it; whether it is the Sikh era or the British time, it is all a part of our collective identity.

“There is an immediate need to undertake the work for preservation, and mere words cannot save the haveli."

She called for implementing a strategy to save what is left of the pre-partition heritage of Abbottabad.

The writer is a student of History and a journalist interested in writing on gender equality, social issues and cultural heritage.