Founded by the descendants of the Abbasids, the State of Bahawalpur originated in early 19th century and was maintained as an independent state until it acceded to Pakistan in October 1947. During its years as a Princely State, it saw the reign of some 12 rulers who harvested a rich culture and heritage, and made it a powerful state of British India. The last of these rulers, Nawab Sir Sadiq Khan Abbasi V, is the most well-known of the Nawabs owing to the noteworthy developments he made in the region, his affiliation with the Quaid, and the magnanimous contributions he made during freedom movement, amongst other things.
Bahawalpur was notably larger than most of the Subcontinent’s princely states, which is why it enjoyed some privileges over the rest. With its thriving agrarian economy, a royal family dedicated to bringing prosperity to its citizens, and strategic geographical location, the state of Bahawalpur became one of the richest and most powerful of the Indian States.
The Coat of Arms for the State features two pelicans on each side of a shield. The pelicans are animals known for their self-sacrificial tendencies and it is believed that in the absence of food and nourishment, they surrender their own flesh to feed their young – a virtue, the royal family and the people of the State exercised actively, and one that surfaced greatly during the partition years when the Muslim population needed backup in their resistance and then support as a new-born nation.
The support and provision offered by this State, both material and non-material, and their allegiance to the cause of the Muslims of the subcontinent was vital for the creation of Pakistan.
Modern day Bahawalpur maintains the accolades it had acquired during its glory days. The Bahawalpur Library, Bahawalpur Museum, and the numerous Mahals are manifestations that echo the grandeur of the princely state at its prime. These architectural remnants are a reminder of the riches that were bequeathed to the national heritage of Pakistan. Inset in an otherwise fast developing city with major developments on the horizon, the state of Bahawalpur is one that conflates together seamlessly the things of past, present, and future.
The Bahawalpur Central Library, an institution set up by the last Nawab to further his ambitions to make knowledge accessible to all, besides a large collection of books, also houses historical manuscripts and archived newspapers and magazines that continue to be compiled. The archives are an enticing reserve of quality journalism that documents the reactions induced in the general public surrounding the proceedings of the partition and successes that followed a prolonged struggle. These newspaper and magazines archived at the library are accessible to the public with due supervision.
Another asset that the nation of Pakistan inherited from this State is the Sadiq Public School – an institution known for its repute across the entire country; the little known fact being that when found, the school was mindfully set up to groom and educate young boys from lower income families, those to whom education was otherwise inaccessible. The status of the school later became jeopardized as it became an institute available only to the elite of Pakistan. It became common for later-to-become politicians, ministers, bureaucrats, governors, and other notable figures to receive education there. It is hard to say what triggered this shift, yet, when considering the terms on which Sadiq Public School was set up most initially, it is worth acknowledging the inclusivity and attributes of service the princely state and its rulers embodied.
Amongst the various artefacts that constitute the landscape of Bahawalpur, one finds the most immersive experience at the Bahawalpur Library and Museum. Over the years, the buildings have maintained much of their original character despite being adapted to changing needs. It is, however, worth noting that these institutions are dying on their feet. A lack of funding, the wear and tear that these buildings suffer due to ageing infrastructure, and the swarms of visitors these places host on a daily basis, have induced a state of suffering on much of the architectural heritage of Bahawalpur.
A conversation with the staff working around the library revealed the various issues that come from opening up a heritage building to public consumption, without the right funding to sustain the infrastructure itself. Beyond the conventional issues of maintenance, cleanliness, and general upkeep that are understandable for an institution that has been there for a 100 years now, there were other concerns raised by the officials that require keen investigation and attention. The library is home to about 250 versions of handwritten Quran(s) in various scripts that are currently held in ordinary glass enclosures. The quality of the display settings raises serious concerns, for the Quran(s) they hold could easily get damaged and so they hope that these could be upgraded, given the sanctity, importance, and rarity of these objects. They also hope to draw attention to the fact that the building is running out of space to hold the archived material with due care, and propose that perhaps an extension to the library and museum complex could withdraw some of the heavy lifting that the library building alone has to do. They also expressed the need to digitalise the archives so as to preserve these rare resources for future generations.
The Nawabs would often erect palaces in honour of their wives. The Darbar Mahal built by Bahawal Khan V and the Nur Mahal by Nawab Adnan Abbasi IV are both examples of such dedications. However, as the tale goes, the wife of Nawab Adnan Abbasi IV did not spend more than a night at the grand palace constructed for her comfort and pleasure. It is believed that on arriving at the balcony of the palace, she was displeased with the sight of a graveyard that lay in close proximity and so decided to leave the next day. The palace then remained uninhabited during the reign of said Nawab.
Another woman worthy of mention, is the daughter of Queen Victoria, Linda Sayce, who was the last Nawab’s British wife. The Nawab passed away before her and was buried in the royal graveyard and following his demise her last wish was to be buried at his feet. Although the spaces at the graveyard are predetermined for the lineage of the royal family and room could not have been made within the mausoleum itself, a tomb was built for her outside the actual building itself, however still aligned with the Nawab’s tomb. Although such romanticized accounts of bespoke expressions of love and admiration on behalf of the Nawabs paint a certain picture of the women of the State, there is a wider appreciation and acknowledgement for women that is shown through the history of Bahawalpur.
In certain ways, through its history, and even today, Bahawalpur breeds a culture that advocates women taking on substantial roles in workplace and in matters of significance. Nawab Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi V, the final ruler of the state of Bahawalpur, was an infant when the tragic passing of his father left him bestowed with the crown. While he acquired the training necessary to rule the state when of age, the state was run under the regency of his eldest sister. In these slight nuances that were astounding for the time, one could read a level of regard and conduciveness to women acquiring substantial roles in society as being advocated by the state.
To this day, a visit to the Library or Museum building is often guided by women independently carrying crowds of visitors and students through the displays or the collections. As a woman, it is refreshing and highly empowering to see a culture and society that is so traditional and yet can still make room for the 21st century woman.
One must sift through the layers of historical facts and accounts to dissect and reveal who really was the woman of the princely state. Underneath the surface are these accounts that begin to paint a picture of these female figures. It is unfortunate that the glorification of the contributions made by women are somewhat of a passive nature, so much so that much of them are only recounted as traditions instead of being documented as historical facts.
A journalist once referred to Bahawalpur as a city, “where people still remember a past more romantic than the present.” This sentiment can be recognized by anyone who encounters and closely observes the dynamics of this city. There is a great deal to be harnessed from tapping into the very evident tourism potential that Bahawalpur holds. To deliver on this ambition we must first preserve and celebrate amongst ourselves, this rich accumulation of heritage, culture and traditions by nurturing a general curiosity towards the various dominions that are integral to our cumulative identity. HH
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