My friend Iqbal Qaiser, the well-known Punjabi intellectual, knows Punjab better than most people. On the subject of ancient caravanserais, he said there was one on the road from Gujranwala to Pasrur. It was because of this sarai that the village was called Saranwali; saran with its nasal ending being the Punjabi word for a roadhouse. Iqbal admitted he had not seen it but from what he had heard, it seemed to be in fairly good shape.
Now, having hunted for old sarais myself, I thought this one was worth investigating. And so, having turned left on the road to Pasrur from Sialkot Bypass outside Gujranwala, I stopped at a teashop to ask how far to go. ‘Five kilometres,’ said the man who did not know how long a kilometre was because I ended up driving twenty after asking him. But he did correct me: the name of the village was not Saranwali but Siranwali that is exactly twenty-five kilometres from the Bypass.
I was in for another correction at Siranwali. The elderly gentleman sunning himself outside his store said there was no Mughal sarai but a mahal (palace) believed to date back to the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The gentleman very kindly assigned a young hanger-on to guide me to the place.
Turning left into a broad street, we walked about a couple of hundred metres to the mahal. And what a palace it was. As we approached, the brick-faced side facing the street rose through a first floor to the rooftop blockhouse (mumti in Punjabi), in mint condition. But the room adjacent to it was roofless and ruined. Around the corner of the building, it was a picture of total perdition. The entire front which was obviously a veranda was gone; only its arches remained. Behind, the large courtyard was strewn with rubbish amid which a couple of cattle ruminated.
The u-shape of the courtyard had ground and first floor rooms on three sides. From the remnants of overhanging rafters and ornate woodwork, it was evident that an elaborate balcony once ran around the upper floor. To the right, the interior of the portion that had from the exterior presented the deceptive looks of good preservation was a collection of elaborately carved door jambs, painted walls and collapsed roofs. Only the partly collapsed mumti stood tall.
I walked around the corner to what was once the façade. Entry was by a single doorway richly carved in an opening with a multi-cusped arch. Directly above were three windows to match. On either side of these were two mock windows in turn flanked by bay windows. In these latter, only a vestige of the original woodwork remained in the one on the left. For some curious reason the door to the ruined building whose interior was easily accessible was locked.
Around the corner to the back was yet more heart-breaking decay. Another pair of buffaloes sat amid the rubble and hay overseen by a forlorn-looking boy. As in the rest of the building, here too the walls were spattered with cow dung patties that set off the faded frescoes of the first floor to the greater advantage.
In its ruined state the design of the mahal appears somewhat confusing. But that it certainly is not. The ground floor consisted of a spacious central courtyard open to the sky around which were the utility rooms as well as those where the master of the house would have received and fêted his male guests. The first floor was the living area for the, perhaps, extended family.
Lore has it that the mansion was built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The ruins clearly belong to the middle of the 19th century but the mutilated frescoes appear to feature Hindu rather than Sikh stories: one damaged figure looks vaguely like a four-armed Hanuman. Like most of the men I spoke to, the present owners too had immigrated from Haryana at the time of partition. The various men I spoke to gave only conflicting word of the whereabouts of the head of the family, so I gave up looking for him.
But this family, having appropriated this rich and beautiful asset, had never cared for it. For them it was plunder acquired as after a battle. In the nearly fifty years they occupied it as a residence, they never so much as laid a tender, caring finger upon it. They abused it and when it began to come apart abandoned it. For them only the real estate now matters. When they find a suitable bidder, they will sell it. The once exquisite building, a fine example of the Punjabi architectural tradition that was forced into ruin, will be torn down and replaced by a tangle of ugly blockhouses fronted with bathroom tiles.
Even if I were to actually meet the keeper, I could not have asked him why he and his family were so heartlessly negligent of a property that was, in a way, pledged to them by another who they had never met. To have permitted it to fall into decay was the biggest crime they could have ever committed – not just against the real owners of the property but against the cultural heritage of the country as well.
The words for partition that the Punjabis of Pakistan and India use are indicative of our respective attitudes to our countries: for us it was loti – time of plunder; for our brothers and sisters across the border, ujara – ruination. Those of us who were natives to what became Pakistan plundered what was left behind by fleeing Hindus and Sikhs. Those, who came from across the new border quickly fell into step and helped themselves to whatever was available. The Siranwali mansion was not an isolated case. This happened across the new country and Pakistan was built on false claims of riches that we had never known in our native lands.
We did not care for the booty we acquired. We have seen how the looters treated the properties in Lahore’s Model Town; how those beautiful palatial homes have been sliced and parcelled out into one-kanal plots. Partition was our time of plunder. It enriched many of us. That was all we cared.