Hazy days of winter had given in to the bright spring. It was a sunny day in the middle of March. I and Sulman found ourselves wandering in narrow and deserted streets of the old city of Chiniot. The streets were deserted at this time of the day because it was Friday and just like other small cities of Punjab, Chiniot also takes Fridays off. We were looking for the monument Chiniot is famous for; the magnificent Umar Hayat Palace. In a narrow lane, amidst ordinary looking regular houses, we found this high palatial mansion which was once a private residence but now serves as a public library.

Umar Hayat Palace is famous for its beautiful architecture and exquisite interiors. However, what makes it irresistible is a haunting story from its past. As the legend goes, Umar Hayat was a wealthy merchant from the Sheikh community of Chiniot. In 1930, he built himself this palatial mansion and hired skilled labor and artisans to decorate it like a jewel. Unfortunately, he couldn’t have the pleasure of it for many days and died an untimely death shortly after the construction of the palace was completed. Upon his demise, his only son Gulzar wound up his own business in far away Calcutta and returned home. He took over his father’s business and his mother found a bride for him. Gulzar’s wedding was a grand affair. His mother sent drummers on top of Chiniot’s hills to announce that anyone who hears the beating of drums is invited to the wedding feast. Wedding ceremony was conducted and Umar Hayat Palace, which wasn’t any less beautiful than a bride, opened its doors for Gulzar’s bride. Drop scene of this drama happened early next morning when Gulzar was found dead in his bathroom. Apparently, he suffocated on the smoke of coals burning in the water boilers. Ensuing tragedy is unimaginable. Gulzar’s young wife returned to her father’s home and it seems that his mother soon followed him in death. Both mother and son are buried in the main hall of the palace.

Gulzar’s relatives, who inherited the palace deemed it haunted and cursed. It remained abandoned for a long time. Some parts of the buildings were given to homeless people of Gujjar tribe. After decades of neglect and decay, top two stories of the palace collapsed following monsoon rains. In 1990, the Deputy Commissioner of Jhang took necessary steps to save this gem of a building. It was taken into government custody. Artisans and skilled workers were hired for repair and restoration work and the palace was converted into a public monument and library. Since then it attracts a great number of tourists every year.     

The government appointed caretaker was a very kind middle aged man. He showed us around the many floors and rooms of the palace and kept narrating its history like a storyteller. Perhaps the most stunning and prominent feature of Umar Hayat Palace is its magnificent wooden carved jharoka which adorns the façade. It was the most beautiful thing; so beautiful that your eyes take some time to fathom its beauty. There were layers upon layers of flowers, leaves and branches carved out of wood into arches and columns. The jharoka has five arched double windows and one similar but slightly bigger window on each side. It was truly a masterpiece.            

The palace interior is even more elaborately decorated. There’s not even a single plain inch on walls or ceilings. The house looks like a painting. Doors of nearly all rooms and the first floor balcony open into the entrance hall of the palace, which also serves as the burial place of Umar Hayat’s wife Fatima and his ill-fated son Gulzar. Doors and windows are decorated with floral and geometric patterns and colorful stain glass work. You can find Umar Hayat’s initials written within the intricate designs of colorful ceilings. The palace caretaker kept explaining the meaning of architectural elements and utility of different rooms all along.

We took a worn out wooden staircase to the first floor of the palace. Just beside the staircase was the bathroom where Gulzar met his death. A beautiful balcony ran across the first floor, opening into the ground floor entrance hall. Taking tour of the entire house, we finally entered Gulzar’s private room. It had beautifully carved and gilded doors and windows in all four walls. We had a good view of the city from the broken stain glass windows of this room. The fireplace was exquisitely decorated with mirror work now faded with the dust of time. Throughout the tour, our storyteller stressed on the moral of the story; life of this world is temporary.

Third floor of the palace has the same basic design just like the first two floors, but lies in a completely ruined state. Half of its rooms are demolished, ceilings caved in and a huge wooden balcony at the front is actually tied with a thick rope. One gets the impression that tragedy can be beautiful and beauty can be tragic. Umar Hayat Palace is the finest example of Chinioti architecture and a gem of a monument. Thanks to good sense of the DC, it was saved and turned into a public library. The library has a decent collection locked away in the ground floor back chambers and only available to serious readers. The entrance hall of the palace serves as a reading room.    

We left Umar Hayat Palace and went in search of the Mughal era Royal Mosque, another highlight of Chiniot. It was constructed around 1645 on orders of Nawab Saadullah Khan, Emperor Shah Jehan’s Grand Vizier who was native of a village nearby. The beautiful royal mosque bears a strange resemblance with Lahore’s Wazir Khan and Pearl Mosques. It is relatively smaller in size. A staircase leads you to the main entrance which opens into a spacious courtyard. An arched corridor runs on three sides of the courtyard; prayer hall covering the western side of the mosque. Seven arches of equal size adorn the façade of the prayer hall. The building is constructed with gray sandstone which was extracted locally. Its roof stands over 32 beautifully carved pillars. Inner ceilings and arches are decorated with exquisite frescos and pietra dura work.    

Unlike caretakers of historical monuments in Lahore, caretakers of the Royal Mosque of Chiniot were surprisingly welcoming and opened the locks of the narrow staircase leading upstairs. Three white domes are resting on the mosque’s roof for nearly four centuries. Beyond the handsome minarets and domes of the mosque, the historical city of Chiniot was spread out far and wide. The muezzin called the faithful to prayer. It was time for Friday prayers. We joined the congregation inside the spacious prayer hall.

High balconies at Umar Hayat Palace offered a panoramic view of the city. In between a thick cluster of buildings, a high shrine distinguished itself from the rest of the city. It was the shrine of Shah Ismail Bukhari. Every year, Muharram procession comes out of this shrine. The palace caretaker, who seemed a devout man, urged us to visit the shrine. Apart from its attractive high structure, the shrine of Shah Ismail Bukhari was like any other.

It was mid afternoon and we still had a couple of hours before sunset. The bridge at River Chenab is Chiniot’s favorite spot to watch the sun set, but I had a better idea. We drove towards former Layallpur aka Faisalabad which is not very far from Chiniot. We kept asking for directions. In addition to guidance, we had to bear the jokes of Faisalabad’s humorous populace; jokes on our lack of direction.

Finally, we reached a graveyard on Jhang Road. Yes, our destination was a graveyard where the god of music rests in eternal peace. I bought a lot of red roses from the flower seller sitting by the cemetery gate. Just a few steps inside the graveyard, beneath a humble canopy was Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s final resting place, surrounded by the graves of his closest family members of three generations. I covered his grave with roses and sat in a corner remembering the great man’s eternal melodies.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s heart touching music entertained and inspired generations of music lovers not only in his native Pakistan but all over the world. It was something more than music; it was magic. Qawwali, then a decadent form of music and alive only at the shrines of Sufi saints found a messiah in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and through his magical voice reached the greatest concert halls in Japan, Europe and North America. In doing so, he also brought international fame to Pakistani music. From light romantic music to upbeat qawwalis, he was perfection personified. His heart touching lyrics and soulful singing made it straight to the cores of people’s hearts. Generations of heartbroken lovers have found solace in his music. May his grave be a garden of paradise, he made us feel that sometimes, heartbreak is more pleasurable that fulfillment in love. Twenty years after his untimely demise, his music continues to make every single day in the life of Pakistan more beautiful.

I was standing at Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s grave, lost in the memories of his timeless qawwalis. Vibes were so strong; it felt like there are fireworks going on inside me. I said a prayer for his soul and we left the graveyard.

My memory of that evening goes like this: back on our way to Lahore, Nusrat was weaving magic with his voice, the sun was setting, and in a clear field by the road, a group of young lads were training for Kabaddi, Punjab’s traditional game.   

Until I hit the road again…