Overlooking the Dal Lake, a Gothic monster has proven to be inauspicious for everyone — from its builders to those interested in it post-partition. After seven decades of abandonment by its owners, the Palace is now a special jail holding a single prisoner for over a month now, reports Masood Hussain
Kashmir’s only Sadr-e-Reyasat, Dr Karan Singh, has been talking quite a bit about his family’s most prized possession (read Kashmir) after the central government decided to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy. Days ahead of the decision, Dr Singh spent most of his time at Taleh Manzil, the family’s mini-palace, relaxing and meeting people.
History is strange, Dr Singh later remarked in an interview. “The palace where from Sheikh Abdullah made my grandfather leave Kashmir is now where his grandson is being held.”
Dr Singh was referring to Omar Abdullah, NC Vice President and former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, who was detained as part of the crackdown on Kashmir’s political class in anticipation of bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories and stripping its autonomy. Initially placed in home detention, Abdullah was later driven to Hari Niwas, a palace with a chequered history.
Hari Niwas was raised by Dogra autocrats after they purchased Kashmir from the East India Company for a price of Rs 75 lakh. Part of the Great Games, the sale involved slicing Kashmir from the Punjab Durbar and selling it to Gulab Singh, the mountain warlord, to create a buffer from Czarist Russia.
“Initially, Dogra rulers would utilise Kashmir’s prevailing infrastructure to operate from. Gulab Singh and many of his successors controlled Kashmir from the Sherghari Palace,” M Saleem Beg, the head of INTACH Kashmir said. “It was only during the early twentieth century when the Dogras started constructing palaces that the Zabarwan Hills on the Gupkar emerged as an ideal location.”
A virgin stretch connected by thick forests between Sonawar and Nishat and the mesmerising sight of the Dal Lake, this spot offered a better view of the city. Even then, Gupkar, the trek connecting these two spots, had a more than ordinary history. One of the bloodiest battles between the Chaks and the Mughals, according to Baharistan-e-Shahi was fought over this trek in 1531.
Then, Mughal chieftain Muahram Beg had quietly infiltrated 3000 fighters into Kashmir giving almost no time for Kashmiri nobles to assemble and react on the mountain passes. They finally clashed in Athwajan. “The Mughal faced reverses and, withdrawing from Nowshehr, turned towards the western quarter of the city where they had set up their headquarters,” writes the Baharistan-e-Shahi author, whose anonymity has been quite an enigma to Kashmir history. “Kashmiri troops appeared on the heights of Koh-i-Suleyman and came down slowly towards the east of the city to establish their camp. There was sporadic fighting with the Mughals for some time. At last, Mahram Beg got sick of this and entered into negotiations with Kashmiri chiefs and made firm promises of peace and conciliation to them.”
Many centuries later when Maharaja Ranbir Singh started paying much-needed attention to the deteriorating grape cultivation, it was the Gupkar vineyard that every traveller praised for centuries to come. Despite an elaborate history of wine-making, modern breweries were introduced in Kashmir when Maharaja Ranbir Singh installed a distillery in Gupkar in 1880 with the help of France. He imported vines from Bordeaux and planted them in what was called Bagh-i-Shirazi at Gupkar. According to the State Administrative Report (1882-83), wines then prepared were exhibited at the Calcutta Exhibition in 1883.
The vineyard, which started with a production of 163 kharwars (one kharwar is 80 kg) in 1882, saw the initial amount double to 340 kharwars in 1884, the report adds. In 1887, the distillery produced 216000 and 18230 bottles of red and white wine respectively, which seems huge compared to the meagre 1894 bottles produced in 1883. According to Sukhdev Singh Charak, author of The Life and Times of Maharaja Ranbir Singh (1830-1885), the Maharaja had dug a 20-kilometre long canal for the distillery to ensure better manufacture.
In his A Guide For Visitors to Kashmir, 1989, John Collet states: “A most enjoyable ride can be obtained over a nice road from Munshi Bagh to Gupkar distillery and thence to Chi(sh)ma Shahi and further on to Nishat Bagh through the village of Bren.”
It was the industrious Gupkar that would lead to the Zabarwan hills where a few hamlets existed. These villages – mostly scattered between the Botanical Garden, City Forests (now the Royal Springs Golf Course) and the Tulip Garden, were evicted from the spot and re-located far away in Dachigam (it is the corrupt form of Dah Chee Gham – these are ten villages) at the current location outside the National Park where they are at perpetual war with the wildlife.
A Palace Chain
After depopulating the belt (the only village that survived was Kralsangri), the Dogras began constructing palaces. “The first one was a small palace which is now the Raj Bhawan,” Beg recalls. Adjacent to this palace was the Nehru Guest House which was to later host the first group of officials from the UN after the first war on Kashmir broke during the fall of 1947. “During the second stage, the Gulab Bhawan came up, adjacent to which the Hari Niwas was set up. On the hill facing it came up the Taleh Manzil.”
The Gulab Bhawan witnessed house warming in 1910, during which time, it was one of the most sophisticated and modern buildings in Srinagar. It still retains the tunnel the Maharani and her maids used to access the Dal Lake to bathe in. Its main hall, or the durbar hall, holds the subcontinent’s first earthquake-proof systems of the twentieth century. It is adorned by 2000 sq ft of carpet woven by Iranian craftsmen imprisoned in Kashmir, which is so fresh that it looks like it was just unhooked from the loom. In Heir Apparent, his autobiography, Dr Singh mentions a separate section housing Viceroy and Vicereine Suites which were put into use when Viceroys from Delhi would decide to pay a visit.
Maharaja Hari Singh was in the same Durbar Hall when the lights went off in wake of the takeover of the Mohra Power Station by tribals later in October 1947. He fled Kashmir the same night. The palace, his seat of power, was converted into a five-star hotel by his family and called the Grand Palace. It was afterwards leased to the Oberoi Group, becoming the Oberoi Palace before being sold to the Lalit Suri in January 1998, in one of the trickiest deals during Dr Farooq Abdullah’s government.
After taking over as the last Dogra ruler of Jammu and Kashmir in 1925, Hari Singh decided to construct a separate palace for Tara Devi, his wife. According to historian Yousuf Taing, that decision was taken after Hari Singh (nicknamed Mr A due to involvement in a London sex racket) returned from Europe, impressed by the Gothic architecture. He began building the palace in 1925-26. One report lacking any evidence suggests that he purchased this land from the villagers.
There is no evidence, however, that Hari Singh actually stayed in this palace. Tara Niwas was instead used by his court singer, Malika Pokhraj, who claimed to live in the palace for longer than the Maharaja. After the partition, the singer migrated to Pakistan.
After Dr Karan Singh was appointed Reagent, he avoided living in either of the two palaces his forefathers had built and preferred to reside in Taleh Manzil, where Hari Singh used to live as well, before Delhi literally pushed him to migrate to Mumbai where he would die. Recently, the family has sold the sprawling orchard and the Almond Villa but retains the mini-palace, trade insiders said.
After the partition, the Hari Niwas remained in disuse. Official sources say that it was purchased by Kashmir Hotel Limited for 43 lakh in the 1980s with the plan of converting it into a hotel. That, however, never happened and the building was bought by the Government and given to the State Police Intelligence after 1995.
A 1990s Jail
After it was bought by the Government, the Palace became a jail overseen by the Jammu and Kashmir Police. Hundreds of people were detained, interrogated, and tortured for years, with a substantial number of deaths. Its conversion to jail was the outcome of a new situation that emerged in Kashmir in the 1990s. This Palace was part of the Papa-II ‘empire’.
“It is a miracle that I am alive,” journalist Maqbool Sahil told his colleagues, after 15 days of detention at the Hari Niwas interrogation centre, during his long incarceration. “If you tell them [interrogators] that you are innocent, they will torture you so ruthlessly that you will break down and confess to anything.” Sahil died of a heart attack in 2017.
Post-1996, during Dr Abdullah’s government, the situation changed after the Government added to its prison capacity and stopped using the palace as a jail for political prisoners or those involved in militancy.
The undoing began with the government retrieving the Fairview Guest House, the now official residence of the Muftis, and allotted it to Dr Farooq Abdullah’s powerful Chief Secretary, Ashok Jaitely. After it was renovated and repaired, the top IAS officer got a gathering of Muslim pirs to exorcise the building from spirits of terror and torture. This guest house was the medulla of the Papa-II.
The police retained the Hari Niwas as its intelligence headquarters till they readied their own outside the Srinagar Arts Emporium, after which the palace was once again in disuse.
With Mufti Sayeed now ruling the state, it was decided in 2003 that the SPS Museum would be shifted to the palace to dedicate the building to the cultural history of Kashmir. The decision was reversed within days after Ghulam Nabi Azad succeeded in latter 2005. As the central government supported the state government’s decision to create a new building for the Museum, Azad government decided that the palace should be converted into a permanent residence for the Chief Minister. Till then, all Chief Ministers (except Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad, Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq, Mir Qasim and Ghulam Mohammad Shah) constructed separate official residences in Srinagar, unlike Jammu.
While the palace was being repaired and refurbished, Azad operated from the Zeethyar’s official residence of the J&K Bank Chairman, which he still retains.
In order to restore the palace, the government-sanctioned Rs 11 crore. Keen on reviving this heritage, Azad would usually get involved in the palace landscaping, personally.
Spread over 70 kanals of land, the property has three presidential suites, a VVIP guesthouse, four master bedrooms, 62 seven-star rooms, and an office for the Chief Minister’s secretariat. It also included formal and informal drawing rooms, a dining hall, a lobby and a cabinet room. The authorities ensured that the palace’s heritage value wasn’t compromised with by retaining the twentieth-century style and using antique taps to maintain royal aura.
As the palace was getting ready for house-warming, reports started appearing in the media stating that the palace was jinxed. The story was simple: the Maharaja, keen to set up the palace, lost his throne before he could set foot in it. It was also rumoured that priests had forewarned Maharaja and suggested against constructing the palace as it was the abode of a Hindu deity.
“His (Maharaja’s) trouble started in the same year when he completed his palace at that cursed site in 1931,” historian Fida Mohammad Husnain writes in Historic Kashmir. “His end also came from this very site when he was forced by circumstances to run away to Jammu in 1947.”
Even the association of the parents of disappeared persons (APDP) reacted by accusing the government of destroying “material evidence of custodial torture by facilitating the renovation”.
“The government has been using the erstwhile palace as a torture chamber since 1985. Thousands of souls have been tortured in it. Many of them died or have been subjected to enforced disappearance,” the APDP statement said. “Hundreds of bodies must have been buried in the nearby forest. Vital evidence has already been lost as the government renovated the palace recently. And, if you choose to stay in this torture chamber, it will amount to rubbing salt into our wounds.”
But Azad, just as stubborn as the Maharaja, followed through with his initial plan of living in the palace. Within days of the decision, Kashmir witnessed the land row involving the reported transfer of land to the Amarnath Shrine Broad. Azad’s government collapsed. The loss was no different from Maharaja’s.
Hari Niwas was transferred to the state’s Hospitality and Protocol Department.
In 2008 elections when Omar Abdullah became the Chief Minister, he was also advised against shifting his residence to the Palace. “I have a small family,” Omar said when asked why he was not shifting to the Palace residence. “My two children would be lost in that huge mansion. In fact, I don’t need a huge mansion to live in.”
In his six-year rule, he demolished three structures and annexed the land to create his own residence on Gupkar, which is considered to be one of the most modern residences in Kashmir. However, high profile meetings would continue in the Palace hall.
When Mufti returned as head of the BJPDP government in early 2015, the government decided that the property should be outsourced to a private party for better commercial use, like high-end tourism or a wedding destination.
The H&P Department, according to an official order, was asked to work out a revenue model for managing the complex and charging a differential tariff to provide accommodation to the distinguished guests keeping in view its location, ambience and facilities. It even said the complex can also be preferred for registration with the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, for providing accommodation to Ambassadors and selected foreign dignitaries on payment basis. The order issued by the General Administration Department did suggest that the government retains the option of reusing the Palace for Chief Ministerial residence in future if required.
The bidding process started for the permanent residents of the state. The government wanted a licence fee of Rs 6 crore for five years but there were only two bidders. Lamenting over the failure, an official had famously said that the “notorious history” of the palace was “haunting its present, and shall haunt its future too.”
Later, the Palace was converted into a VVIP State Guest House and was also used to hold high-level selective banquets, receptions and conferences.
In the fall of 2011, the Palace became the office of a Commission of Enquiry. Presided over by Justice H S Bedi, a retired Judge of the Supreme Court, the Commission was set up to probe the death in custody of NC worker Syed Mohammad Yusuf Shah alias Haji Yousuf in State Police Crime Branch custody. He had been allegedly detained from Omar Abdullah’s residence on September 28, 2011, a day before his death. A series of proceedings eventually led to the exoneration of Omar.
But Omar had a brief stint in the Palace as the Chief Minister. In wake of September 2014 floods, Omar shifted to the Palace as people coming ashore from the neighbouring localities wanted some shelter and attempted getting into the homes on the high street of power. Police felt a threat and the Chief Minister was moved to the Palace where he along with his close aides – Chief Secretary Iqbal Khanday and Principal Secretary, B B Vyas, would oversee survey and relief works.
“Fortified, the Palace has two possessions which give it a war-room like looks: a chopper on one end and numerous military wireless towers around,” a reporter recorded those grim days in the Palace. “It looked more of a World War II’s retreating detachment that had fled the battleground but was still trying to stay in touch.”
Five years later, Omar is the only person in the palace — for a month now — this time as a prisoner. He was arrested by the governor’s administration and shifted to the palace. Initially, he had a neighbour, Mehbooba Mufti, his arch-rival, but the latter was shifted to a hut that is routinely being used as a special jail for many years now.
“It took them a while to recognise Mr Abdullah, who was sporting an untrimmed white beard,” Hindu quoted a family source saying about the meeting of Safiya Khan – Omar’s sister, with him. “Mr Abdullah is allowed to run for an hour in the morning and has access to his personal DVDs from the first week. However, he stays put inside all day and rarely comes out.”
The palace continues to be jinxed.