For the first time since independence, a team of architects from Mumbai’s Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative (CRCI) hired by the Punjab government are working towards the restoration of the Nabha Fort in Patiala, which is currently in shambles. As the team started their work, they unearthed rare artifacts and systems within the premises that were previously unknown. “Since independence, it is for first time that work on this fort has started,” says Navjot Pal Singh Randhawa, Director of state cultural affairs, museums and archaeology, adding, “the aim is to boost tourism and this project is entirely under state government to preserve the historic Nabha Fort.” So far, the discoveries have been of a wall painting depicting the army of great Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh, as well as what is called a ‘Sard Khana,’ a cooling system, in the basement. The fort is situated on the ancestral property of Maharaja Ripudaman Singh, who had been exiled by the British colonisers for opposing their rule in India.
Gurmeet Sangha Rai, the Director of the CRCI, estimates the wall painting of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army found on the premises to be approximately 100 - 150 years old. She elaborates while speaking to The Indian Express, “The painting also shows the proximity between Maharaja Jaswant Singh (a ruler of the Nabha kingdom) and Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Maharaja Jaswant Singh was an ardent supporter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and this is reflected in the wall paintings we are finding in the Nabha fort which was built by Maharaja Hira Singh, the father of Ripudaman.” In those days, courtyard paintings would usually reflect the ruler’s ideologies, and this one at Nabha Fort “speaks volumes of how the Nabha regime related to Maharaja Ranjit Singh and how Ripudaman believed in independent rule, unlike other princely states which were sycophants of the Britishers.”
A ‘Sard Khana’ was discovered in the basement of the rear courtyard of the Fort, Rai speaks of its unique spatial configuration which was used to cool all the rooms during hot summers. “What makes it even more interesting is that these subterranean chambers are structurally very stable while the superstructure is in a decayed condition. We were unaware of any such part existing in this fort. Both discoveries are extremely significant. We are expecting more with an extensive work we are carrying out currently,” she said.
The project is currently in its first phase with emergency stabilisation and structural consolidation processes underway. Efforts to maintain and restore the historical structure are ongoing at the fort, which failed to get the tag of a ‘protected monument’ from the Archaeological Survey of India. “The emergency stabilisation costs nearly Rs. 6 crore but we had to do it as many parts of the fort are simply coming off. It had not been touched since Independence. We had to start from the scratch. Trees have grown into the walls. They have been removed and chemicals sprayed. New unknown aspects of the fort are emerging as we are moving ahead,” Rai said, adding that the entire restoration project would take a minimum of five years to complete. Just the emergency restoration of the fort’s foundational structure itself is expected to take a year more.
Despite Rai’s projections, CRCI have been given a deadline of March 2017 to complete the restoration. Getting the work into motion was a task in itself, as it took almost thirteen years to kick start the project. “We first proposed this in 2003 through the Nabha Foundation, which is working to preserve the ‘Nabha Riyaasat’. It has taken almost 13 years to get the government nod, arrange finances and now work has actually started on the ground. The fort is still not a protected monument under ASI,” Rai said.
These unexpected discoveries at Nabha Fort shed light on the importance of conserving and maintaining historical and cultural properties across India, places that aren’t taken under ASI’s wing of protection. Had the CRCI not undertaken the restoration at Nabha Fort, these historical treasures would have remained unknown, along with the important cultural and historical knowledge that we gain from them. It makes us wonder what other treasures lie before us, undiscovered, and how much of history we could be missing out on.
Words: Sara Hussain