Under the guidance of CEO, Heritage Foundation, notified as the Hon. Project Director by the Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the work on the conservation of the Sethi House is in progress.
This work is being carried out in collaboration with the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The hidden jewel of a highly embellished residence of one of the most powerful mercantile families of the city of Peshawar, lay hidden for several decades behind an anonymous façade. The Mohallah Sethian, the Enclave of Sethis, named after the Sethis – the Wealthy - had been famous for its owners and their love of architecture. Being the richest traders, their kafilahs reaching the farthest regions of Central Asia and beyond to the Czarist Russia, they would bring back priceless objects from those far off lands. More importantly, they were deeply affected by the architecture of Central Asia and transmitted their impressions as they adorned and beautified their residences. The Sethi Houses thus became the epitome of Peshawar’s residential architecture.
Once the entire mohallah consisting of over two dozen houses boasted the most richly endowed structures, each one an object d’art in itself. During the last few decades, and particularly as the state of Russia was dismantled, Peshawar bearing the brunt of the influx of Afghan refugees, many of the buildings of this rich mohallah were dismantled and rebuilt with insensitive concrete structures. The dismantling heralded the disruption and destruction of age-old traditions and lifestyles that were the hallmark of Peshawar’s Udroon Shahr (Inner City or Walled City) society.
Today only one dozen of the original houses are extant. They are fast crumbling due to neglect and lack of maintenance. The Sethis have fallen on hard times, and are no longer able to maintain, which were once palatial mansions. As in other historic cities of Pakistan, many original residents have moved out, the younger generation preferring the new housing estates that have sprung up in all major cities of the country. With no assistance available for maintenance, wealthy outsiders are buying up the houses, insensitive to the customs or conventions of the historic walled city and only interested in making the houses livable for themselves. Not being aware of the historicity of the houses, nor of their architectural significance, the new owners are in the process of pulling them down to only the value of the lot on which the houses stood.
It is only a matter of time, before almost all of these exquisitely embellished houses in this remarkable cluster are lost.
It goes to the sagacity of the government that one of the houses, known as Qadri Manzil, was purchased in 2006, due to the sensitivity and timely intervention of a few who had been prodded by Begum Farida Nishtar, Chief Secretary, and Additional Chief Secretary Mr. Ghulam Dastgir (now the Chief Secretary). The owner having died, the house had been put up for sale and if immediate action was not taken it would be dismantled, and all its valuable decorative features sold for a song.
The house was the original zanankhana (female quarters) of the central Sethi House, now belonging to Mr. Nisar Sethi and is reported to have been built in 1834. Due to multiple tenancy and several additions of bathrooms and kitchens, with little spent on its maintenance, the house was in an extremely poor state of preservation. Further, on northeast side, a recently built structure, poorly designed had affected the original structure, so that part of its portion, also seemed in an imminent state of collapse. The water seepage from rain as well as poor plumbing had deeply affected the historic structure’s wooden rafters, which required immediate action.
This was the state when Architect Yasmeen Lari, CEO, Heritage Foundation was notified as Hon. Project Director by Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in March 2010 to undertake the process of conservation of the building. Heritage Foundation set up a documentation centre in May 2010 in collaboration with the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums at the historic Gor Khattree premises. The next six months were devoted to documentation of the historic structure. At the same time various studies were also initiated. The structural study declared the non-historic part as most dangerous which must be demolished immediately to relieve the stress on the mid-historic and early historic structure. They also advised that the mid-historic part was also under extreme stress and immediate measures were required to save it otherwise, it will be needed to be pulled down.
The conservation work was begun in late December 2010 by a dedicated team, but had to be stopped due to financial constraints. The work has resumed once more and is in progress.
A valuable heritage structure dating to the first half of the 17th c. lay hidden by an encircling verandah of the early British Period (1840s) built during the period between the First and Second Anglo-Sikh wars. The camouflage was due to the Public Works Department’s yellow paint applied to the external façade that had seen many interventions – additions of several walls to divide up the verandah into rooms, removal of original timber joists and replacement with r.c.c. beams and new roofs etc. The British Period brick masonry work, had been plastered, and painted with yellow lime wash, which led to the appellation ‘Yellow Building’.
The double-storey structure is a rare and interesting combination of two distinct and historical periods in the subcontinent: a 19th c. British Period veranda arcade that encircles a 17th c. Mughal Garden Pavilion. The Pavilion was built by the Mughal Governor Ali Mardan Khan, known for his engineering skills and contribution to World Heritage site of Shalamar Gardens, Lahore.
The British Period extension was made by George Lawrence, Resident appointed by the British Governor General in 1847. The Mughal building and its extensive estate were converted into a British Residency. This British period trabeated extension camouflages and conceals the original arcuate construction of the Mughal Period.
As you entered the tall portals of the yellow building, the British period structure, with its simple characteristics of trabeated construction, is impressive due to the scale of its giant columns and great heights. The entrance portico leads to an amazing arcuate structure, which can be considered amongst the finest of the great Mughal Shah Jahan’s period, himself a great builder and a fine aesthete.
It is clear that the historic structure was originally located in a Mughal paradisal garden, complete with parterres, water channels, sitting places and plantation. Once the site became part of the British military cantonment it was laid out with streets following the European grid-iron pattern. After Independence, the area was taken over by the Pakistan Army, and later developed as Corps Headquarters.
The area surrounding the site is primarily low rise residential area. In view of security concerns, it is not likely to be developed with high-rise buildings, which will maintain the present character of its environs.
In view of the significance of the historic structure, it is important that once conserved, this remarkable structure is made accessible to the general public. Accordingly, plans are being developed to isolate the structure from the remaining military establishment by providing a separate public entry, which will lead to the viewing of the historic structure without disrupting the activities of the Corps Headquarters.
On request of the Corps Headquarters, Ar. Yasmeen Lari, CEO, Heritage Foundation, visited the site in January 2011, and agreed to develop a report on a pro bono basis. For this purpose, the Foundation arranged for the visit of Ar. Mariyam Nizam and Ar. Wajiha Siddiqui, who both spent one month each in carrying out documentation of the historic structure, consisting of graphic and photographic documentation as the first step towards developing an understanding of the building. Through the cooperation of ISPR, extensive photography and video recording has also been carried out.
A conservation report covers the remarkable features of the historic structure.
Ar. Yasmeen Lari, CEO, Heritage Foundation and Hon. Project Director, Sethi House Conservation Project, visited the Sethi House on March 13th to examine the progress of work.
The demolition of the non-historic portion that had been built some time in 1950s, had been carried out, which has cleared the area in the front of the house as a forecourt.
The work on the brick wall in the rear to stabilize the neighbours’ wall was partially completed.
On March 14th she called on Dr. Shah Nazar, Director, Directorate of Archaeology, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It was decided that the proposed workshop/seminar should be held some time during the middle of April.
A visit to the Sethi House was later made by the Director, as well as Mrs. Fareeda Nishtar, Member, Sethi House Committee .