It’s called a palace, though it’s not one. It’s called an abode of fairies, but there have been stories of an evil magician keeping abducted princesses here.
What Pari Mahal, tucked away on the Zabarwan mountain range in Srinagar, originally was is far less romantic – Mughal prince Dara Shukoh had it constructed as a spiritual retreat.
The name ‘Pari Mahal’, and the tales of sorcery around it, suggest that popular memory today remembers it much like its builder Dara Shukoh — in narratives that are not very accurate, but great stories anyway.
As the government sets up a panel to pinpoint the grave of Dara Shukoh, the humble Pari Mahal serves as a good reminder of why facts, though less exciting, hold important lessons.
Pari Mahal is beautiful – the ruins of the building are set in a seven-terraced garden, with water tanks, a baradari, and some rooms distinguishable on the various terraces. In the gardens tower old sturdy trees, with a profusion of seasonal blossoms on the ground.
Dara Shukoh, the Muslim prince, had this retreat built for his Sufi teacher, Mullah Shah Akhund Badakhshani, at the site of a ruined Buddhist monastery.
Mullah Shah was a Sufi saint of the Qadri order. Dara Shukoh wanted to be initiated into the order by Mian Mir, but after he passed away, it was his successor Mullah Shah who came to be the murshid (guide) of both Dara and his sister, princess Jahanara.
Ashraf Wani, a retired history professor at the University of Kashmir, says: “The royal siblings built two monuments for Mullah Shah in Kashmir – a mosque at Hari Parbat, and the Pari Mahal. Though the exact purpose Pari Mahal was used for is unclear, all existing evidence, and the building itself – the water tanks, the rows of rooms – say that it was a spiritual retreat. Dara Shukoh was greatly interested in the study of comparative religion, and at Pari Mahal, mystics of all religions would come to meditate.”
Dara visited Kashmir thrice, in the summer season. He authored several works, and is said to have written a part of his most famous book, Majma-ul-Bahrain: The Mingling of Two Oceans of Sufism and Vedanta, at Pari Mahal.
GMD Sufi, in his 1948 book Kashir: Being a History of Kashmir From the Earliest Times to Our Own, says of Pari Mahal: “The ruined Pari Mahal (or Fairy Palace) also called Quntilon, on a spur of the Zabarwan Mountain is a memorial of the Mughal love for letters. It was a residential school of Sufism built by Prince Dara Shukuh at the instance of his tutor, Akhund Mulla Muhammad Shah Badakhshani.”
Present-day historians attest to Pari Mahal being essentially a centre of knowledge. Dr Sahib Khawaja, a history scholar at the University of Kashmir, says: “Dara was a man of learning, broad-minded and curious. While the rest of his family built lush gardens in Kashmir, he constructed a centre of learning, where scholars and saints could meditate and exchange ideas.”
How did this building of letters and learning get the name ‘Pari Mahal’? One story goes that it was named after Pari Begum, Dara Shukoh’s wife. Another says the building was originally called ‘Pir (saint) Mahal’, later changed to Pari Mahal.
Walter R Lawrence, in his 1895 book The Valley of Kashmir, writes: “…nothing is perhaps more striking than the ruined Pari Mahal, standing grandly on a spur of the Zebanwan mountain… Strange tales are told of the Pari Mahal, of the wicked magician who spirited away kings’ daughters in their sleep, how an Indian princess by the order of her father brought away a chenar leaf to indicate the abode of her seducer, and how all the outraged kings of India seized the magician.”
Professor Ashraf Wani, however, says there is no record of a ‘Pari Begum’. “The theory of ‘Pir Mahal’ changing to ‘Pari Mahal’ doesn’t seem accurate either. The word ‘Pir’ very much survives in common usage today, so there’s no reason it should have been corrupted to ‘Pari’ only in the context of this building. In Kashmir, we say abandoned buildings are occupied by demons. That’s probably one reason why the ruined complex got the name ‘Pari Mahal’,” he adds.
To look at ‘Pari Mahal’ in its secluded gardens as an abode of fairies makes for a lovely, timeless story. But the scholarly, interfaith work carried out at the complex is perhaps the story more relevant for our times.
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