Historians, scholars oppose govt proposal to demolish century-old Sultan Palace in Patna

Ironically, the Sultan Palace is listed as a heritage building in the 2008 Bihar government publication "Patna: A Monumental History".

Patna: The Bihar government’s proposal to demolish the historic Sultan Palace in the heart of the city has shocked historians, conservationists and ordinary citizens who have vehemently opposed the decision and appealed for preserving and restoring the “architectural icon” instead of razing it.

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The Nitish Kumar government recently announced that the state cabinet had given its nod to build three five-star hotels in Patna, including one at the site of the 100-year-old Sultan Palace on Beer Chand Patel Road.

As the decision was made public, protests erupted on social media, with many citizens calling it “absolutely shocking” and “a hare-brained decision” even as some of them cited the Bihar government’s earlier decision, taken a few years ago, to convert the palace into a “heritage hotel” and asked why has it discarded the widely-reported old plan.

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Ordinary citizens, scholars and activists from different parts of the country have appealed to the government to not demolish the Sultan Palace, one of the last surviving palaces in Patna, and instead convert it into a heritage five-star hotel, which would only enhance its value and attract more tourists.

The palace, located on the historic Gardiner Road (now Beer Chand Patel Road), was built in 1922 by the legendary barrister of Patna, Sir Sultan Ahmad, who also briefly served as a judge in the Patna High Court and as the first Indian vice-chancellor of the Patna University from 1923-30.

He later became a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council for law and information and broadcasting, and was part of the delegation of India for the historic Round Table Conferences in 1930s in London, along with Mahatma Gandhi.

Scholar and former vice chancellor of Patna University RBP Singh termed the decision to demolish the iconic palace “absolutely shocking” and a “hair-brained and insensitive” move.

“How can anyone even think of dismantling an architectural jewel and a historic building like the Sultan Palace. So many historic buildings already demolished in the last one decade or so, the latest being the centuries-old Patna Collectorate, which should have been preserved. And, now they want to bring down this beautiful palace in the name of development. This has to stop, and society needs to wake up and stand up for its heritage,” he said.

Noted Delhi-based historians Swapna Liddle and S Irfan Habib have also expressed “deep shock” over the decision to raze the palace for a five-star hotel.

Liddle, who had earlier lent support to the Save Historic Patna Collectorate, a citizen-led initiative to save the Dutch-era landmark from demolition and which is now fighting to save the Sultan Palace, said, “World over the trend is now to showcase heritage and flaunt it to attract tourists, but cities like Patna are actually doing the opposite.”

“I am currently in Europe, and visited a very old town in Germany, and there are castles and other huge old buildings, but also other less imposing old structures which have been reused as hotels, cafes and restaurants, and the local authorities use heritage as a USP to attract tourists. Why can’t Sultan Palace itself be made into a hotel, instead of demolishing it and making a high-rise property,” she told PTI over phone.

Habib alleged that it was yet another step to “erase history in the name of development”.

“I am deeply pained by what’s happening in the country when it comes to our heritage, from controversy being stoked around Taj Mahal and Qutub Minar. And, Patna already has lost so much of heritage to demolition. The decision to raze Sultan Palace has to be resisted by the intellectuals and ordinary people, before we lose another architectural marvel,” he said.

Ironically, the Sultan Palace is listed as a heritage building in the 2008 Bihar government publication “Patna: A Monumental History”.

“Sultan Palace is a beautiful example of Islamic architecture, its palatial look comes from its high-domed tower in the centre and the domed pavilions at the two ends of the roof. This is further stressed by skender minarets rising at angles and the series of multi-foliated arches in the facade,” reads the chapter on the palatial building in a sprawling campus of over four acres.

In Bihar and state capital Patna, among several others, former IPS officer Amitabh Kumar Das has resisted the move.

He has written to the Bihar governor to stop the demolition of “a heritage on which entire Bihar prides itself”, and threatened to launch a “peaceful satyagraha” if needed.

Activist and Oxford University scholar Gurmehar Kaur, who is currently visiting Bihar, started an online petition on Change.org to save the Sultan Palace a couple of days ago. It has clocked over 500 supporters and the number is growing.

“Public response and actions can save our heritage buildings from demolition. How can anyone even think of bringing down such a beauty that deserves our love and admiration. We are hoping people will come together for this and not let it go the Patna Collectorate way,” she said.

Efforts to save Sultan Palace has found support and resonance from people abroad too. Many scholars and foreign citizens who admire the diverse heritage and culture India have taken to social media to back its preservation.

Sanskrit and Persian scholar from Oxford University Sam Dalrymple said, “The historic fabric of Patna is starting to gain international awareness, so it’s tragic that the local government is intent on destroying what little heritage remains in the old city. That too to make way for a five-star hotel. Why can’t the same building be made into an even higher end hotel? Any tourist would rather stay in a heritage hotel.”

Sam, son of globally renowned author and historian William Dalrymple, told PTI, “As a foreigner in India, I would rather stay in a 1922-era palace in Patna over a modern concrete-built hotel any day.” PTI KND

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