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Project Profile

 

2006 Award of Excellence

Shigar Fort-Palace

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LocationShigar, Skardu, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan

Size1,906 square metres

Cost: US$ 1,548,738

Responsible PartyAga Khan Trust for Culture and Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan

Heritage ArchitectStefano Bianca, Masood Khan, Richard Hughes

                                    Shehnaz Ismail, Benedict Bull, Abbas Ali Shah

                                    Sher Ghazi, Salman Muhammad, Shukurullah Baig

ContractorAga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan

Date of CompletionMarch 2005


Context

Built on a massive rock at the foot of cliffs among orchards on the northern bank of Shigar Nullah, Shigar Fort-Palace, known locally as Fong Khar (Palace on the Rock), is located in Shigar Valley, in the Karakoram Mountains of northern Pakistan. Occupation of the surrounding area dates to the fifth century. The long and chequered history of the area can be seen in the varying building styles, which display a combination of traditional Baltistani construction techniques with influences of Kashmiri culture, as well as Buddhist traditions from Tibet and Ladakh. Shigar Fort-Palace is perhaps the only secular building in Baltistan that displays this cultural mélange.

Building History

Shigar Fort-Palace is built on a large rectangular platform of cyclopean masonry that is nearly five metres high. The complex comprises a main building (the fortified palace) and two smaller buildings, as well as a mosque and a formal garden, the Amacha Tsar. It was built in three successive and distinct phases of horizontal expansion. The construction of the three-storey main building of Shigar Fort-Palace was ordered in 1634 by Hassan Khan, the twentieth ruler of the Amacha Dynasty, to mark the repossession of Shigar by the Amacha clan. The other buildings were built in the following two centuries.

At the height of its grandeur, the stone and timber complex had over 40 rooms, including formal sitting areas, bedrooms, kitchens and servants’ quarters. The buildings within the complex feature carved wooden pillars and doorways, richly embellished with floral and geometric designs and animal figures, as well as wooden window screens. The formal Mughalstyle garden contained a baradari (12-door square pavilion) built on an elevated square platform and set within a square water basin.

In the early twentieth century the owner of the complex could no longer afford the building’s upkeep so vacated the property, and it descended into partial ruin. Moisture infiltration led to the collapse of many of the upper storey rooms and the progressive collapsing of the building’s floors led to the creation of a courtyard-like hollow in the centre of the main building. Centuries of oil lamps and kitchen fires had left layers of caked soot on the stones and timbers. In the latter half of the twentieth century, local villagers began using several ground floor rooms of the complex to house animals, causing significant damage to the wooden elements in those rooms and leading to insect infestation. The extensive decay made the building very unstable. In an effort to stabilize the building, users of the building propped up walls and ceilings with elements of the original structure, such as carved columns, but by the 1990s the building was on the verge of collapse.

Project History

In 1997, the Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP) conducted a reconnaissance mission to Baltistan to select key potential restoration projects and in 1998 undertook feasibility studies and pilot conservation and community-based development projects. The AKCSP identified Shigar Fort-Palace as a potential building for restoration and entered into discussions with the owner of the building. In 1999 Shigar Fort-Palace was bequeathed by the Raja of Shigar to the community of Shigar and to the population of Baltistan at large, opening the way for the conservation project.

The conservation project was launched in 2000 and began with a series of detailed documentation and structural consolidation works. The working season in the region has a duration of only seven months, from mid-March through mid-November, so although the conservation project was planned for a period of four years, the period was subsequently extended for another year, and the project was not completed until March 2005.

Project Scope and Framework 

Repairs and modifications to the Shigar Fort-Palace were made with the aim of adapting the complex to be used as a luxury heritage guesthouse with 20 guest rooms, and a museum of Balti culture. The main building’s grand audience hall was adapted to serve as the museum, displaying select examples of fine woodcarvings and other heritage objects from the local region.

While there were many elements to the project, overall the project wanted to achieve three main goals. First, the project sought to save the 400 year-old historic monument, which was in danger of being lost; and thereby conserve an important heritage landmark of Baltistan. Second, it aimed to revive dwindling local building skills and crafts and provide employment opportunities for local residents. Third, it hoped to introduce and promote internationally recommended conservation standards and practices in Pakistan.

The project involved the conservation of the main building as well as four ancillary elements: the Old House, the Garden House, the Raja’s mosque, and the garden pavilion. In addition, landscaping, rehabilitation and improvements were carried out in the Amacha Tsar and other gardens. Work was also carried out to install a supply of clean drinking water and sanitary facilities in the complex, the benefits of which extended to the communities in the area.

Conservation Methodology and Materials 

To organize and prioritize the work, Shigar Fort-Palace was divided into modules I, II and III, representing the three building phases and additions. In each module, physical work followed successive steps in a similar agenda: survey, investigation, structural remedy, reinstatement, and documentation of the executed work. Interventions followed a progressive sequence, beginning with temporary and preparatory works followed by treatment of the foundations.

Following thorough surveys and evaluations of the structures, decisions were taken as to which age and historicity the structures were to be conserved to. Elements of high artistic value and those indicative of historic events or persons, and damage and distortions associated therewith, and patina of use and wear, were carefully identified and established as needing to be preserved. Such elements were also carefully integrated into the re-use functions and appropriately displayed. Workers adhered to international standards of conservation and high standards of preservation.

Restoration work was based on evidence of the original location, form and shape of significant elements. Module I, with its rich complement of 17th century carvings, is the core of the heritage value of the complex. Here interventions were limited to relieving or replacing weak structural parts. In cases where reconstruction was undertaken in the portions of the building that suffered extensive loss, the authenticity of the reconstruction was achieved by referring to existing examples within the fort. Portions that had been completely lost were not reconstructed, even though photographic evidence of their earlier presence existed.

To install new amenities without undermining authenticity, the functional characteristics of some of the old rooms were used so that the burden of intervention was minimized. For instance, the bathrooms, which required the installation of new plumbing and mechanical engineering, were located in the original locations, using the same vertical connections which previously connected to composting chambers. Furthermore, new elements were installed in such a way that they would be possible to remove in future, if necessary, without altering the historic core of the structure.

Appropriate local materials, including stone, adobe blocks and weeping willow were used, reinstating the original appearance and feel of the buildings. In the interior, timber furniture and furnishings were designed and manufactured on site. As one of the project’s aims was to revive local skills and crafts, craftspersons from the region were trained by masons, carpenters and weavers with experience in traditional building crafts from other conservation projects in northern Pakistan. Handwoven items featured in the guest rooms include the local charra (rugs), traditional rustic felt namda (carpets), as well as blankets made from local wool, and using natural dyes made locally.

Important Issues 

The emphasis on authenticity in this project, including the careful approach to interventions and the use of appropriate materials and traditional skills, ensured that the complex maintained its historic character and enhanced the value of the complex.

The AKCSP bore a substantial part of the cost of the project in terms of technical and human resources, including international technical expertise, and the related organizational and material resources. The project also received support from the Northern Areas Administration and the Government of Pakistan and was partly financed through contributions from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the Aga Khan Foundation, Norway, and donations from the Spanish, German and Greek embassies in Pakistan, as well as American Express International.

Project Sustainability and Viability  

Following the donation of the complex by the Raja of Shigar, the AKCSP formed a collective institution, the Shigar Town Management Society. During the conservation period the Shigar Town Management Society ran the facility, with the technical resources of AKCSP at hand to deal with any serious maintenance issues. Furthermore, as part of efforts to support the local communities, the Shigar Town Management Society built a new school.

The project hired and trained local people for the construction work, and following completion of the work, the facility, now known as Shigar Fort Residence, employed people from the nearby villages to work there. The high percentage of local people involved in the project and guesthouse indicates that the complex will continue to have community support and be sustainable in the long term.

Project Impact 

Since the opening of Shigar Fort Residence, local economic opportunities have opened up and employment opportunities have been generated for the local communities, providing residents with higher incomes and improved living conditions. The conservation process made use of local technical wisdom accumulated over centuries, reviving traditional values that had anchored society and given it direction over the centuries, while enabling the building to generate finances needed for future maintenance and the sustainability of local institutions. The project, rather than being an indefinite consumer of resources, now creates economic resources, benefiting the local population.

This project has also had a wide range of impacts in the sphere of public policy in heritage conservation, and on popularly held notions of tourism. Through media reports, the project promoted the idea of heritage as something to value and protect, and promoted the notion of a different kind of tourist destination for those seeking a peaceful retreat from large urban centres, a destination that is culturally rich and historically significant. Furthermore, the scores of school children from the sub-region who visit the museum at Shigar Fort Residence indicate the educational value the project had for future generations of Baltistanis.

Quote from the Project Team

“The success of the project was entirely due to the effort put in by the villagers of Basgo. We were at a height of 11,000 feet and had to work in the freezing cold, with no telephone lines or electricity. We could only work between May and September because the roads were blocked in the winter. I don’t think any other project will ever be so satisfying.”