With renovation at snail’s pace, the once magnificent royal palace — the Poonch Fort — is fighting a battle against the ravages of time and official apathy

A 16 Century fort in the heart of the border town of Poonch that had once been a magnificent palace stands today as a picture of neglect and depravation. Not only has time taken its toll on the sprawling structure, the ramparts and some other parts of this fort were damaged in a 2005 earthquake in Jammu and Kashmir.

Before the natural disaster struck, the fort had literally become Poonch’s Secretariat housing a number of government offices with the occupants paying scant attention to its maintenance. And though the offices were shifted out following the earthquake, it did not take long for resurfacing of encroachments.

At present, the tehsildar’s office is housed inside the fort; encroachments by the local people appear everywhere — new structures of shops and privately-owned buildings have come up on the prohibited areas within the fort premises as well as along its periphery. Apart from that, unchecked vegetation growth has sprouted on the fort’s walls and floor. According to Ashok Kumar, CEO of Poonch Development Authority (PDA), this is causing damage to the fort’s structure.

It was only two years back that the State Ministry of Tourism sanctioned a project for the restoration and conservation of this historic fort spread over an area of 21 kanals; the actual built area is eight kanals.

The PDA wants the project to be considered as a mega one if this historic monument is to be restored to its past glory. In a letter to the Union Ministry of Tourism, the PDA has highlighted an urgent need to prepare a revised detailed Project Report.

The foundation of this fort was laid by Raja Adbul Razaq Khan in 1713 A.D. The actual construction work was, however, started by his son Raja Rustam Khan. In fact, Poonch was earlier named after him as Rustam Nagar. Originally the fort was planned as a composite structure for the fortification of the town and for housing the royal palace. 

Witness to many a historic events and change of hands, the fort reflects the cultural and architectural ethos of the Mughal, Dogra and Sikh rulers. It is, however, the Mughal style of architecture that dominates. The fort has a temple, a gurudwara and a mosque. The mosque was damaged in the 2005 quake; the temple and the gurudwara still exist in the southern part of the structure. The fort has 89 rooms in all in eight structures and five courtyards.

During the Sikh rule in 1819-1846, the central block was added which bears the distinct influence of Sikh architectural style. But it goes to the credit of Raja Moti Singh who took a lot of interest in giving a new look to the fort and continued renovating it for almost four decades. He had even hired a European architect to design the front block of the fort.

The fort building complex was converted into a secretariat of the kingdom after shifting the palace to Moti Mahal during Raja Baldev Singh’s reign.

Though the renovation of the fort began two years ago, it is going on at a snail’s pace because of the delayed sanction of funds. Nearly Rs. four crore have been sanctioned so far but if the proposal for a mega project gets the nod, it will cost much more.

What is unfortunate is that Poonch is more in news because of firing from across the Line of Control than its historic significance, its heritage palaces, forts, lakes and streams and the captivating scenic beauty. The town connects to Srinagar via the famous Mughal Road.

Mr. Kumar says that the PDA is trying not only to renovate the fort as fast as possible, but develop other tourist spots and explore the scope for trekking along the Mughal road.