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Shigar Fort Residence

Shigar Fort Residence is a unique heritage conservation project which offers guests the opportunity to experience the restored original architecture of a 17th century Raja fort palace, while enjoying the amenities and services of a luxury 20-room guest house. This achievement combines the preservation and re-use of a significant historical and architectural site with a commitment to socially responsible tourism and economic development in the Shigar Valley.

History of Shigar Fort Residence

Shigar FortShigar Fort Residence is a unique heritage conservation project which offers guests the opportunity to experience the restored original architecture of a 17th century Raja fort palace, while enjoying the amenities and services of a luxury 20-room guest house.The original Shigar Fort Palace (known as Fong-Khar, which in the local Balti language means, "Palace on the Rock"), was built by Hassan Khan, the 20th ruler of the Amacha Dynasty, in the early 17th century. The Amacha family claims to have ruled Shigar for thirty-three generations, with origins in the "Hamacha" tribe of Ganish, Hunza. When the Hamacha tribe was massacred in Hunza, a few of its members managed to flee to Shigar across the Hispar glacial pass, where they gained power and were recognized as the Amacha Dynasty in the 13th century.

Fong-Khar is the last remaining structure associated with the ruling Amacha family. The oldest of them was Khar-e-Dong, the fort whose ruins can still be seen high up on the cliffs overlooking the present site. It is thought that Khar-e-Dong was captured and destroyed by Mughal forces sent by Shah Jehan, in aid of Hassan Khan to regain his throne which was lost to marauding invaders. In all probability, the destruction of Khar-e-Dong necessitated the construction of the present Fong-Khar.

Hassan Khan brought a variety of artisans, gold smiths, carpenters, stone carvers, and textile weavers from Kashmir to Shigar to build his Fort-Palace. This resulted in a blend of Kashmiri-influenced carving and details with local Balti architecture, one of the unique features which make Fong-Khar a significant historical and architectural treasure.

The Fort-Palace is situated in a powerful natural setting, full of dramatic contrasts. The raw natural quality of this scenery, softened by human settlement that began at least two millennia ago, offers strong contrasts between rocky cliffs and cultivated terraces, as well as between the continuous thunder of the rushing river and the quiet spaces within the garden-site and buildings themselves. The steep rocky escarpment forming the background of the palace, the stream passing in front of the complex, and many of the irrigation channels meandering through a well-preserved and authentic settlement, all account for the unique charm of the site.

Architectural Significance

The Old Fort-Palace
The original Fong-Khar was founded on top of a platform which rises 5m from the ground and partly surrounds a gigantic cone-shaped rock (thus, the origins of the name, Fong-Khar, or "Palace on the Rock"). Although the Old Fort-Palace as it is now restored appears to be one structure, upon closer examination, it is actually a collection of three separate buildings, built adjacent to each other in different times and with different engineering and workmanship. During the restoration of the site, these three structures were identified as Modules I, II, and III.

Module I represents the oldest part of the original structure estimated at 400 years old. It can easily be interpreted as a single, clearly conceived and executed structure, with a distinct and noble architectural expression. Original usage of this structure can be identified through its sequence of rooms including entrance hall, grand audience hall, retiring rooms for the ruler, and kitchen.

Module II is estimated to have been constructed approximately 100 years after the original Fong-Khar, with Module III following another 150 years later. Both Modules II and III were comprised of residential rooms for the royal family, some more elaborate than others.

Old House
Shigar Fort Old HouseOld HouseThe building to the south of the Old Fort-Palace is now known as Old House. Its lower floor had accommodated a horse stable, a cattle pen, and storage for animal feed. It appears to have existed as the royal stable for as long as Fong-Khar itself. The upper floor of this structure was added much later by the raja as new residential accommodation when the Old Fort-Palace was abandoned in the middle of the 20th century.

Amacha Garden and Baridari
It is not known when this decorative square pool - the central feature of the garden - was built, or what its initial appearance was like. Early in the 20th century, a pavilion was built on the central platform of the pool by Raja Muhammad Adam Khan, the father of the present Raja Muhammad Ali Saba. At the time of the takeover of the site by the conservation team, exquisitely carved marble bases that would have supported free-standing and attached columns could still be found on the central platform. The artistic quality of these marble bases approaches the perfection of Kashmiri buildings of the high Mughal style. Knowing that nothing of a quality approaching that of these column bases was built anywhere else in Shigar at the time the pavilion was built in the early 20th century, one can deduce that the column bases have a provenance in an earlier building.

The Raja's Mosque
The Raja's public mosque is a handsome and ornate building adjacent to the entrance to the complex and is of significant antiquity and artistic value. It is similar in form and ornament to other mosques in the Shigar area: a single four-bayed room with a central column support and a veranda on the eastern side.

The Vision for Shigar Fort Residence

In 1999, Fong-Khar was bequeathed to the people of Baltistan by Raja Sahib Mohammad Ali Shah Saba of Shigar and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) was entrusted with its restoration. In a painstaking process lasting over five years at a cost of approximately $1.4 million USD, the entire site was brought back to life following a careful strategy of adaptive re-use and restoration. This strategy would form the foundation for the three-fold mandate of Shigar Fort Residence: Preservation of Cultural Heritage, Socially Responsible Tourism and Economic Development, and Self-Sustaining Operations.

Preservation of Cultural Heritage
One of the most important considerations in the entrustment of Fong-Khar to AKTC for restoration was that the project remain true to the original character and architecture of the buildings as much as possible. Much care was taken to identify original use, to adhere to that use or adopt a new use compatible with the original use so that there was minimal impact on the cultural significance of the building.

Socially Responsible Tourism and Economic Development
The project provided a perfect opportunity to act as a catalyst for comprehensive improvement of the local economy, by generating direct and indirect employment opportunities. Situated in the immediate proximity of a poor and unskilled village population, it was thought that the Shigar Fort Residence project could raise the quality of life in the villages surrounding it, and boost economic enterprises in the bazaar area. This process was to be accompanied by a proactive village upgrading and rehabilitation programme in which micro-finance played an important role.

The idea of promoting a new type of environmentally conscious cultural tourism was decisive for the reuse design of Shigar Fort, both in terms of providing new opportunities to local residents and of ensuring financial self-sustainability for the restored building. With little existing commerce related to tourism, and the resulting lack of pressures on land, the Shigar context was relatively untouched by any major conflict between heritage and development. It was consequently possible to put in place mechanisms linked to social and economic development for appropriate management of cultural, scenic and environmental resources prior to the onset of the pressures of tourism. The establishment of a wide-ranging local institutional base before the commencement of tourism promotion programmes in the region was a part of this strategy.

Self-Sustaining Operations
The reuse concept for Shigar Fort Residence strikes a balance between, on the one hand, a museal site and, on the other, a very special resort-type guest house offering the unique experience of authentic guest rooms in a historic palace. The ongoing operations of Shigar Fort Residence strive towards long-term self-sustainability providing continuing economic and tourism development for the entire Shigar Valley.

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