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Bukhara-e-Hind: Rampur’s Lost History   

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Bukhara-e-Hind: Rampur’s Lost History   

Today, Rampur is best known as a Muslim “vote bank” in Uttar Pradesh. Its history as a vibrant syncretic cultural hub has been lost.

Bukhara-e-Hind: Rampur’s Lost History   

Raza Library, established in the late 18th century, looms over a street in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ J ansari

Shaho ke bhee jo hoga na aya zuhoor me  
Saaman aish ka hai wo hazir huzoor me 
Is roshni ka jalwa toh milta hai toor me  
Kudrat khuda kee ayi nazar Rampur me 

This couplet by Rampuri court poet Mir Yar Ali Jan Saheb, from his illustrated  manuscript, “Musaddas-Tahniyat-Jashn-e-Benazir,” describes that Rampur once boasted a lavish culture of regality and glamor, which personified god’s glory on Earth. In his book, he uses a unique style of visibly queer poetry called Rekhtigoi, which not only mentions but also celebrates the vernacular words and dialects of Rampuri women and tawaifs, which truly brought the seven-day festival of Jashn-e-Benazir to life. 

But today, no one in Rampur remembers his name or his poems. 

Rampur, my hometown, is a small Muslim-majority city in northwestern Uttar Pradesh. In the modern world, Rampur succumbed to being known as the Muslim Vote Bank of Western UP. In the last decade, the dust on its monuments, books, and political climate only thickened. 

The city’s story truly begins between 1707 and 1712, when a Pashtun slave boy, Daud Khan, ran away from his master, from the land of “Roh” in the Hindu Kush mountains, and settled in Rohilkhand in Ganga-Yamuna Doab, as a horse trader. It was in Rampur that he saw the ritual of sati for the first time, where a widow self-immolates on her husband’s funeral pyre. Khan was so moved by it that he chose to make a tomb for the lady, which is known as “Sati ka maqbara.” Khan’s foster son would later head the line of Rampur’s nawabs, or Muslim rulers.

In the initial years of its existence, Rampur expanded exponentially into a cultural and academic hub of the region. It came to be known as the Bukhara of India, or “Bukhara-e-Hind” (Bukhara, in present-day Uzbekistan, was the most prosperous and academically relevant city of Central Asia in the 18th century). 

Yet the Rampur where I was born and raised felt as if it had truly fallen from grace. There is not only rampant neglect of heritage by the people and authorities but also an insidious mass amnesia of Rampur’s past as Bukhara-e-Hind. In recent years, a revival of the city’s culture had seen a breakthrough, but it had hardly restored Rampur’s former image. 

Today, the “Muslim invader” discourse so prevalent in historical narratives discourages anyone from studying Rampur’s history. The politics of naming, in particular, has sought to erase Muslim history in India. This is true for Rampur as well, wherein Muslim discourse was replaced by resentment for the Rampui nawabs. For example, Nawab Gate, once one of the prominent city gates, was destroyed in the late 2000s and its name was changed. 

However, if those who decided such policies knew of Rampur’s syncretic rulers and their history, they might have realized their mistake. 

The first nawab of Rampur, Nawab Faizullah Khan (died 1794), carried forward the legacy of Daud Khan’s religious tolerance by intermixing his own Pashtun heritage with Hindu culture and history. 

In 1774, he shifted his capital from the south of the city, at Shahbad, to its present location in the north, for military reasons. The new land in the north was a collection of a few villages and was called “Rampur,” after the old Katehari King Ram Singh. Faizullah Khan was advised to change the name to Mustafabad, but the nawab (even in the 18th century) understood the useless implication of changing names. He chose the name “Rampur” to stay, because of its deep cultural importance and shared history. He then erected laws in place that specifically targeted people who generated enmity against the Hindu citizens. 

The later nawabs of the 20th century also adopted this syncretic approach toward governance. They incorporated this sentiment by adopting, learning, and improving Hindustani classical music, celebrating Holi and Eid alike, and by using the system of charan-sparsh (a Hindu ritual of bowing and touching the feet) in royal protocol. 

For the last two years, I have been meticulously devoting time, out of my hospital duties, to write and explore the history and heritage of my hometown. I have found that disdain toward nawabi heritage in Rampur intersects all categories of religion and class, and is hence not a manifestation of poor governance. 

The people of Rampur often talk about how it is the responsibility of the government or the royal family to preserve the large number of monuments present in the city. However, I have come to find that the collective amnesia of Rampuris had also contributed to this. 

But why did that happen? What erased the previous sense of space and identity for the Rampuri people? 

Advocate Shaukat Ali, in his book on Rampur’s history, hints that such a process started much later, in the 20th century. The nawab’s hold and influence on the fading reins of monarchy forced his government to direct innumerable atrocities on dissenting citizens and their representatives. 

The underlying truth of this history is substantiated in an eccentric and funny story, I heard from my neighbor Akbar Masood at one of our Taar-Gosht parties. This was the story of a man called Hashmat Pagla, which translates to “Don’t Laugh Idiot.” Hashmat Pagla had saved Nawab Raza Ali’s carriage. As a reward, he asked that his bullock cart be permitted to use the center of the road. 

In those days, the nawab had decreed that only the royal vehicles and carriages were allowed in the center of the road. Hashmat Pagla’s innocent request reveals that the dynamics during the last phases of the nawabi era were deeply king-centric, and the rulers were becoming increasingly decadent. 

Perhaps today, Rampuri people remember how they lost faith in the one person who was supposed to lead them. Now, as the royal culture crumbles from existence, people often end up telling stories of individuals like Hashmat Pagla, who openly challenged the status quo. 

A negative feedback loop was hence created. The authorities failed in their part to preserve these spaces in a way that their value was known to more people, and the people, already tired of Nawabiyat, started believing that their own culture and heritage were not important enough to remember. 

People and their leaders today have been pushed away from the city’s syncretic roots. The land where a Muslim migrant cried watching a Hindu woman commit sati, and was so moved as to build her a monument, is forgetting those ancient memories. That is a loss I don’t want to see. 

There is a middle way to preserve a sense of space associated with monarchy. One can be critical of monarchs, but still value their heritage. States like Rajasthan have excelled at that, and it not only generates revenue but also preserves heritage and culture. 

Rampur’s history needs to be revived, and its story as Bukhara-e Hind needs to be told.