Discovering Aligarh City

Aae Aligarh Aae Jawa’n Qismat Dabistan’n-e Kuhan,
Aae Ki Shama-e Fikr Se Tabinda Teri Anjuman,
Tere Paimano’n Mein Larza’n Hai Sharab-e Ilm-e Fann,
Hashr Ke Din Tak Phala Phoola Rahe Tera Chaman,
Mashael-e Meena Se Roshan Tera Maekhana Rahe,
Rehti Duniya Tak Tera Gardish Mein Paimana Rahe.

– Josh Malihababdi

Although Aligarh is a historical city, it was never prominent on the map. Now, the first question that arises is why did Sir Syed select Aligarh as the place for his dream institution. He lived in various cities due to official postings. He even traveled to many places and could have opted for any other modern city of the time. Interestingly, the selection of Aligarh by Sir Syed was not by chance but by research. Aligarh was not too big that such an institution would have been negligible for the city, it was also not too small that it was deprived of basic facilities. By the 1870s, Aligarh had a population of 60,000. Aligarh has a Railway line and is connected to Delhi and other cities and even connected to GT Road. The earliest available record of annual rainfall is for the years 1844-45 to 1849-50, giving an average rainfall of 26 inches per annum. There is no river, so no chance of flood. Groundwater was at 20 ft and there was no chance of an earthquake. The environment was healthy and pleasant. In Jan 1873, a committee was formed consisting of Raja Jai Kishan Das, Lawrence the Collector, Dr Jackson the Civil Surgeon, Hunt the Executive Engineer, Muhammad Enayatullah Khan and Moulvi Mohd Yusuf to select a suitable site for the college in Aligarh.

The present district of Aligarh is situated in the middle portion of Doab, or the land between the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. The principal town in the Aligarh district for the last many centuries has been its headquarters, Aligarh. It was known till the 18th century by the earlier name of Kol (Koil/Cole). After the British occupation of Aligarh in Sep 1803, the present Aligarh district was formed in 1804. Like other parts of Doab, Aligarh has a hot and dry climate. Kol covered not only the city, but the entire district, though its geographical limits kept changing from time to time. In some ancient texts, Kol has been referred to in the sense of a tribe or caste, name of a place or mountain and name of a sage or demon. According to Skanda Purana, Kol was a malechha tribe that wandered in the forest of the Himalayas. According to Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Kol was a mixed caste (Varnasankar). According to Padma Purana, Kol was an aboriginal caste. Kola appears in the Siva Purana as the name of the capital of the Kingdom of Saurath, which was ruled by the son of King Virath. Kolagir has been mentioned in Mahabharat as the name of a mountain in the South, which was conquered by Sahadeva on his Digvijaya (conquest of the world). Kol was also the name of a rishi (sage) of Kaushik Gotra.

Kol has frequently been referred to in medieval sources. It occurs for the first time in the Jaj-ul Ma’asir of Hasan Nizami and then Tabaqat-e Nasiri, in connection with its capture by Qutubuddin Aibek in 1192. Abul Fazl lists Kol among the Mahals of Sarkar Kol. The most striking feature of Koil was the Balai Qila / Upper Fort, i.e, a fort on the Great Mound. The accumulation of successive settlements goes back at least, as far back as the Buddhist period in the 1st century BC. Later from the 2nd century AD to the 9th century AD, this area was ruled by Mauryas, Sakas, Kushans, Guptas and Gujar-Pratihars. The Achal Tal (water tank) is known as one of the most ancient localities in Aligarh and dates back to the 10th century AD. Mahmud Ghazni, in 1018, made no mention of Koil in his account while the capturing of Baran (Bulandshahr) by Har Datt, father of Vikramaditya, is narrated at length. The fortress of Koil was controlled in 1194 by Qutubuddin Aibek, the Turkish slave who assimilated North India at the end of the 12th century. It marked the beginning of the Muslim administration in this region. Historian Hasan Nizami described Koil as ‘one of the most celebrated fortresses in India’. A tall minar was constructed by Balban which was demolished by the repressive British rulers in 1862. From 1194 to 1526, this region was ruled by four dynasties namely, the Slaves from 1194-1290, Khilji from 1290-1320, Tughlaq from 1320-1414, and Lodhi from 1451-1526. During the Lodhi period, the Kali Masjid was constructed in Mohalla Bani Israilan and fortifications were built around the fortress at Balai Qila, with four gates whose names survive to this day, namely Delhi Gate, Madar Gate, Turkman Gate, and Sasni Gate.

The Mughal supremacy in this region started in the 16th century. Babur the first Mughal emperor visited this place. The district remained in the hands of Humayun, the successor of Babur for quite some time. Under the rule of Emperor Akbar, Koil was the capital of a Sarkar, whose officer was Mir Mohammad Gesu who built the Idgah in 1563. The Sarkar was divided into four dasturs (revenue circles) and 21 Mahalas (Parganas). At that time this district was one of the most thickly populated ones, very highly cultivated and in a high state of tillage. During the reign of Jahangir and Shah Jahan (1605-1655), the administrative setup was the same as it was in Akbar’s period. Aurangzeb, the last powerful Mughal emperor, appointed Nand Ram Jat as the army commander of Aligarh. Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 marked the beginning of the Mughal decline.

The District is named after its headquarters town Aligarh which itself receives this name from the celebrated fort of Aligarh originally built in 1524 by Muhammad Khan, the governor of Koil under the Lodhi. It was rebuilt in 1717 by Sabit Khan, A Turkoman governor during the reigns of Farrukh Siyar and Muhammad Shah, and its name was changed to Sabit Garh. The important construction of his time was the fort of Sabitgarh, the tomb of Allah Bakhsh (1717), reconstruction of Jama Masjid (1724), the founding of the Harduaganj market, construction of a tank which linked with the Jami Masjid of the Aligarh city through an underground channel near Nandan Cinema. In 1775 Najaf Khan, a Mughal commander assimilated the district and sent his lieutenant, Afrasyab who laid siege to the Fort and got it vacated after a few months. It received its present Appellation of Aligarh in the time of Afrasyab Khan, who succeeded Safdar Jang, the Nawab Vizir of Avadh, in 1782 as Amir-ul Umra. But finally, the fort was taken by the Marathas in 1788. Thanks to Jamal Muhammad Siddiqui Sir for his Book, Aligarh District which helped in decoding these aspects of History.

The command of this region was being given to the French, Count De Biogene, by the Marathas. He formed a great cantonment (near present Sulaiman Hall, AMU) in 1791, which became the headquarters of a large division of troops for European-style training. After De Biogene, his trusted general Culier Perron was sent by Marathas to take his place. Perron in 1801 collected tribute from various Rajputs chiefs. He improved the bastions of the fort and enlarged the cantonment. In 1802, he built a garden for his residence, still known as Sahib Bagh. At the same time, the British had extended their frontiers in North India under the command of General Lake. They besieged the fort of Sasni, Bijairgarh and Kachaura in February 1803. In September 1803 British army attacked the Aligarh fort and captured it (Aligarh fort is now with Aligarh Muslim University). British authorities have sometimes spelled Aligarh as ‘Allygurh’. Before the British took possession, Aligarh and its surrounding countryside had declined considerably. British efforts to improve the situation, notable construction of Gangas canal in 1840 were of dubious value. The consolidation of British rule and the fall of the Mughals was a prelude to a great tempest that came in the form of the Mutiny of 1857. The news of this revolt reached Aligarh on 12th May 1857. The second half of the 19th century was the most critical period in the history of Indian Muslims. They were steeped in ignorance, conservatism, traditionalism and superstitions. The community lost all the vitality, vigor and creative force of a living nation. At this critical juncture, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan appeared on the social horizon of India. With the help of his colleagues, he began the Aligarh movement. Aligarh Muslim University celebrated its Centenary on 1st Dec 2020; which dates back to Madarsat-ul Uloom founded on 24th May 1875 and MAO College on 8th Jan 1877. This renaissance changed the course of society in general, and the Muslim community in particular !

Iss Chaman Ke Naghma Pairaon Ki Azadi To Dekh,
Sheher Jo Ujra Huwa Tha, Uss Ki Abadi To Dekh

– Allama Iqbal

The author can be contacted at 9839026995


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