Lost Treasures of the Rampur Nawabs
In February 2020, the Indian media was agog with excitement. According to a Supreme Court judgment in 2019, the court-appointed special commissioner, Saurabh Saxena, was to open the Treasure Vault or the ‘Shahi Khazana’ of the Nawabs of Rampur, in Khasbagh Palace in Rampur city, Uttar Pradesh, and distribute its contents among various heirs.
The vault, which had been unopened for more than 40 years, had no keys, and five expert welders drilled for hours and hours to break open the 6-tonne, 8-foot-tall iron door of the strong room. But it would not yield. As the welders tried to break in, outside, news teams were running frenzied stories, speculating about a hidden treasure worth thousands of crores of rupees. Everyone listened, watched and waited with bated breath.
After six unsuccessful attempts, the welders finally managed to break open the door to the vault on 7th March 2020. What followed was a spectacular anti-climax – the dark vault, lined with lockers and steel trunks, was empty and bare!
These developments begged the question: was there ever a great treasure in Rampur? If there was, how did a small state like Rampur amass such a fabulous fortune? And where had it gone? Like all things in Indian history, the answers are complicated. But, thankfully, I was able to access rare documents and files, and piece together the missing pieces of the puzzle.
Rampur, located 242 km east of Delhi, is an important city in Uttar Pradesh. Known for its ‘Rampuri Chaku’ (dagger) and even more for the shenanigans of its politicians, Rampur was once one of the richest and most industrialised princely states in India.
The Rohilkhand region in Uttar Pradesh, in which Rampur is located, was once a mass of uninhabited forests and grasslands. ‘Rohilla’ refers to people from the ‘roh’ or ‘mountains’ in Afghanistan, and during the end of the 16th century, a large number of Rohilla Pathans from Afghanistan settled here. Following the decline of Mughal power, these fiercely independent Afghan tribesmen carved out the land and divided it among different warlords, who were fierce mercenaries. The most famous among them was Najib Khan, who invited Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali to invade India, leading to the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761.
But the Rohilla confederacy suffered a severe blow when the combined armies of the East India Company and the Nawabs of Awadh invaded Rohilkhand and annexed its territories in 1773-1774 CE. The only warlord to survive this rout was Faizullah Khan, who was given a small tract of land, Rampur, under the protection of the British. He went on to become the first Nawab of Rampur in 1774 CE. His descendants would rule Rampur till 1947 and later play a role in Uttar Pradesh politics.
After securing his kingdom, Nawab Faizullah Khan began collecting rare and valuable manuscripts as well as rare jewels from the Mughal nobility, whose wealth was fast dwindling. This rare and valuable collection forms the nucleus of the Raza Library at Rampur, one of the finest in India.
Faizullah Khan’s descendant, Nawab Hamid Ali Khan (r. 1889-1930), transformed Rampur into one of the cultural hubs of Northern India. It was during his 41-year-old reign that the ‘Rampur Gharana’ of music and Kathak flourished. Few know that famous ghazal singers Begum Akhtar and Jaddanbai (actor Nargis Dutt’s mother) were court singers in the Rampur court.
Nawab Hamid Ali Khan also built the Hamid Manzil palace inside the Rampur Qila, with a spectacular Durbar Hall, which once contained the gold throne and the gold hookah of the Rampur Nawabs.
In the royal bedroom of the Hamid Manzil palace stood the ornate gold bed and silver dressing table of the Nawab. These can be seen in a collection of rare photographs available to us.
In 1930, Nawab Hamid Ali Khan was succeeded by his son, Nawab Sir Raza Ali Khan (r. 1930-56). Under the expert guidance of Rampur’s Prime Minister, Col Z H Zaidi, a large number of industries such as Raza Buland Sugar, Rampur Distillery and Rampur Textiles were established. Rampur became one of the most industrialised states in India and its income tripled. This will give you an idea of just how wealthy the region was: while the annual income of Kolhapur, which was 3,000 sq miles, was Rs 125 lakh per annum, that of Rampur, which was 800 sq miles, was Rs 110 lakh.
With the immense wealth generated by the industries, Nawab Sir Raza Ali Khan rebuilt the Khasbagh Palace, making it the first air-conditioned palace in India. The palace reminded visitors of a ‘Luxurious New York Hotel’ and boasted two heated swimming pools, a private nightclub and a movie theatre. In the centre of the palace was the ‘Shahi Khazana’ or Treasure Vault.
Nawab Raza Ali Khan substantially increased the Rampur jewellery collection, with enormous quantities of priceless rubies, rare emeralds and diamonds. The contents of the jewel strong room were known only to the Nawab and the Treasury Officer, and the only person ever given a tour of the treasure vault was the Viceroy of India.
While researching royal jewels, I would always wonder what lay concealed in the treasure vaults of the Maharajas and Nawabs. What was in the fabled vault of Rampur?
As luck would have it, I hit the jackpot a few years ago, while going through the published diaries of Lord Mountbatten for the years 1940-42. In 1942, Lord Mountbatten was the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army fighting in South-East Asia and was overseeing operations from New Delhi. During this time, Murtaza Ali Khan, the Crown Prince of Rampur, was his Aide-De-Camp (ADC). During one of his trips to Rampur, he was taken inside the Rampur royal vault, of which he left a detailed description.
In his diary, Lord Mountbatten first writes of the impregnable vault and how it was opened:
“Their highnesses (Nawab and Begum of Rampur) offered to show me some of their jewels. Flags (his ADC) warned me that this was a supreme honour since they were only shown to the Viceroy and never to any other guests.
“I must say it was fascinating. The approaches were guarded by the State Police who unlocked and opened an iron door leading to a very large inner hall, in the centre of which was a strong-room. The strong-room is right in the middle of the palace and is approached through the Nawab’s bedroom. Then, there is a 200-metre corridor, at the end of which is a steel shutter gate. Behind this gate lies another solid gate. Behind these doors are two Chubb’s doors replete with locks and safety devices. If all this is not enough to deter the most stubborn thief, the walls of the strong-room are three to four feet thick. It is isolated from all the rooms of the palace. The roof is two layered and made of hard stone, completing an impression of an impregnable vault.
“The passage between the inner strong-room and outer walls of the hall was patrolled by Gurkhas. Rampur, I learnt, is the only state allowed to have a Gurkha Regiment among state troops, a privilege arising from their alliance with the British and Gurkhas in 1857.
“The Nawab and his brother then each produced a different key from their pockets and together opened the double locks of the outer steel doors of the jewel house. Meantime, a strong-box was brought up, which again had to be opened with double keys, and inside it rested more keys which opened the inner doors of the jewel house and the safes inside. In addition to the keys, the inner Chubb’s safes each had double combination locks, which only the Nawab and the Keeper of the jewel house knew.”
He then goes on to describe the many caskets of jewellery that were shown to him. Especially eye-popping is his description of the Nawab of Rampur’s ‘State Necklace’, which he claimed had four spectacular Golconda diamonds, which he calls ‘The Empress of India’, the ‘Klondyke’, and two diamonds called ‘The Twins’. He writes:
“Special tables with white tablecloths and chairs around them were erected in the courtyard outside the jewel house. Officers of the household struggled with heavy caskets which were opened in turn and spread before us. I can never describe the Arabian Nights effect of this unbelievable quantity of jewellery.
The Nawab’s State Necklace contains four of the best-known diamonds of the world – The Empress of India, the Klondyke and the Twins. The Empress of India is reputed to be the third-finest Golconda diamond, after the Kohinoor and Hope diamonds, and I can believe it as it is not only colossal but quite magnificently cut and set.”
What is interesting is that there is no other reference found to these diamonds anywhere, nor do any jewellery historians make a mention of them. The mystery is intriguing. Equally eye-popping is Lord Mountbatten’s description of Rampur pearls, including three pearl necklaces that had pearls that appeared “as large as my thumbnail”.
“I have never seen such a collection of pearls. There were three necklaces in which each pearl was the size of my thumbnail, besides rows and rows of pearls of lesser size. There was a complete sash to be worn over the shoulder and falling below the hip, made up of thirty strings of pearls. One could put one’s hand into the casket and bring out handfuls and handfuls of pearls, nearly all of them of very good quality. I asked him how many there were and he replied, ‘Just over then ten thousand!’ But the really fascinating things were parures of diamonds, emeralds, rubies etc…including coronets, tiaras, necklaces, bracelets, rings, ear-rings, epaulettes and pugaree ornaments.”
We must remember that before the process of making cultured pearls was perfected in 1926 by Kokichi Mikimoto of Japan, the value of natural pearls was almost three times that of diamonds. Because pearls are naturally formed, getting even two pearls of the same colour and size was very difficult, and this made even a single strand of pearl so valuable. Today, the value of natural Basra pearls of that size is unimaginable.
From a gemological point of view, it is almost impossible to have a ‘flawless’ emerald and if such is available, it would be priceless. Lord Mountbatten mentions the ‘near-flawless’ emeralds in the Nawab’s Emerald State Necklace:
“One emerald necklace had exceptionally fine-coloured stones fairly free from flaws, but I think the finest stone in the collection was a solitaire ring with an emerald of very deep green and entirely flawless which his grandfather had bought sixty years ago for a quarter of a million rupees.
“The Nawab claimed to have heard of Edwina’s emeralds and pearls, and asked to be allowed to come and see them in England after the war. At three o’clock, the Nawab released us and we staggered off to bed as we were so tried.”
A few years ago, I was able to access files in the National Archives of India in New Delhi, concerning the Rampur jewellery. According to the 1947 valuation, the entire collection was valued at Rs 3.5 crores! It was almost equal in value to the jewellery collection of Baroda and almost three times that of the Maharaja of Jaipur’s collection.
In 1947, great pressure was brought to bear by the Muslim League on Nawab Sir Raza Ali Khan to not accede to India and to hold out like Junagadh and Hyderabad. But to his credit, the Nawab handed over the administration to the Government of India and Rampur became a part of Uttar Pradesh. Not just this, after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, the Nawab created a memorial for the Mahatma in Rampur, where some of his ashes were placed.
With regard to the Rampur jewels, according to records in the National Archives of India, seven items were listed as ‘Heirlooms’, while the rest of the jewellery was distributed among his wife and seven children. The ‘Crown Jewels of Rampur’ were listed as:
1. One Big diamond necklace
2. One Big diamond necklace (No 2)
3. Two Emerald necklaces
4. One Crown with diamond and pearls
5. One Emerald, Diamond and Ruby Sword cover
6. One Diamond and Gold gilt Sword
7. One Gold and Diamond Belt
The death of Nawab Sir Raza Ali Khan in 1966 led to a long and bitter property dispute in the Rampur family. In the 1970s and ’80s, Indian tabloids like the Blitz carried sensational stories about the Rampur jewels being smuggled abroad, of mysterious palace thefts and intrigue. The family dispute ended with the Supreme Court judgment in 2019, in favour of distributing the property among all the heirs. But to any royalty watcher, it would be no surprise that all that remained was an empty vault covered in dust.
But beyond the disputes, the treasures of Rampur are an important part of India’s jewellery heritage. It is said that there are hardly any books available that cover Rampur’s royal legacy. It is hoped that a glimpse of these treasures will generate renewed interest in studying Rampur’s past and perhaps also finding out, where these jewels went!