Pilibhit: A Forgotten Capital

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    Situated around 255 Kms from Lucknow, Pilibhit is an important Lok Sabha constituency today. But this small town tucked away in the edge of UP at the Nepal border, was once the capital of the powerful Rohilla confederacy. Rehan Asad who has been documenting the history of Rohilkhand, takes us through what remains of Pilibhit’s glory days.

    In the early 18th century, an Afghan slave escaped his master’s clutches and rode south of the Hindu Kush into what is now north-western Uttar Pradesh (UP). His name was Daud Khan, an adventurous highlander whose arrival here heralded what later became Rohilkhand.

    Daud Khan was a Rohilla – ‘roh’ means ‘mountain’ and ‘Rohilla’ are ‘mountain dwellers’ from present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Pakistan) and adjoining Afghanistan. To make his fortune, he became a mercenary, and along with the few hundred Afghans who had accompanied him, settled in the Katehr region of UP in 1705. Before his death in 1720, Daud Khan lived a colourful life, helping local chieftains and land owners settle scores and plunder new territory.

    This fearless mercenary was succeeded by Ali Muhammad Khan, who expanded the area under Rohilla control. Over time, he formed a loose confederacy of Rohilla Pashtuns, diverse clans of Pashto-speaking Pathans who had arrived in the region over time.

    Ali Muhammad Khan founded ‘Rohilkhand’ or ‘land of Rohillas

    Ali Muhammad Khan thus founded ‘Rohilkhand’ or ‘land of Rohillas, and established an independent state by taking advantage of the feeble provincial control of the Mughals after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. With Aonla (Bareilly) as his capital, Khan further expanded the borders of Rohilkhand, and by the 1740s, Katehr, the Terai plains and hill towns of Kumaon were under the control of the Rohilla Pashtuns.

    In 1742, the Rohilla chiefs, who fought as a confederacy, decisively defeated the local Mughal governors of Bareilly and Badaun. They also occupied the region of Pilibhit, which was bestowed as a jagir to one of the Rohilla commanders, Hafiz Rahmat Khan (1707-1774).

    With Ali Muhammad Khan’s death in 1748, Hafiz Rahmat Khan was appointed regent of the newly established Rohilla confederacy and he shifted the centre from Bareilly to Pilibhit. This was a smart move as the new town was located on the edge of Rohilkhand and was surrounded by forests, thus offering protection from potential incursions.

    The late Professor Iqbal Ghani Khan, a historian from Aligarh Muslim University, says in a research article (1991) titled Afghan Town & Cities In North India:

    Mosques, city walls, markets, bridges, wells and palaces were seen in the growth of Pilibhit under Hafiz Rahmat Khan in the 1760s. Merchants and bankers were ordered to settle there. As an incentive, they paid very low market duties. Hafiz Rahmat Khan’s military prowess gave them sense of security, a feeling difficult to perceive in other parts of North India at that time.

    Let’s take a look at some of the monuments in Pilibhit that survive and get a sense of what life was like in this thriving town more than 250 years ago.

    Hammam (Turkish Bath)

    The Hammam is located on the right corner of the old district hospital. At first glance, it appears as an extension of the early 20th century hospital building. The medieval arched windows, jaalis (latticed screens) and exposed lakhori bricks cemented with lime mortar (surkhi chuna) reveal its forgotten story.

    It may be hard to imagine today but this is where the Rohilla chiefs built their palaces. According to Charles Elliot’s translation of the Persian account, Gulistan-i-Rahmat (1831): “The Rohilla chief’s Mahal Sarai (palaces), Diwan-i-Aam (hall of public audience) and Diwan-i-Khaas (hall of private audience) were constructed in the western part of town in 1751, and the town was named ‘Hafizabad’.”

    Most of the monuments suffered great damage in the aftermath of the First Rohilla-Oudh war in 1774. However, the Hammam survived and remained a public bath till as recently as 1977. The four-chambered building was designed on the medieval pattern that allowed for the transition from hot and humid chambers to cool and dry chambers outside. It served as a public bath for the locals and was managed by hajjams (traditional barbers).

    With changing times, the practice of using public baths was lost and the building was deserted. In the last 40 years, the Hammam has been damaged by trees that now grow inside its crevices, while waste materials have blocked access to its chambers.

    Jama Masjid

    Construction of the mosque began in 1767, not far from the Mahal Sarai and Diwan-i-Aam. According to historical accounts, it cost around Rs 3 lakh to build this magnificent shrine.

    The mosque has three entrances and the main one, the eastern entrance, boasts a beautiful gateway. British artist Thomas Daniell, who painted the gateway in 1802, found that it resembled the grand mosque in Shahjahanabad, Delhi. Close to the gateway, in the spacious courtyard of the mosque, is an ablution tank (hauz) with a fountain. A sundial, now symbolic of lost time, stands in the north-west corner of the hauz.

    In earlier times, water for the hauz was drawn by a Persian wheel from a well located close to the southern gate. Lakhori bricks with red lime as a cementing substance were used in the construction of the hauz. In recent years, white marble has replaced the small bricks of the floor.

    The walled enclosure around the main gateway is covered by two curvilinear Bengali domes on each side. The praying section, measuring 50 feet x 40 feet, can be accessed via five arched entrances that lead into a verandah with a palanquin-shaped roof.

    The inner prayer hall has a central mihrab facing Makkah, with three bulbous domes comprising the roof. The side of the praying section is supported by two tall minarets. The flanks of the courtyard have ten chambers on each side, with separate domes forming a roof.

    During the time of Hafiz Rahmat Khan, a large madrasa used to be run in these chambers, as quoted by Prof Iqbal Hussain, an expert on Rohilla history, in his book, The Ruhela Chieftaincies: The Rise And Fall of Ruhela Power In India In The Eighteenth Century. The walls of the inner section of the mosque have been decorated by paintings of arch-shaped niches, and domes with floral-patterned engravings.

    Gauri Shankar Mandir

    This beautiful 18th century temple is located 400 mt north-west of the Jama Masjid, near the bank of the Khakra river in Pilibhit. Its legendary story goes back to four centuries, when the ancestors of priest Har Prasad were travelling on this route for a pilgrimage. The caravan halted for a night in an area surrounded by thick forests. The priest saw Lord Shiva in his dream and miraculously, in the morning, found an idol of Shiva placed close to his tent.

    The inner section of the temple was built by Rao Pahar Singh, the Khatri diwan of the Rohilla chief. When the Jama Masjid was built in 1769, Hafiz Rahmat Khan added two grand gateways, at its southern and eastern entrances. The tall minarets, cupolas encircled by lotus-shaped designs, and medieval chajjas (eaves) enclosed by arches and pillars with floral patterns, are a reflection of Indo-Islamic architecture. The gateways of the temple are a testament to the syncretic values of Hafiz Rahmat Khan.

    The latter half of the 18th century was a time of great upheaval in the region in general, and for the Rohillas, in particular. During the 18th century, the Marathas had become a pan-India power under Baji Rao and emerged as one of the key players in North India by annexing Delhi and Punjab.

    The Rohillas, under their chief Najib-ud-Daulah, played a vital role in the defeat of the Marathas at the hands of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Afghan ruler who had made several incursions into the region. This battle, which ranged the Marathas against Ahmad Shah Abdali and his allies, the Rohillas and the Nawab of Awadh, Shuja-ud-Daula, was fought in 1761. One of the defining battles of its time, it was called Third Battle of Panipat.

    However, within a decade, the Marathas resurrected in North India under the leadership of Mahadaji Sindhia. In 1770, they inflicted heavy damage on the Rohillas at Fatehgarh (now a part of Farrukhabad in UP. The ruler of Rohilkhand, Hafiz Rahmat Khan, also lost his possessions, Shikohabad (a town in Firozabad, UP) and Etawah (a district in UP) in the Doab region. He was forced to retreat into the Terai forest of Kumaon, leaving Pilibhit to his son Inayat Khan. Though the Marathas left Rohilkhand hastily due to the arrival of the monsoon, which was difficult for their armies, their threat forced the Rohillas to seek an alliance with the Nawabs of Awadh.

    In the presence of Robert Barker, the commander of the British East India company troops at Awadh, a treaty was signed between Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula and Hafiz Rahmat Khan on 15th June 1772, which ensured the safety of Rohilkhand by Awadh and its British allies from the Marathas in exchange for Rs 40 lakh. The families of the Rohilla chiefs imprisoned by the Marathas were also released, thanks to the intervention of Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula. What the Rohilla chiefs didn’t realize was that this would turn out to be their ‘pact with the devil’ in 18th century factional politics and lead to their downfall.

    In 1773, the Marathas once again crossed the Ganges at Ramghat in Badaun, a district in modern UP, and advanced towards Rohilkhand. The Nawab of Awadh with his British allies came to the aid of the Rohillas and the Marathas were forced to retreat. The Nawab of Awadh now demanded the payment that had been promised for his help. But Hafiz Rahmat Khan tried to wriggle out of it by sending letters to the Nawab and the British, pleading his inability to pay due to internal strife and discontent among his dependent chiefs.

    As a result, Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula’s troops, supported by British troops, invaded Rohilkhand. On 23rd April 1773, the two forces met at Mirpur Katra in Shahjahanpur district. During the battle, Hafiz Rahmat Khan died, a cannon ball shot through this chest.

    British Journalist John Strachey (1860-1927) in his book Hastings & The Rohilla War (1892), describes how the Nawab of Awadh and Colonel Champion believed that a vast treasure existed in the fort at Pilibhit, amassed by Hafiz Rahmat Khan, who had extracted wealth from fertile territories. An initial report was sent by Colonel Champion to Governor General of India, Warren Hastings, in late April which has been reproduced in Strachey’s book.

    Charles Elliot’s translation of the Persian account, Gulistan-i-Rahmat, reads:

    An Abyssinian General Siddi Bashir with a large force was dispatched to Pilibhit on 26th April 1774. The town was sacked and his (Hafiz Rahmat Khan’s) sons were asked to locate the spot where the treasure has been buried. In the search for hidden treasure, the Rohilla chief’s palace, court and other monuments were excavated. Unable to find any such treasure, all the rich citizens were extorted for money. Even the ornaments of female members of the haram were stripped. Two days later, Nawab Shuja-ud-Duala and Colonel Champion arrived. They encamped on the banks of the Deoha River, a place located five kilometres from Pilibhit. All family members of Hafiz were imprisoned and sent to Allahabad fort.

    With the fall of the Rohillas, a vast territory of around 12,000 square miles, except for Rampur, was annexed by the ruler of Awadh. In 1801, Rohilkhand was ceded to the East India Company by the Awadh rulers, in exchange for debts that had been incurred on maintenance of British troops.

    Pilibhit remained a pargana of Bareilly district till 1879, when it was given the status of a separate district. As a constituency of Maneka Gandhi, a city of flute makers and India’s 41st tiger reserve, this territory, which has seen a dramatic chapter in the subcontinent’s destiny, has receded in public memory.

    AUTHOR Rehan Asad is a history enthusiast who has been exploring and documenting the lost heritage of Rohilkhand.

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