Princely Architectural Cosmopolitanism and Urbanity in Rampur

By Razak Khan, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

The colonial state in India often justified the continuation of princely states as a policy for the preservation of “traditional patterns” in the cultural sphere. While the “traditional” was seemingly preserved, it was also increasingly transformed in princely states under colonial paramountcy. Princely states were not isolated entities with unchanging structures but need to be re-located within the British Empire’s changing discourses and practices to understand the nexus between princely sovereignty and modernity. This post studies the illustrative example of urban development and architecture in the Rampur princely state. Rampur survived as the only Muslim-ruled princely state in the colonial United Provinces in the post-1857-revolt context. While the city of Rampur and its culture display many characteristics of what may be termed as that of an “Islamic city,” it nonetheless developed as a cosmopolitan city with Indo-Islamic, colonial modern, and diverse other cultural influences. This entangled history gave Rampur a distinctly local and yet global cosmopolitan culture, which is most evident in its architecture and urbanism among other cultural artefacts.

Illustration 1

(c) British Library Board. The Durbar Hall, Hamid Manzil – Fort [Rampur] Date: c. 1911; Shelfmark: Photo 36/(5).

Local cosmopolitan urbanism was particularly developed under the ruler Nawab Hamid Ali Khan (r.1889-1930). While the Nawab had travelled widely across the globe, he was not an Anglicized prince groomed by colonial tutelage. His account of his travels in various countries provides insights into his crucial, formative years. Hamid Ali Khan showed great interest not just in the modern West, but also in what he saw in other Asian countries, especially Japan. He had a keen eye for aesthetic and cultural production in various countries, especially for architecture, that ranged from old mosques in Cairo to modern architectural creations like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. He was particularly impressed with the preservation of literature and wrote about his fascination with and joy after seeing the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the printing press, and the publication of books. The library, as a place for preservation and dissemination of knowledge, was successfully monumentalized in the form of the Rampur public library.

Hamid Ali Khan’s patronage of the arts, particularly architecture and urbanism helped making Rampur a new center (markaz) of Indo-Muslim and global cosmopolitan culture. This cultural project elaborated on the concept of the “moral city” and ethical governance while furthering the colonial discourse of a “progressive” princely city and polity. Hamid Ali Khan’s historic role lies in transforming localism into (what may be termed) princely cosmopolitanism that flourished under the aegis of his patronage. The princely urban culture that developed under the rulers of Rampur was characterized by the preservation and transformation of the Mughal and Awadh cultural tradition of urban patronage that was meshed with a colonial modern discourse and practice of governance. This created a new cultural discourse marked by hybridity and the incorporation of diverse actors, discourses, and practices that emerged from the global cultural sphere. In this project of cultural and political translation, “Mughal tradition” and “colonial modern” should not be seen as fixed poles of a binary but should be regarded as reference points which made sense when read together to script a new cultural discourse.

In his two-volume history of Rampur, Aḵẖbār uṣ-ṣanādīd (Accounts of Heroes), published in 1919, Najmul Ghani Khan highlighted Hamid Ali Khan’s reign and referred to him as the Shah Jahan (who built Taj Mahal) of Rampur for his architectural creations and urban developments in transforming Rampur into a distinctly beautiful city. Based on the Mughal sovereign city model, the fort-palace complex (Qil‘a-ě-mu‘alla) was built as the core of this urban renewal model and included open spaces and gardens. The princely household occupied the Machhi Bhawan building, styled like the Awadh palaces with their traditional cultural symbol of the fish. Adjacent to it was the Rang Mahal, a building meant for poetical and musical gatherings.  A beautiful imāmbāṛā building was constructed near the Rang Mahal that testifies to the Shia influence in the Awadh region, particularly in the performance of religious and cultural ceremonies. The center of the complex was a splendid palace called Hamid Manzil, built in the Indo-Saracenic architecture style and decorated with Italian sculptures, chandeliers, glasswork, and other imported European products, where the Nawab held the traditional court rituals (see picture above). The treasury building and the library were other monuments within the fort complex. The large fort-palace complex was the center of the city and was connected to it through various gates like the Hamid and Wright Gates, named and still remembered after their creators (see picture below).

Illustration 2

(c) British Library Board, Photograph of the Wright Gate at the Fort at Rampur, Date: c. 1911; Shelfmark: Photo 36/(23).

Apart from keeping with Mughal and Awadh architectural styles, there was an increased construction of “modern buildings” like a railway station, a hospital, courts, public gates, and the canal system which symbolized progress in the so-called “backward” princely state. These efforts were publicized and showcased as signs of cultural preservation and progress to visiting colonial officials and served, quite literally and symbolically, as “structures of legitimacy” for princely creative authority and power.

Illustration 3

(c) British Library Board. Photograph from the Curzon Collection: ‘Rampur Album’ of the European Guest House at Rampur, Date: c.1905; Shelfmark: Photo 430/42(47).

Viceroy  Lord Curzon’s visit to Rampur in 1905 was a much publicized political event with detailed preparation for ceremonies planned in the city. The Nawab was particularly keen on showing the various monuments he had constructed in Rampur. He commissioned a “Rampur Album” with 55 images of Rampur city photographed by Albert Edward Jenkins and other photographers that was given as a gift to Lord Curzon. The elaborate black leather album carries a personal dedication from the ruler to the viceroy. The photographs were not a historical record of Curzon’s visit to Rampur, but carried architectural views of the fort and the Nawab’s traditional palaces, modern European Guest House (see picture above) and more crucially public buildings such as the library, the railway station, schools, the hospital and courts. The architecture of these buildings was Indo-Saracenic, incorporating “Islamic, Hindu, and Victorian Gothic” elements that allowed for a hybridity of “native traditions,” while also relating to “colonial modernity.” The Rampur Album is therefore a rich visual archive of a hybrid princely urban history and sovereignty.

Illustration 4

(c) British Library Board, Photograph from the Curzon Collection: ‘Rampur Album’ of Kosi Weir at Rampur, Date: c.1905; Shelfmark: Photo 430/42(54).

Apart from the construction of the fort and palaces, the Public Works Department was reorganized and became one of the most popular and active departments. The annual administrative reports of Rampur state also became important documents for narrating princely urban progress. They included references to canal projects, communication and infrastructure developments, sanitation, electric lighting and water works (see picture above). Through new measures and judicious management, the municipality was developed on a sound financial basis and became a self-supporting institution.  These efforts had the desired impact and were recognized by the visiting colonial officers. Lieutenant Governor Meston, who arrived in Rampur on 14 October 1912, was shown all the important monuments and urban developments in the city and inaugurated the new grain market named after him: Meston Ganj. An impressed Meston declared Rampur to be a “model city.”

Illustration 5

(c) British Library Board, Photograph from the Curzon Collection: ‘Rampur Album’ of the Library within the Fort at Rampur, Date: c.1905; Shelfmark: Photo 430/42(8).

The cultural hybridity of princely urbanism was most evident in the project of re-casting “oriental knowledge,” which was hitherto preserved in the private princely collection and now turned into a public library – the iconic symbol of useful knowledge and progress under colonialism (see picture above). While preserving Indo-Muslim knowledge, the library also requisitioned new English and European books. The library collection stood at approximately 18,218 rare manuscripts and books in this period. It was therefore an impressive and eclectic collection worthy to be showcased as the embodiment of tradition as well as a reflection of an engagement with modern ideas. Hamid Ali Khan’s rule saw the fundamental transformation of the location with a separate new building and the changing role of the library from a private collection to a princely public institution. The grand princely interiors of Hamid Manzil with glass windows, gilded ceiling and pillars today house the Rampur Library. This building stands not only as the epitome of Nawabi grandeur, knowledge preservation, and Indo-Saracenic architecture, but also an edifice of hybrid princely pasts.

The patronage of architecture and promotion of urban renewal served as the site for the articulation of princely power and the assertion of its legitimacy to the colonial state and wider public. Simultaneously, this afforded the opportunity to create a distinct princely city of grandeur that did not exclude concerns over public welfare. Princely Rampur urbanism integrated discourses and practices of an “Islamic moral city” with a “Colonial modern city,” a project whose traces, albeit fading, remain evident in contemporary Rampur. In my larger research project on Rampur, I have explored the persistence and transformation of this rich urban history in the changing vernacular memories of inhabitants around “Wright Gate” and “Meston Ganj.” However, these rich cultural histories are ignored in contemporary politics of heritage preservation and urban renewal in contemporary Rampur. Such case studies of global urbanism, in which the global and local are in creative entanglement, merit further scholarship for the rethinking of the field of global history and politics of urbanism from the perspective of seemingly peripheral localities.

Razak Khan is a Research Fellow in the Modern India in German Archives project in the History Research Group at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS) Göttingen University. This blog post draws from his doctoral thesis and other writings on princely Rampur. He has edited a special issue “The Social Production of Space and Emotions in South Asia,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient (58:5, 2015) and has also published blog posts and commentaries in the TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research and Economic & Political Weekly, as well as several book reviews. He is currently completing a book entitled Minority Pasts: Locality, Histories, and Identities in Rampur for Oxford University Press.

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