National Geographic Traveller Feb 2013
Text: Sameera Khan
Photos: Sanjay Austa
Rampur is a common name, shared by dozens of villages and towns across India, but when I was growing up, there was always only one Rampur for me. It was the place where the Kashi Vishwanath Express train from Delhi halted briefly in the late afternoon. Where long, lazy summers were spent eating tub-loads of mangoes from my grandmother’s orchard. Where kites were chased, and cousins slept in an inner courtyard cooled by water from the tube well.
Winter meant weddings with beautiful brides weighed down by their farshi ghararas (floor-sweeping pyjama-styled skirts) and lavish feasts of rich kormas, kababs, sheermals, and halwas. The old bangle-seller came home to measure our wrists and apply mehendi on our hands. Cycle-rickshaws took us through elegant arched gateways to the walled city market where Rampur’s karigars produced the finest kites, violins, zari, and appliqué work, and the infamous Rampuri chakku, the weapon of choice for many a Bollywood villain, was laid out by size of blade.
Rampur city was established in 1774 by the Rohilla Afghan, Nawab Faizullah Khan, around the same time that the modern city of Lucknow was founded. Unlike Lucknow however, Rampur doesn’t lure its visitors easily. Only the determined will be able to discern the charms of this town—perhaps en route to the Kumaon Hills or as a detour from nearby Jim Corbett National Park.
Though Rampur was recognised as a princely state by the British colonial powers in the late 1700s, it grew to prominence after 1857. The Nawab of Rampur had stayed aloof from the uprising and Rampur state emerged as the only Muslim state in the North Indian plains to survive the mutiny. The decline of the Mughal and Avadh court meant that many of the poets, scholars and leading luminaries drifted towards Rampur, encouraged by successive Rampuri Nawabs who prized learning and the arts. Thus was born a noted Hindustani classical music school (Rampur-Sahaswan gharana). Poets like Mirza Ghalib, Mir Hussain Taskin, and Daagh Dehlvi, singers like Begum Akhtar, musicians like Ahmed Jan Thirakwa and dancers like Acchan Maharaj and Lacchu Maharaj received patronage and support. Over a period of time, the royals built a world-renowned archive of rare manuscripts, now collected in the Raza Library.
Though much of the former princely kingdom is in decay, there are hints of grandeur everywhere—a dome, a graceful arch, an old shopkeeper full of tales of royal banquets—reminding visitors of a different time and place.
National Geographic Traveller 2013
The Walled City
Spend a day exploring the remnants of Nawabi Rampur, starting with the Rampur Fort. The lanes of the inner city are narrow and winding, so it is best to make the trip by cycle-rickshaw. An experienced rickshaw driver may also double up as a useful guide. At one time, there were 12 arched darwazas (gates) leading to the inner city, each designed in a different style. Visitors can still see the simple, scallop-arched Top-Khana Darwaza, the white-washed Nawab Darwaza, the oriental-looking Khushro Bagh Darwaza, the splendid, Dutch-style, gabled Hamid Gate, and the graceful Wright’s Gate, named after W.C. Wright, the architect who did extensive work in Rampur during the reign of Nawab Hamid Ali Khan. A variety of Islamic art motifs decorate the gates. Smaller gates within the city lead to the courtyards of old havelis.
The crumbling walls of Rampur Fort are lined with hundreds of tiny shops selling jewellery, hookahs, clothes, and the special Rampuri topi, a rigid hat of black velvet. Walk around the walls and enter through Hamid, Wright’s, or Nawab Gates. The inside of the fort, an area of four acres, is like a miniature city. Its centrepiece is the grand Hamid Manzil, the winter palace of the Nawabs, which now houses the central Raza Library.
The Tosha-Khana behind (now the Industrial Training Institute) is worth visiting to see its built-in arched cupboards, grill work, and terraces. On the right of the Raza Library grounds is the bright yellow Macchli (or Machchi) Bhavan whose fish insignia have unfortunately been removed. It now functions as the Government Girls’ P.G. College. The fort also houses the Rang Mahal, an old guest house from the Nawabi era, and an imambara (congregation hall). Abbas Market, in the southeast corner of the walled city, has an abundance of Rampur’s famed phool-patti ka kaam ( appliqué work) on dupattas and salwar suits (Rs 400-1,500, depending on intricacy).
Just outside the fort walls, on the southern side, are the triple white domes and red minarets of the Rampur Jama Masjid, whose foundations were laid by the Nawab Faizullah Khan in 1775, though it was completed by the seventh Nawab, Kalb Ali Khan in the 1870s. Surrounded by the bustling Shadab Market, it has an uncanny resemblance to Delhi’s majestic Jama Masjid. Located on an incline with several wide steps leading up to it, the mosque provides a sense of quiet in the crowded inner city. Moti Masjid, another pretty but small mosque, borders the western wall of the fort. Further north is the Government Raza P.G. College which occupies another of the former princely properties, Khushro Bagh.
Before leaving the Jama Masjid area, wander into Safdarganj Bazaar behind the mosque to find a handful of the remaining chakku shops. During the reign of the Nawabs, Rampur was known for its excellent quality swords. Later, its knives, with single-edged blades from 9 to 12 inches, brought it notoriety. In the mid-1990s, the U.P. government banned the making of knives with blades longer than 4.5 inches. Though the Rampuri is missing from action, visitors can still pick up a few smaller switchblades, sarotas (betel-nut crackers), and brass knuckledusters as souvenirs from the chaotic bazaar.
The imposing Kothi Khas Bagh in Rampur.
Other Glories From the fort, make your way out of the main city to Kothi Khas Bagh (near Moradabad-Rampur Civil Lines road), tracing the journey of the Nawabs who moved here in 1930. The 200-room palace has Mughal and British architectural influences, a durbar hall, ball room, personal apartments, its own imambara, and at one time, even a personal cinema hall for the Nawabs. It is said to be the first palace in India to have air-conditioning. Now under dispute among the heirs of the Nawab’s family, it lies in near ruin with little to show of its original Burma teak panelling and Belgian glass chandeliers, some removed and others allegedly stolen. Royal pavilions, ponds, neglected gardens, and a hunting lodge are spread across its vast grounds. Rampuri old-timers often shake their heads in dismay as they recollect the time when Rajmata Rafat Zamani Begum lived at Khas Bagh just a few decades ago.
The old summer palace, Benazir Kothi (near Jauhar University), a few kilometres outside the main city, is in similar disrepair. Yet the caretakers of both properties are said to be amenable to letting visitors wander around and imagine what things were like in an earlier, more refined period. Near Benazir Kothi, standing amidst fields, is the unique circular white jali-clad Qadam Shareef, which is believed to hold footprints of Prophet Mohammad brought there from Mecca.
New Rampur To take a break from Nawabi indulgences, circle the 2006-renovated Mahatma Gandhi Samadhi that stands at a prominent road junction (where Mohammed Ali Jauhar road leads from Khas Bagh to Top-Khana Gate). It is perhaps the only spot outside Delhi’s Raj Ghat to hold the Mahatma’s ashes. Raza Ali Khan carried the ashes in an urn to Rampur on an elephant.
To experience modern Rampur, visit recently-opened Aryabhatta Planetarium, the first in the country to use digital laser technology. The 150-seater planetarium currently has a 30-minute “Kids Night Sky” show—essentially a 3-D movie—running three times a day in Hindi. A telescope that receives online database updates from NASA will soon be installed.
The Rohilla Mohalla Project, set up by Ratnesh and Sangeeta Mathur in 2012, supports Rampuri artisans (behind the Raza Library on Domehla Road) who have perfected crafts like cap-making, zardozi and zari karigari, kite-making, and violin-making over generations. The skill of kite-making came to Rampur with the Rohilla Pathans from Afghanistan and the town is considered at par with kite-making centres like Ahmedabad and Jaipur. To see the process and buy kites, contact Touseef Mian a traditional kite maker, and manager at the Rohilla Mohalla Project (Chah Satai, Domehla Road; 96345 83110 , 94177 50292; Rs 5-25). He’s also a good guide to other inner city areas and its traditional craftspeople, like the violin-makers. To see the musical instruments being made and to purchase one, visit Puraniganj. It has Rampur’s oldest violin and oud factory, renamed New Slovakia Musical Ltd. in 1991 (Zamiruddin at 97608 39064; Rs 5,000 onwards).
The rare Rampur Hound - the favored dog of the Rampur Nawabs of yore.
Ahichhatra, an hour’s drive from Rampur in the direction of Aonla and Shabad, is the ancient capital of the Northern Panchala kingdom, better known as Draupadi’s hometown (first excavated in the 1940s). The 40 sq km of ruins with mounds and large stupa-like brick structures show evidence of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain presence. One can also visit the Ahichhatra Parsvanath Tirthkshetra Digamber Jain Mandir a major Jain pilgrimage site. Other day trips could include Nainital (103 km/2 hours) to the northeast and Jim Corbett National Park (120 km/2 hours, 30 minutes) to the northwest.
There is no luxury accommodation in Rampur, but hotels with basic amenities can be found.
Modipur Hotel is a little outside Rampur, on the Bareilly-Rampur Road. It has AC rooms, cable TV, and hot water (0595-2357134; doubles Rs1,250-2,000).
Hotel Bombay Palace is centrally located on Rah-e-Raza Road (Civil Lines) and has basic, non-AC rooms (0595-2350824; doubles Rs 700).
Hotel Delite, also on Rah-e-Raza road, has 15 air-conditioned rooms. Both Hotel Delite and Bombay Palace have no restaurants on the premises (0595-2351201; doubles Rs 700-1,000).
Rampuri food, though similar to Mughlai cuisine, is known for its distinct flavours and was developed by the chefs of the Nawabs of Rampur. The rich Rampuri mutton korma with a brown-red gravy, mutton koftas (meat balls), shallow-fried shammi kebabs, doodhiya biryani (with mutton cooked in milk) and Habshi halwa are all worth trying.
There are several dhabas in and around Rampur and a few restaurants, but none of them are particularly fancy. Nahid’s Chicken Corner, opposite Nahid Cinema, is a dhaba-style eatery renowned for its tasty chicken Changezi, cooked with cream, butter, and tomatoes, and chicken kali-mirch with gravy. A plate of seekh kebabs is Rs 80 for four pieces and chicken tikka is Rs 70 a plate. For dessert, try shahi toast (a fancy bread pudding) or the unusual gulathi, a kind of fried kheer(99972 07786; open 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; meal for two Rs 600). The same management also runs Chirag Chicken Corner in Civil Lines. Karim’s Food, opposite Diamond Talkies near Shahbad Gate, is one of the few air-conditioned restaurants in town. Try the excellent Firdausi korma and mutton Nargisi kofta (meatball). Mutton and chicken kormas are always on the menu and mutton nihari is popular in winter (99170 28289; open 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; meal for two Rs 700). For dessert, make your way to Halwa Sohan Lal Ki Dukan, a traditional sweet shop whose owners have been sweet makers for several generations, once making mithai in Kothi Khas Bagh for the Nawab of Rampur. The shop is situated at the edge of the walled city, in the vicinity of the Jama Masjid, near the old bartan bazaar. Try the mouth-watering habshi halwa, (known locally as halwa sond), a heavy, dark sweet made from wheat, best enjoyed in winter. Its recipe is said to trace back to Nawab Hamid Ali Khan, a noted gourmet (0595-2340979; open 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Rs 300 per kilo).Hakimji Halwa in Bazaar Nasrullah Khan is also known for its halwa sond.
After Kolkata -Rampur is the city with the largest production of violins.
Rampur city is in the Rohilkhand region of northwest Uttar Pradesh. It is around 190 km east of Delhi and between Moradabad and Bareilly en route to the Kumaon Hills.
Air The nearest airport is in New Delhi, around 190 km/3 hours away (air-conditioned cab to Rampur Rs 3,000 one-way).
Rail Rampur Railway Station is on the Moradabad-Bareilly line. Several trains from Delhi and Lucknow stop here.
Road The three-hour drive from Delhi is along the Grand Trunk Road/NH 24 until Moradabad, where the bypass road takes you towards Rampur.
To visit places near Rampur (Ahichhatra, Corbett) having your own car is good, but driving in the old city’s tiny lanes can be troublesome. For those sojourns, hire a cycle rickshaw.
From May-Jun temperatures can soar to over 40° C and winter minimums can go down to -5° C in Jan-Feb.
Worshipper in a mosque outside Rampur's palace.