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People and Homes of Aligarh

By Meher Ali

19 December 2013

“Material culture is the history and philosophy of objects and the myriad relationships between people and things.” Bernard Herman, material culture scholar.

I have always had a fascination with old homes. I grew up in one – Abid Manzil in Aligarh, built in 1935. Well-known as the home of Aligarh Muslim University, the town in western Uttar Pradesh saw many Indian Muslims migrate there in the early 1900s from different parts of the erstwhile United Provinces. This included the Muslim zamindar elites who came from neighbouring principalities as well as working-class and middle-class families from eastern Uttar Pradesh. Many wanted to give their children the chance of a good education at the university. These people brought their cultures and histories with them, blending with the Islamic yet liberal intellectual philosophy propagated by AMU and spearheaded by its founder, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. The homes of these people, mostly built in the 1930s, are evidence of this syncretic tradition.

On my most recent visit to Aligarh I realised that these pre-Partition houses were gradually disappearing. I met with some of the remaining families, who wanted to talk about the rich history of their homes, the culture and ways of life they embodied, and the measures they were currently taking to secure a future for their homes and themselves. This photo essay tells the story of these homes and the people who live in them.

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Ibne Sahab was born in 1923. He lost his mother when he was just a month old and was raised by his father. Ibne Sahab’s childhood was spent in Chattari and he moved to Aligarh to pursue his formal education when he was 15 years old. He studied Persian and Psychology at Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was Scheherazade Alim’s paternal great, great-grandfather. She spent her childhood in Aftab Manzil, named after her maternal great-grandfather Aftab Ahmed Khan, who built the house in 1904. Scheherazade Begum studied law at Oxford and became a barrister and has taught law at AMU. After two decades of living and working in Dubai, Scheherazade Begum and her husband Abdul Alim Khan returned to Aligarh and to Aftab Manzil in 1997, and have lived there since.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was Scheherazade Alim’s paternal great, great-grandfather. She spent her childhood in Aftab Manzil, named after her maternal great-grandfather Aftab Ahmed Khan, who built the house in 1904. Scheherazade Begum studied law at Oxford and became a barrister and has taught law at AMU. After two decades of living and working in Dubai, Scheherazade Begum and her husband Abdul Alim Khan returned to Aligarh and to Aftab Manzil in 1997, and have lived there since.

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Aftab Manzil saw the comings and goings of influential men and women. One of them was E M Forster. Scheherazade Alim’s grandfather Sir Ross Masood was a close friend of the writer, who dedicated A Passage to India to him. Masood became the Vice Chancellor of AMU in 1929, a position he held for three years. The photograph on the right was taken in Italy in 1911. The photograph on the left shows Scheherazade Begum with Forster. It was taken in England in 1962. She herself cultivated a deep bond with the writer, calling him “Forster Chacha”.

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Aftab Manzil was built using bricks manufactured by Ford and MacDonald, the company responsible for supplying red bricks for the building of AMU. Other homes such as Habibullah Manzil were also constructed using surplus material from AMU. Courtyards like this, at Habibullah Manzil, are typical features in old homes. They are public spaces that allow family members to socialise, yet at the same time are private and separated from the outside world.

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Professor Tariq Gilani, who lives in Habibullah Manzil, says that it is difficult to secure an old house, especially since there is no one, single uninterrupted wall, each room having several doors. David Lelyveld, in Aligarh’s First Generation, explains that this was the case “so that different sorts of people might come and go without crossing paths.” The architecture, therefore, reflected the norms of social interaction in the early 20th century.

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These norms dictated that spaces within a household be separated on the basis of gender. Purdah was adhered to, especially among the elite. To enter the ladies’ quarter, or zenanah, male servants and visitors had to announce themselves first. In the case of Rahat Manzil’s haveli, non-related males would have entered through a zigzag corridor, preventing them from directly viewing the zenanah.

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Farrukh Said Khan with his wife Faizana Said Khan in their formal living room in Rahat Manzil. Faizana Said Khan is the great, great-granddaughter of the Nawab of Jaipalguri. The swing is about ninety years old. The photograph of Ahmed Said Khan on the wall is from when he received an honorary doctorate from AMU. Farrukh Sahab recounts that his grandfather, Ahmed Said, was born in 1889. He was an orphan. His parents died in Saudi Arabia in the early 1890s. After the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, Mahmud Ali was unwilling to stay under British rule. But when his son (Ahmed Said’s father) and daughter-in-law died, he had to return to take care of his grandson. Ahmed Said was eight years old when his grandfather passed away. He was sent to English House (AMU’s old guest house) by the British, who had taken control of Chhatari – Ahmed Said’s ancestral zamindari. When he turned 21, Ahmed Said was made the Nawab of Chhatari. He built Rahat Manzil in 1920 as a guesthouse to accommodate his family when they travelled to Aligarh from Chhatari.

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Raja Masudul Hasan, also known as the Raja of Asgharabad, supervised the building of Hasan Manzil. He was a keen collector, and according to Zafar Sahab (his son and current owner of Hasan Manzil), he bought this copper ashtray from Chinese traders who frequented Aligarh in the 1930s. He moved to Aligarh in 1925 from Asgharabad, where he was a zamindar, and died in 1954.

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Over the years, the landscape of Aligarh has undergone dramatic changes. Where there were once independent bungalows and havelis surrounded by orchards, now stand three or four storey apartment buildings. Many more people have migrated to Aligarh in search of education or employment. This changed landscape, although inevitable and positive in some ways, has imposed stress upon those who live in old homes in Aligarh. Some are uncertain about what will happen to their homes after they are gone. Will their children come back and take charge of things or will their homes, like many others, be broken down and apartment buildings erected in their place?

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People have coped with these challenges in different ways. Ibne Said Khan has transformed Rahat Manzil’s formal dining room into a museum dedicated to the life and career of his father, statesman Ahmed Said Khan. He says that one winter evening, after his father’s death in 1982, he saw that his servant was bringing bundles of old paper to feed the angethi (brazier). He asked the servant where he was getting these papers and discovered stacks of old documents and photographs in the storage area. He rescued these and set to work, chronologically organising documents and photographs that captured the breadth of his father’s work. With more than a hundred photographs and documents mounted in the main dining area, Ibne Sahab says that there are still many photographs and documents to be sorted and incorporated into this museum.

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The Sherwanis of Muzammil Manzil have renovated a section of their house and transformed it into a school, which they run. Blossoms started in 2001 in a rented house and later shifted to Muzammil Manzil. What was once an aangan (courtyard) is now a school playground. The school has over 800 students.

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The Sherwanis also maintain a library in one section of their house named after Syed Sherwani’s grandfather and the original owner of Muzammil Manzil – Nawab Muzammil Ullah Khan. The library started with 500 books but Sherwani Sahab’s father, Rahmatullah Khan Sherwani, expanded it over four decades. It now holds 16,000 books and 2400 rare manuscripts.

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This door was hand painted by Rashid Sahab’s nephews. Like Zafar Sahab, Rashid Sahab says that the family has inculcated a sense of responsibility in the next generation to take care of Saman Zaar. For the future, he adds, “We should try to come back to this place and live together (as a family).”

~ Meher Ali is a freelance journalist from Aligarh. She is currently based in Ahmedabad.

29 Responses to “People and Homes of Aligarh”

  1. Ruhi Tabassum Khan says:

    Thank you Meher, this was very well done.

  2. Sharib Zia says:

    Thanks Meher..

    Very nice Article.. I tooo very fond of Heritage Houses (Kothies) of Aligarh, they’re beauty with soul & full of tales. I’ve great respect & love for them. These houses are priceless.

    InshaAllah in future, I’ll be definitely own such a Heritage beauty of Aligarh with love & pamper like they use to be in their time.

    Be in touch; post more pics of these divine antique beauties.

    Keep Writing :)

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  3. Urooj Saifi says:

    My mother was born and lived in Wazir Manzil on Marris Road. The house was constructed by our maternal great grandfather Abdul Ghafoor Khan. Our part of the family moved to Karachi in 1950 never to return. We have heard that our mother’s relatives are still residing at Wazir Manzil. Does anyone have any information or pictures of the house – if you have please share with me.

    Thanks.

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  4. Noorin Abdul Ali Khan says:

    Nice article! Its lovely to read about the old kothies in Aligarh,specially of your family friend’s homes!Thanks for writing it. This other comment is for Mr Urooj Saifi. Wazir Manzil was constructed by our paternal grandfather Khan Sahab Abdul Ghafoor Khan in 1923 at Marris Road. I have seen pictures of our home in your relative’s houses in Karachi , Islamabad, Rawalpindi, New York, etc as all who visited us since 1950s have always taken pictures of our house.Yes it would have been nice if Ms Meher Ali would have included more Kothies like Danpir House,Habib Manzil,Hafeez Manzil, and of course Wazir Manzil.
    Anyways good effort.

  5. Absar A. Mirza says:

    My Grandfather Mirza Nadir Hussain was a Judge who lived in Aligarh at the time of partition and his house name was Yousif Manzil. As per my father (Late Akbar Uddin Ahmad Mirza) it was a huge house and have heard some stories about it. Am interested in knowing about it if any one has any knowledge (Although chances are remote). Thanks in advance to any one who may shed light on an old page from the history which we the next generation has not read till now.

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  6. Ghazala Ali says:

    My maternal grandfather was Syed Faiyaz Ali of Faiyaz Manzil. My paternal grandfather was son of Syed Niaz Ali of Niaz Manzil. Any information regarding Faiyaz Manzil and/or Niaz Manzil would be greatly appreciated. Unfortunately have never visited Aligarh but enjoy the stories of relatives while in Aligarh.

    Wonderful article!

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  7. syed hasan rizvi says:

    nice article wel explained and bring back the old pictures in very realistic way ,ofcourse we are old boys of AMU naturally whatever excusites we get about aligarh we read and this article indeed a very good work.we live in suleiman hall so we are witness of activities in Aftab Manzil ,now some portion have been sold out and flats have been biilt on that land but still the beauty and glory of aftab manzil is there.very nice article..

  8. Anisur Rahman says:

    Indeed very well written in a summarized form. I believe old memoirs are everyone’s heritage and gives a lesson to the present and future generations. May God bless everyone of you.
    Anisur Rahman
    Calgary, Alberta
    Canada
    [email protected]

  9. Mohd zia ul haque says:

    Yup it’s all about beautiful architecture, which influenced by moghuls architecture…..

  10. Dr anju gupta says:

    Lovely article about heritage kothis of Aligarh
    My husband’s grandfather Mr Khayala Ram gupta also constructed Japan House on Marris Road on the same lines.
    We have tried to preserve the soul as far as possible

  11. Danish says:

    Commercialisation has set in at Aligarh and slowly but surely would wipe away the history of Aligarh. Very nice article. I wish the University could do something about preserving these heritage homes.

  12. Faleha says:

    Good efforts by Mihir Ali. Bt she missed some very famous kothis of aligarh like ofcourse Habib Manzil owned by my maternal grandfather Riaz-Ur-Rahman sherwani. I don’t remember xactly when was it build tbt it was built by my great grandfather (my grandfather’s grandfather Mr. Habib-Ur-Rahman sahab) and my great grandfather Ubaid-Ur-Rahman sahab (my mother’s grandfather) was also pro VC of Amu during partition and has also dedicated his books to Amu our universities library. In Habib Manzil within the boundary of the house in section marriage home is been opened named Habib Gardens It would have been nyc if Hafeez Manzil, Wazir Manzil,Hayat Manzil,Lalazaar were included in this and also kothi of Dharampur

  13. Asif Sultan says:

    Great article Meher,kudos to you, please post more pictures of buildings and people

  14. SHARIQ NAZAM says:

    Thank you mam for presenting an era not known to the people of my generation. i myself have seen many of these buildings however the only thing which i used to admire was their old nostalgic architecture. but today, because of this article i come to know the real and magnificent nawabi period of aligarh and to what extent these great structures still depict that. such a fine article!!!!!! purane waqton ka zamana sirf suna thha, aaj roobaroo hue hein.

  15. Ghazala Rahman says:

    I was born (post partition) and raised in a house in Karachi on a strret named Sen Gupta. Who was Sen Gupta?

  16. Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi says:

    A good introduction to the fast disappearing old mansions of Aligarh which gradually but surely are being replaced by high rise monsters known as “flats”!

    Having been brought up in childhood in some such structures and having been a regular visitor to many which have been mentioned in the story, I can say that they not only have a singular physical enrironment but a culture of their own!

    I remember those moonlit nights when as a child I would sleep along with other family members in a vast open courtyard surrounded with arcades and beautiful fruit bearing trees of the “Old English House”, the northern portion of which was the “Common Room” of a hall of residence for students!

    The charpoys would be covered in pure white cotton sheets, accompanied by white pillows and equally white chadors to cover ourselves. To get rid of mosquitoes each was also covered with white mosquito nets (machhardani) and not very far would be a wooden tripod with an earthen pot (ghada) and a surahi covered with beautiful white lace-work covers. Nearby would be the silver ‘katoras’ (bowls) to drink the water.

    The scent arising from the raat ki raanis (a scented flower which blooms at night), the silvery moonlight and the myriads of clouds and brightly sparkling stars would all transform us into another lever!

    Now that I am living in a flat, I miss the nights – and days in those havelis of the yore! Aligarh was once dotted by many of them: and all unique in their own separate ways…..

  17. Shadab Hussain says:

    If You want more information regarding Wazir Manzil contact me I am also lived in near wazir Manzil, Marris Road, Aligarh

  18. DR SYED ZAHEER HASAN says:

    THANKS MOHTARMA MEHER SAHEBA FOR MAKING KNOWN TO WHAT HAVE BEEN UNKNOWN TO MOST OF THE NEW GENERATION PEOPLE.

    EVEN IN DETAILS, MOST OF THE THINGS WERE NOT KNOWN TO ME AS WELL DESPITE SPENDING A DECADE AT AMU ALIGARH.

    CURRENTLY I AM BASED IN AHMEDABAD, WE MAY DISCUSS OTHER ISSUES OVER A CUP OF TEA SUBJECT TO CONVENIENCE.

  19. mohammad abdullah says:

    Good insights. Came here from AMUNETWORK GROUP.

    Thanks.

  20. Assalam o alikum .

    What a wonderful presentation of senior most Aligs .The pictures also depict owners’ style of life ,their literary aesthetics and above all history of
    Aligarh Muslim University .My uncle in laws namely late Dr Hafizur Rehman , Medical Officer and his younger brother Dr. Munibur Rehaman (Persian Dept )
    and their father late Ikraam ul Hasan were the owner of Gul e Rana ., Amir Nishan , Doodh Pur , Aligarh .I remained student of Psychology Department from
    1953 to 1959 and resided in Morrison Court and held post of Vice – President , Aftab Hal Cultural Society from 1958-1959 . Allah sir Syed ko jannat de ,
    Allah mere waldayen ko jannat de .Again Mubarak bad on such a nice presentation .

  21. Abdullah Najeeb says:

    Hi Ms.Meher,

    It was indeed a delightful read. Very well written & woven with stories of these houses and its inhabitants. I have my own story. My maternal grandfather Mr. Mohd. Haziq, who taught persian @ AMU 1920s-30s, had built a beautiful kothi called Al-hamra. Its very close to Aftab Manzil on Anoop shaher road. I have had the pleasure to have grown up there in late 90s through 2000s. I, now, have moved on to Delhi to pursue my career, but this article has taken me back to the fond memories of Aligarh and these big houses. FYI…I am writing this comment living in a small apartment (where I can literally touch the ceilings if jump with emotions of nostalgia).

    Thanks

  22. Syed Shahrukh Saleem says:

    Very well written article.. I hope more people take interest in finding the lost history of Aligarh. If we all can make some effort definitely more of such information will be unearthed.

  23. Saeed Khawar says:

    Aligarh is our common heritage, I revere it like my own city and country.

  24. Taab anwer says:

    Very nice article and totally agree with Ms. Noorien Abdul Khan this would have been better one if included other Kothis of aligarh and the one made by Mr baseer Noor manzil located at dodhpur. Good effort by Ms MEher

  25. Adnan Dawood says:

    Good article. Look forward to an update.

  26. Sheeraz Ahmed says:

    Very Nice article indeed and a very good effort … feeling nostalgic after reading it.. I agree with Dr Noorin khan more Kothi’s of Marris Road can be included in the article .. I live in the Zaka manzi , and own Zia Manizl, both built by Sir Ziauddin in early 1920’s …

  27. Akshat Kumar says:

    Wow, what a delight to read this article. Very well written and pictures are captivating. Thanks

  28. Naz Khan says:

    My Grandfather Mirza Nadir Husain lived at Yousuf Manzil. Will be extremely grateful if someone could provide some pics of this house and its address . All I havd heard ftom my elders that it is located close to the Aligarh district jail and the main Delhi-Howrah (Calcutta) rail line passes behind it. It is also close to the University..

    Will appreciate all your hrlp in this regard– Thanks in advance — Naz Khan

  29. B.K. Bangash says:

    Love to see photographs of Habib Manzil

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