Chances are you can’t point to Bareilly on a map but you’ve definitely heard of the place.
The city of Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, 272 km south-east of Delhi, hovers on the edge of your consciousness because it is frequently mentioned in Bollywood movies. Remember the famous song from the movie Sayya (1966), “Jhumka gira re Bareilly ki baazar me” or the more recent movie, Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017)? The city has been popularly referenced in Bollywood but, beyond cinema, Bareilly tells a fascinating story. Let us revisit the city’s rich and vibrant history through the few monuments that survive.
Till the 12th century, much of what is Bareilly district today was dense forest teeming with wildlife. The Sultanate of Delhi, which then ruled the region, was headquartered in neighbouring Badaun. But the Governors of Badaun had little control over Bareilly’s forests, which were in turn controlled by local chieftains called ‘Katheriyas’.
This is how things stayed till 1379 CE, when the Katheriya chieftains killed a local Governor of Badaun, through treachery. This led to an invasion by Firuz Shah Tughlaq and his conquest of the region. Due to its rich wildlife, the Bareilly forests became a favorite hunting ground of the Delhi Sultans.
According to local folklore, Bareilly was founded in the 16th century by a Katehriya chieftain, Jagat Singh, who established a village named ‘Jagatpur’ here.
His sons, Bans Dev and Barel Dev, went on to develop the village into an important town, which is how ‘Bans Bareilly’ is said to have got its name. But this is just folklore. It is more likely that the ‘Bans’ or ‘bamboo’ in ‘Bans Bareilly’, which later became just ‘Bareilly’, is derived from the abundant bamboo plantations in the area.
There is precious little historic information on the early days of Bareilly. We do know that, in 1577, the town was gifted by the Mughals to an Iranian noble, who built a fortification here called ‘Mirzai Mohalla’. The town began to grow in importance during the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628 – 1658), who shifted the provincial headquarters from Badaun to Bareilly, to check the growing influence of the Katheriya chieftains.
Raja Manik Chand, a Khatri noble from Delhi, was appointed Governor of Bareilly by Shah Jahan. In 1657, Manik Chand was succeeded by his son, Makrand Rai, who continued as Governor during the reign of Aurangzeb (r. 1658 – 1707). Makrand Rai is considered the founder of modern Bareilly, which flourished under his rule. He not only built a new fort where the present Qila Mohalla is located, but he also developed the localities of Alamgirganj, Makrandpur, Jama Masjid at Qila and the shrine of the 16th-century Sufi saint, Shahdana Wali.
After the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 CE, the Mughal Empire began to break apart and the reins were seized by the Rohillas under their chief Daud Khan. The ‘Rohillas’ or ‘mountain dwellers’ were inhabitants of present-day Khyber-Pakhtunwa (Pakistan) and adjoining Afghanistan, who had migrated to India in Mughal times and established themselves in the region. Leveraging the collapse of the Mughal Empire, the Rohillas expanded their control over Katehr (Rohilkhand) and the Kumaon hills, with their seat at Aonla, a town 40 km south-west of Bareilly.
In 1748, Rohilkhand was divided among Afghan leaders, with Hafiz Rahmat Khan as their chief. Although Rahmat Khan shifted his capital to Pilibhit, Bareilly continued to serve as a strategic centre of his empire. With the fall of Rahmat Khan during the Awadh War (1774), Rohilkhand came under Shuja-ud-Daula, Grand Vizier under the Mughals and Nawab of Awadh (1754-75). His son, Saadat Ali Khan II, was appointed Governor of Bareilly. The next year, after the death of his father, Saadat Ali Khan II was replaced by Surat Singh, father-in-law of Asaf-ud-Daula, Nawab of Awadh (1775 – 1797).
In 1801, Rohilkhand was ceded to the East India Company by Awadh to repay debts owed to the Company. Till 1947, Bareilly was the seat of the British Commissioner of Rohilkhand, except for a year during the Revolt of 1857, when it was occupied by revolutionaries.
Many of Bareilly’s monuments built during the Mughal and Rohilla eras suffered heavy damage during the Awadh conquest and later during the Revolt of 1857. Let’s explore the heritage of town from its leftover remains.
Jama Masjid, Qila
This is a remnant from the days of Raja Makrand Rai, the governor during Aurangzeb’s reign. The site of the fort constructed by him evolved into a densely populated residential locality by the early 20th century, but the mosque he built is still located in the centre of the ‘Qila locality’.
The mosque is a three-domed shrine with a large courtyard and hauz (ablution pool). The shrine underwent a major facelift in the late ’90s. The three domes and the west-facing wall are all that remain of the original structure.
Tomb of Hafiz Rahmat Khan
This is the only monument in Bareilly painted by celebrated artists of the colonial era, like Thomas Daniell (c 1789) and Sita Ram (c 1814). After the death of Rohilla chief Hafiz Rahmat Khan in 1774, in the battle against the joint forces of Awadh and the East India Company, he was buried in Bareilly. The construction of the monument was started by his Khatri Diwan, Rao Pahar Singh, in 1775. Ten months later, Rao Pahar Singh passed away and the work was taken up by the family of Hafiz Rahmat Khan.
The mausoleum was renovated by the British government in 1819 and included the construction of a mosque, a water tank and a boundary around the property. However, after 1857, the tomb was neglected as the British turned hostile towards the Rohillas in the aftermath of the Revolt that same year.
The District Gazette of Bareilly (1911) offers a detailed history and description of the tomb while historian Altaf Hussain in his biographical account on Hafiz Rahmat Khan mentions that except for the dome, the rest of the buildings on the property had crumbled. In the decades that followed, the dome too has collapsed. There is no sign of the mosque and tank, and it is hard to even say where these structures once stood.
There are some meager remnants of the western gateway and all the main walls have been removed by locals, who have raised a canopy over the main grave. The outer boundary of the tomb is intact. Here, the Archaeological Survey of India has erected a sign declaring the tomb a protected monument. Compounding the irony is the fact that the tomb of Hafiz Rahmat Khan is the only ‘protected monument’ in Bareilly.
Bibi Ji ki Masjid
In the narrow lanes of Beharipur, this mosque is the only surviving monument from the Rohilla era. It was built in the mid-18th century by Hafiz Rahmat Khan’s sister, who was popular among locals as ‘Bibi Ji’. The mosque, built at a height of twelve feet, can be accessed from the north and south by two entrances. A compact ablution pool, tall minarets and three bulbous domes of the main prayer hall make for a stunning image.
Located 300 metres east of Qila Masjid, aka Shia Jama Masjid, is a late 18th-century mosque in the Zakhira locality. It was built by Mirza Hasan Raza Khan, an official of Asaf-ud-Daula, and later renovated by the Nawab of Rampur. The mosque has three domes flanked by two lofty minarets, one on either side. The three-level, hexagonal minarets are devoid of an ornamental apex.
The eastern wall of the mosque is decorated at the top by arched serration and conical merlons. On the wall at the entrance to the prayer hall is a marble tablet with an Arabic verse citing its name as ‘Asafi Mosque’ along with its dates of construction (1796) and renovation (1876).
Free Will Baptist Church
Among the oldest churches in Bareilly is the Free Will Baptist Church on Helen Road. It was raised by the East India Company under the supervision of British Bishop Daniel Wilson in 1838. On May 31, 1857, the revolutionaries set the church on fire as armed British soldiers hide inside. The incident claimed the lives of 40 British subjects, majority of who were soldiers, although the number appears highly inflated. The church was repaired and rebuilt in 1858. The graves of the pastor, his wife and minor son, who lost their lives in this incident, are in the backyard.
St Stephen’s Church
Built in the Victorian architectural era, this is one of the most magnificent among the 26 churches in Bareilly. A red brick church with exquisite interiors ornamented with ebony wood panels and marble pulpit, it was constructed in 1861. It also housed a 20-foot-high pipe organ imported from England.
Khanqah e Aliya Niyazia
Located at Khwaja Qutub, this shrine and spiritual centre is affiliated to both the Chishti and Qadri orders of Sufism and visited by people of diverse faiths. It was founded by Shah Niyaz, who was born in 1742 at Sirhind, into a Sayyad family that hailed from Bukhara in Central Asia.
After completing his education in Delhi, Shah Niyaz was deputed by his teacher to Bareilly. He wrote his accounts and poetry in four languages – Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Hindavi. Shah Niyaz passed away in 1834 and his urs (annual death anniversary) is celebrated according to Hijri dates, every year.
He has a long list of spiritual successors, many of them hailing from Central Asia and Afghanistan along with his son, Shah Nizam-ud-din Hussain. The centre has also influenced Hindustani classical music, and notable singers Shambu Maharaj and Birju Maharaj were affiliated to Niyazia Khanqah. The present structure was built by Nawab Rampur in the early 20th century.
Dargah Ala Hazrat
This is the shrine of 19th century Sufi poet and scholar Imam Ahmad Raza Khan aka Ala Hazrat. Born in 1856 in Bareilly, into a family of Barech Pathans, he took his early lessons from his father and was affiliated with many Sufi orders but most closely to the Qadri order.
Ala Hazrat passed away in 1921 and his tomb was built by his son. Millions of followers attend his urs from different parts of the world. A Re 1 commemorative stamp with his name and picture of the shrine was launched in 1995 and an express train service between Bareilly and Bhuj, the ‘Ala Hazrat Express’, too bears his name. In South Asia, Ala Hazrat’s spiritual followers are known as ‘Barelvis’, after his birthplace, Bareilly.
Chunna Miyan Ka Mandir
This beautiful Lakhsmi Naryan temple in the congested alleys of Bara Bazar is a symbol of Ganga-Jamuni syncretism. It was constructed by a businessman, Fazlur Rahman, aka Chunna Miyan. Dr Rajendra Prasad, then President of India, inaugurated the temple on May 13, 1960. Chunna Miyan passed away in 1968 and his garlanded photograph hangs on a wall in the temple.
Dhopeshwar Nath Temple
Bareilly is also popular as the city of Nath. It is surrounded by seven Shiva temples believed to be sites where ardent mendicants of Shiva worshiped in ancient times. Dhopeshwar Nath is believed to be among the oldest. According to legend, this was the site where a saint called Dhroom from the Mahabharata era performed penance and his soul is said to have been released here. An old and sacred fig tree once stood outside the main building and a sacred pond is located inside the temple complex, where devotees take a bath.
The present college building was raised as an endowment on land donated by the Nawab of Rampur, Hamid Ali Khan, and inaugurated by Sir James La Touche in 1906, then Governor of the North-West Provinces. Its history goes back to 1837, when the institution was started as a school by the British government and attained the status of a college in 1850. In 1862, the college was granted affiliation to Calcutta University, and Allahabad University in 1888. It is now a part of Rohilkhand University.
Sadly, Bareilly is now a kind of backwater, making it to national headlines only when something unsavoury takes place. It is only through the romance of Bollywood that the town lives on in national memory.