It’s not often that a warlord is remembered for his artistic and literary contribution, but there is one Afghan chieftain-turned-Nawab whose legacy contributed to the making of one of the finest libraries in India. Faizullah Khan (r. 1748 - 1793), the first Nawab of Rampur, put together the nucleus of the Rampur Raza Library, whose fabulous collection includes rare and priceless manuscripts, books and works of art, thanks also to his descendants who were great patrons of art, culture and literature. Known especially for its Arabic and Persian manuscripts, calligraphic works and miniature paintings, the library is housed in a grand palace in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, and is now under the control of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.
– Named after the last Nawab of Rampur, Sir Raza Ali Khan (r. 1930 - 1966), the library boasts around 17,000 manuscripts, 60,000 books, 3,000 rare specimens of Islamic calligraphy and 5,000 miniature paintings.
The story of how this breathtaking collection of artistic and literary gems evolved is closely linked to the Nawabs of Rampur. Before it became a princely state, Rampur was a part of the old Rohilkhand region in Western Uttar Pradesh. No more than forest and scrubland, it was settled by Rohilla Pathans from Afghanistan in the 16th century CE.
Over time, the Afghan tribesmen developed this land and divided it among different warlords, who were mercenaries. In 1773-74 CE, the area was invaded by a joint force of the East India Company and Awadh, and the territories were annexed by the British.
After the Afghans’ defeat, the only warlord who survived was Faizullah Khan. He was given Rampur, then a small tract of land, under the protection of the British. The first Nawab of Rampur, Faizullah Khan, had a literary bent and, over the years, developed a collection of manuscripts, specimens of Islamic calligraphy and valuable books. In 1774 CE, he set up a toshakhana (treasure house) in his palace and in it he housed his precious, personal collection.
Since Faizullah Khan and all the other Rampur Nawabs were patrons of music, art and literature, the library was highly valued and its collection steadily grew.
With the collection expanding over the years, during the reign of Nawab Mohammad Saeed Khan (r. 1840-1855), the library’s collection was systematically categorized. In fact, during his reign, the library got its own seal, in 1851-1852.
But it was during the reign of Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan (r. 1865-1887) that the library witnessed several developments. It was then, after the 1857 Revolt, that several eminent scholars, poets and writers of the time settled in Rampur State. Interestingly, renowned poet Mirza Ghalib was a part of the court of Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan, and his father Nawab Mohammed Yusef Ali Khan. With the presence of such eminent scholars and the ruler being a patron of the arts and culture, Rampur became an important centre of the arts, calligraphy and poetry.
Dr Abu Sad Islahi, Library & Information Officer of the Rampur Raza Library, tells Live History India: “Kalbe Ali Khan’s reign was the golden period of the Rampur Raza library. It was during his reign that several books belonging to the Mughal dynasty, scattered around the country, were collected and kept in the library. In fact, he had also appointed agents across the country to collect manuscripts, which were then presented before the Nawab, who bought the rare ones among them. This was also a time when the printing press had recently emerged in India and many press owners and publishers presented their first editions to the Nawab.”
But all this while, the library was still in the toshakhana, and it was during the brief reign of Nawab Mushtaq Ali Khan (r .1897-1889) that a new building was constructed in the palace complex, especially for the growing collection. The foundation stone of the building is visible to this day.
It was in the mid-20th century that the priceless collection found a permanent home, the one we see today. Nawab Hamid Ali Khan (r. 1889-1930) built an opulent palace in Indo-European style, known as Hamid Manzil. It became the Rampur Raza Library in 1957. It was also during Hamid Ali Khan’s reign that the library was thrown open to the public; up until then only a few people could visit it on request.
By the time Nawab Raza Ali Khan (r. 1930-1966) took over, the library already had a fabulous collection. Being a connoisseur of music, he added several rare manuscripts and books on classical music from both India and abroad to the library’s collection.
Thanks to the patronage of the Rampur Nawabs, the Rampur Raza Library now has a fabulous collection of Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Turkish and Pashto manuscripts. It also houses several palm-leaf manuscripts. Most of these are inscribed in Telugu, Sanskrit, Kannada, Sinhalese and Tamil.
Here are some of the most outstanding manuscripts in the library:
Quran: One of the rarest manuscripts in the library is a 7th century CE Quran in the handwriting of the fourth Caliph, Hazrat Ali. The manuscript is written on parchment in the Arabic language and early Kufic script. It has around 500 folios and is said to have been gifted to Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan by a Sheikh while on a pilgrimage to Hajj. It is one of the oldest manuscripts in the library.
Jami-ut-Tawarikh: This is the earliest illustrated Persian manuscript in the library on the history of the Mongol tribes, dated to the 13th century CE. It was authored by Rashidud-din Fazlullah. It includes 21 rare miniature paintings, which depict the social, political and religious life of the Mongols.
Kalila wa Dimna: This interesting work is a translation of the Panchatantra, an ancient collection of Indian fables. This Persian translation by Abul Maali Nasrullah Bin Muhammad Ghaznavi, is dated to the 16th century CE. It is illustrated with several miniatures of flora and fauna.
Diwan-i-Hafiz: One of the most rare manuscripts in the library, it was written in 1575-80 E, during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar and illustrated by his court painters. Written in the Nastaliq script, it bears 11 miniatures, including a painting of Akbar, giving us a glimpse into social and cultural life in the 16th century CE.
Diwan-i-Babur: A unique manuscript in the library is the Diwan-i-Babur. Written in the Turkish language, some parts of this work are in the handwriting of the first Mughal Emperor Babur. Interestingly, there is a notation by Emperor Shah Jahan himself, confirming Babur’s handwriting.
Sharhal-Kafia of Razi: This Arabic manuscript is another unique exhibit in the library’s collection. It is a work on grammar and has notes in the margin made by Nawab Sadullah Khan, Prime Minister of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It also contains a notation made by the Emperor himself.
Zakhirai Khawarizm Shahi: This is a Persian medicinal treatise authored by Zainuddin Ibrahim Gurgani. It is the earliest treatise on medicine among the Persian manuscripts in the library.
Risalah Khawaja Abdullah Ansari and Sad Pand-i-Luqman: This is a copy of Risalah Khawaja Abdullah Ansari and Sad Pand-i-Luqman, which comprise advice and life lessons. Bound together and written in Nastaliq by calligrapher Mir Ali of Herat, it bears the seals and signatures of several scholars and kings. Interestingly, it is said to have been regarded as an important manuscript by Shah Jahan, who valued it at one thousand rupees.
Ramayana in Persian: One of the unique manuscripts in the library is the Valmiki Ramayana translated into Persian by Sumer Chand and illustrated during the reign of Mughal Emperor Farrukh Siyar in 1715-16 CE. It consists of 258 miniature paintings and gives us a glimpse into the costumes, ornaments and the art and architecture of medieval India. It is one of the most-illustrated manuscripts in the library.
Probodh Chandrika: This is a Sanskrit work on grammar authored by Baijnath Dev Chauhan Vanshi.
Apart from manuscripts, the library has a rich collection of miniature paintings and illustrated manuscripts from different schools of painting including Mughal, Rajput, Deccani, Mongol, Awadhi and Pahari, among others.
One of its most fascinating collections is an album of miniatures titled Ragamala. The 35 ragas of Indian classical music are illustrated in personified form. Simply put, these paintings depict the atmosphere created by each raga. This unique, late Mughal-Rajasthani album of paintings was made during Shah Jahan’s reign in the 17th century CE.
The library also has a museum, which houses several art objects and rare astronomical instruments. The oldest instrument here is a brass astrolabe dating to 1218 CE.
When India gained independence in 1947, most of the princely states merged with India, as did Rampur. It became a part of the Union of India in 1949 and, as a result, the library was managed by a trust created on 6th August 1951. On 1st July 1975, the Government of India took over the library by an Act of Parliament and assumed full funding and management of the institution, declaring it an Institution of National Importance.
The library has begun to digitize its collection, to make it easily accessible to scholars and students across the globe. Dr Abu Sad Islahi says, “As of now, 10,000 manuscripts of the 17,000 have been digitized. These are available to the public on request with a charge of Rs 10 per page.”
The Rampur Raza Library is a testament to the premium placed on learning by successive Nawabs. Thanks to them, scholars and researchers have an invaluable resource, and a slice of the subcontinent’s rich heritage has been preserved.
Cover Image: Deepak G Goswami via Wikimedia Commons
This article is part of a five-part series on some of the great libraries of India and the incredible collections they hold. The series has been commissioned in memory of Dr G R Dalvi and Mrs Ratan G Dalvi, by their son Nitin Dalvi.