down memory lane History & Culture

Kasganj’s colourful past

RICH LEGACY A sketch of a Gardner descendant riding to Kasganj town in 1910

RICH LEGACY A sketch of a Gardner descendant riding to Kasganj town in 1910  

Remembering the city of Yakut Khan, the Gardners and Panditji

Kasganj is in the news after a century of hibernation albeit for dubious reasons because of the rioting there and as such it’s worth repeating the history of the town. Kasganj, in Etah district of UP, was at one time an important tehsil. A prominent building of it is the palace of former Raja of Kasganj, Dilsukh Rai built by his son, Shankar Singh, a fort-like structure with a temple, courtyard, stables and an elephant house. It is said to have been founded by Yakut Khan or Khan Bahadur Khan founder of Aliganj, who happened to be a eunuch of Mohammad Khan of Farukhabad in the 18th Century.

How Kasganj got its name is not known, though some think it’s a corrupted form of Khasganj or main market and others that the kas grass that grows there (and is used for curing carbuncles) lent its name to the town. On the death of Yakut Khan the town passed into the hands of Khuda Baksh Khan and then to Mohammad Baksh Khan. The latter sold it to Col James Gardner. The Colonel’s son, Sulaiman Shikoh Gardner in turn sold the town in 1859 to a former agent of his family, Dilsukh Rai, who was later made a Raja. After Jaswant Rao Holkar raided the Doab, the cantonment town, built by the British, was burnt down. This was replaced by a cantonment for the English cavalry built at Kunwarpur, two miles away by Col Gardner in 1809.

And that brings us to the most famous family associated with Kasganj, the Gardners. According to E. R. Neave, ICS the largest landlords in Etah were the Gardners. Their ancestor was Col (later Lord) Gardner, who belonged to a noble family but “ran away from home to greatly distinguish and enrich himself”.

End of Nepalese resistance

During the Nepal war of 1815, Col Gardner was given command of the force at Kumaon, after the failure of the regular British generals, and he and his brother the Hon. E. Gardner, were able to capture Almora and end Nepalese resistance. “Col Gardner married a daughter of the royal family of Cutch”, related to the Moghuls and known as the Princess of Cambay, after which he settled down in Etah Chhaoni, where he lived in great splendour like a prince. Neave goes on to say :

“By gift, purchase, or as farmer, Colonel Gardner held a large portion of Etah. He was succeeded by his son James Valentine Gardner, who ran away with Malika Kamarchera Banu Begum, granddaughter of Shah Alam, Emperor of Delhi, whom he subsequently married. He died at Chhaoni on the 14th June 1845 and was buried there beside his father. He left five sons – Sulaiman Shikoh, commonly known as Munna Sahib, James, alias Hinga Sahib, William Linnacus Sikandar Shikoh, and Jahangir Samuel E.F. Gardner, son of Sulaiman Shikoh, is still alive at Chhaoni, where the only relics of a splendid patrimony are a few acres immediately surrounding the house and mausoleum.”

That was in 1910 now few of the Gardners remain in Kasganj, most members having moved to other places in the country and some settling down abroad. The last claimant to the baronet, Alan Legge, who styled himself as the Lat Sahib of Manota, died blind and helpless after crossing the age of 80 several years ago. Those of the Gardners who took Muslim names are almost lost to the family, which continues with its Anglo-Indian traditions even now in UP, Dehradun, Mumbai, Australia and, of course, Kasganj.

The legendary charm

Among the old buildings, the Bibi Khana of a Lord Gardner survives as a dilapidated structure. The Chhaoni or Cantonment is still associated with his medieval clan which once played a leading role in the affairs of North India but the legendary charm of the Princess of Cambay has become a faint memory. It, however, recently found an echo in William Dalrymple’s neo-classic “The White Moghuls”. Kasganj itself became a neglected town after its Pathan zamindars lost their lands and ceased to play any worthwhile role, save for the few who entered local politics and sometimes managed to occupy a post or two in the Nagar Mahapalika or Muncipal Corporation. But people like Amanullah Khan, the carbuncle healer, who went about armed with a pistol, have disappeared from the scene. The Sherwanis, however, still hold some clout in Kasganj, which had become their fiefdom after the colourful Gardners, faded away from the banks of the Kali Nadi.

One fondly remembers a Panditji from Kasganj, who used to sit in a ramshackle kiosk in Subhash Nagar, West Delhi. A huge neem tree shaded it and Panditji kept his stringed cot tied to its trunk lest somebody steal it. He was a slim man with a majestic face and moustache but polio had given him deformed legs so that he walked with great difficulty swaying from side like a drunken man. His grey hair notwithstanding, he was a man with a bright outlook on life despite his age and handicap.

Panditji sold cigarettes, bidis and paan. But in the evening he closed his shop by 8 p.m. and spreading his cot sat on it cross-legged. All around him rickshaw-pullers and other daily wage earners would sit down to see him make chappatis and dal for them on a makeshift chulha. While the pot was bubbling with dal and the rotis were being baked red on the log fire, Panditji kept telling tales of his village in Kasganj until his death in 1999 — when the town was known for its communal harmony.

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 7:36:18 AM |

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