Politics of renaming: Aligarh or Harigarh?

Print edition : September 24, 2021

Hindu Pathwaari temple, Harigarh, which has come up in recent times. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Historical records show that it was the Marathas who came up with the name of Aligarh for their fort in the town Kol, a name which was then extended to the entire district by the English.

In recent days a controversy has been generated as to what the original name of Aligarh was. This followed the Aligarh zila panchayat’s resolution seeking to rename Aligarh as Harigarh. Panchayat members claimed that this was a long-pending demand.

Vijay Singh, zila panchayat chairman, said: “It was a long-pending demand to rename Aligarh as Harigarh. The zila panchayat approved the proposal unopposed. It will now be forwarded to the State government for approval.”

Vijay Singh was probably referring to a similar call given in late 1970s by the then members of Aligarh unit of Jana Sangh (the original avatar of the Bharatiya Janata Party) to rename Aligarh as Harigarh. The demand was raised again in 2015. “This [Harigarh] is Aligarh’s oldest and real name,” claimed a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) member at that time. According to his statement reproduced by the Times of India (Delhi edition) dated February 10, 2015, the old name “Harigarh” lost currency “following a series of conquests faced by India”.

Another VHP luminary of that time, Dev Suman Goyal, who held the office of the president of the Aligarh unit, claimed that “Harigarh is the name mentioned in Hindu mythology”. However, probably not being sure of his assertion, he wanted this change to be done gradually only after popularising this name among the masses “by printing it on letterheads and poster” only.

In the 1970s, a newly built temple in Akas Vikas market of Aligarh Nigam was renamed as “Harigarh Mandir”. However, this movement did not find traction at all.

This demand is now being raised again, after the Adityanath government’s renaming of a number of historic cities according to what is perceived to be their original names. Allahabad was renamed as Prayagraj and Faizabad district as Ayodhya District (the name of the town, however, is officially retained as Faizabad). Earlier, the Mughal Sarai Junction was renamed as Pandit Deen Dayal Junction. Very recently, an illegal makeshift “temple” on Dodhpur Crossing been surreptitiously renamed as “Hindu Pathwaari Mandir, Harigarh” and uploaded on Google maps.

Also read: Proposal to rename Aurangabad gathers steam

Is there any historical truth in these assertions? Was Aligarh ever known as Harigarh? Does “Hindu Mythology” actually refer to Harigarh? If not, then what was the original name of the town? We would also like to see how the city acquired the name of Aligarh and whether it is named after Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam. Is there thus any need to rename it as Harigarh, a name which counterbalances its religious moorings?

Historical evidence

The written references to the city commence only from the late 12th century, with only archaeological evidence available for the earlier period. There are also certain popular recorded legends of the pre-Sultanate town and its name.

Archaeological evidence collected from the region suggests that it was populated by the followers of Mahavir Jain, as attested to by the existence of a large number of remains of pre-12th century (11th century or earlier) Jain idols of Mahavir and the Jain Tirthankaras. Probably there were a number of Jain temples in this region, pointing to the religious beliefs of the people who lived here. The town was probably under the control of the newly emerging Rajputs before passing into the hands of the Delhi Sultans in the late 12th century.

From the 13th century onwards, it gained some commercial importance and is time and again mentioned in Sultanate sources as “Kol” or “Koil”, probably an older name which continued to be used by the Delhi Sulans and their officials. The origin of this name “Kol” is obscure. In some ancient texts, Kol has been referred to in the sense of a tribe or caste, name of a place or mountain, and the name of a sage or demon. According to Edwin T. Atkinson, who compiled the first Gazetteer of the district, the name Kol was given to the city by Balarama, who slew the great Asura (demon) Kol there and with the assistance of the Ahirs subdued this part of the Doab. In another account, Atkinson points out a “legend” that Kol was founded by the Dor tribe of Rajputs in 372 A.D.

Sometime before Muslim invasion, Kol is said to have been held by the Dor Rajputs. In the time of Mahmud of Ghazni, the chief of the Dors was Hardatta of Baran.

In 1194 AD, Qutb-ud-din Aybak marched from Delhi to Kol, which was “one of the most celebrated fortresses of Hind”. Qutb-ud-din Aybak appointed Hisam-ud-din Ulbak as the first Muslim governor of Kol.

Sultanate period sources, both Persian and non-Persian, mention Kol, along with Baran (Bulandshahr) as a centre for the production of distilled wine. The process of distillation was incidentally introduced by the Turks in India. And probably during this period, sugarcane was one of the major agricultural products of the area.

By the mid 13th century, the town became so important that in 1252 A.D. the future Sultan Balban erected, during his governorship, a minaret there whose inscription still survives. The epigraph of Balban is carved on a piece of stone, on the reverse of which are some sculptural carvings and floral motifs typically found in Jain religious structures. The stone slab with its inscription and carvings was collected by Sir Syed when the minaret was demolished by the English in the 19th century. Sir Syed had it fixed on one of the walls of “Nizam Museum” within the complex of MAO College buildings constructed by him. In 2019, it was shifted to the University Museum, where it can still be seen.

The sources of the period of Sultan Alauddin Khalji mention this town as “Iqta Kol”. Iqta was an administrative unit, the holder of which was known as Iqtadar or muqta. Thus by this time it was the headquarters of a province named Kol. The place continued to be referred to as such even under the Tughluqs. When Ibn Batuta visited India during the reign of Muhammad bin Tughlaq in the 14th century, the place was still popular by the same name. Ibn Batuta calls Kol “a fine town surrounded by mango groves”. Probably this was why the town also came to be called during that period as Sabzabad or “the green country”. Ibn Batuta also alludes to the lawlessness of the area when he refers to this town. He mentions “Kol Jalali” where his caravan was robbed and some fellow travellers lost their lives in the assault by dacoits. Jalali today is a large village near the main town. The site where the men were killed by dacoits still survives.

Under the Mughals, Kol was the Sarkar headquarters in Suba Agra. This is how it is mentioned by the sources of Akbar’s period. Abul Fazl records it as Sarkar Kol. Both Akbar and his son, Emperor Jahangir, visited Kol on hunting expeditions. Jahangir in his memoirs, Tuzuk i Jahangiri, clearly mentions the forest of Kol, where he hunted wolves.

Also read: Allahabad gets 'Hindu' name

Even in the early 18th century the city was known as Kol. Sabit Khan was the governor of Kol during the reign of Farrukh Siyar and Muhammad Shah.

The town was governed by a small fortress; and it was the fortress that was destined to give the town its new name. There is a view that the fortress was there from ancient times. But nothing concrete is known about it. However, in recorded history it was built around 1524-25 during the reign of Ibrahim Lodi when one of his nobles, Muhammad, son of Umar, was the governor of Kol. It may well have been built on the ruins of an older fortress for all one knows. It came to be called after him as Muhammadgarh. It remained functional under the Mughals. However, it is not referred to much in our sources.

The Maratha connection

In the early 18th century, when Sabit Khan was the governor of the fortress, it came to be known after him as Sabitgarh, meaning, the fortress of Sabit Khan. Ultimately the Jats under Surajmal Jat captured it in 1753, with the help of Jai Singh of Jaipur, and came to occupy it. Now it was renamed as Ramgarh. Finally, the fort changed hands once again and came under Maratha occupation. The Marathas renamed the fort as Aligarh after their governor Najaf Ali Khan. It gained much importance under the Marathas, whose chief, Mahadji Scindia, captured it in 1759 along with his European battalions under the command of a Frenchman, Benoit de Boigne. Another French commander during this period was General Perron, who had his garrison stationed nearby. The fort of Aligarh was rebuilt once again under the Marathas. This time it was constructed not with stone blocks but with mud walls following what came to be known as “French technique”. In spite of its so-called impregnability, in 1803 it was captured by the English.

The English captors not only retained its name but extended it to the town as well for the sake of administrative functionality and ease. Initially, the name gained currency for the newly emerging “Civil Lines” area along with the area occupied by MAO College lands, which included the old barracks of the French troops of the Marathas. The English had taken over the land and handed it over to Sir Syed for his college. By the mid 19th century the whole town was officially renamed as Aligarh, and soon it also emerged as the name of the district itself. By the late 19th century, this was the undisputed name of not only the town, but also the district. The name Kol or Koil stuck to the central part of the town, which now formed a tahsil, where the mosque of Sabit Khan was built. Till date we have a Tahsil Kol within the town of Aligarh.

Also read: Ahmedabad as Karnavati

Thus, we see that historically, the town was called Kol—the name by which it was known throughout the ancient and medieval periods. Secondly, it was the Marathas who came up with the name of Aligarh (Aly gurh, in contemporary English records) for their fort in the town, a name which was then extended to the entire district by the English. Nowhere was it ever known by any other name: not even the myths record a name other than Kol. On the basis of recorded myths we know that the name Kol was derived from the name of a demon who is said to have been slain here. The name Aligarh is derived from the name of a Muslim Maratha governor: it has no Islamic connotation and is no way named after any religious personality.

Historical names should not be changed. If the name of Aligarh must be changed at all, it should be changed back to the name of the demon who is said to have once walked these lands. Hari unfortunately has nothing to do with it, for the city was never ever called by his name.

Professor Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi is with the Aligarh Muslim University.