Moulvi Sheikh Ahmed Ali

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Qasr-e-Aarifan by Moulvi Ahmed Ali

Moulvi Sheikh Ahmed Ali (d 1864)

Moulvi Sheikh Ahmed Ali, the eldest son of Sheikh Makhdoom Baksh, was born and grew up in Laherpur and received his early schooling there. His father well aware that Delhi was by far the best place for scholarship and learning took his son along with him to the city so that the boy could further his education under his own personal supervision. However, this was to be an all too brief arrangement unexpectedly shattered by Sheikh Makhdoom Baksh’s untimely and sudden death. This calamity left the young boy bereft of his father’s love and protection alone in a strange new city far from his vatan, family and relatives. Sheikh Makhdoom Baksh had held an important post in the city and although he was not a very social individual, every one of his friends and well-wishers, including his relatives from Khairabad were anxious to take the boy into their own homes, to provide for him and undertake his education and tutoring. But fate had selected a particular individual for this purpose who none could have conceived of at that time. Once the burial, Fateha and Soyem rituals were over, Maulana Fazal Azeem Bin Maulana Fazal Imam Khairabadi concerned that the young boy would be overwhelmed by his loneliness and grow melancholy over the recent loss of his father took him into his home for the time being. Sheikh Makhdoom Baksh’s friends, well-wishers and colleagues continued to come by and offer their condolences. It was one of these gentlemen who mentioned that some of Sheikh Sahib Marhoom’s books and belonging were still at the Commissary Office and suggested a letter be written to the Commissioner requesting they be forwarded to Sheikh Ahmed Ali, better still (he suggested) he could go in person to collect them and at the same time pay his respects to the Commissioner. When Sheikh Ahmed Ali mentioned this to Maulana Fazal Azim, he and the other friends agreed that going in person was the better option. Thus, as planned, a few days later some of his late father’s colleagues took him along to the office. The Commissioner was in meetings; selecting a suitable juncture word was sent to him and the boy was invited in. Sheikh Ahmed Ali had often accompanied his father to this office, now seeing his vacant seat his heart was overwhelmed by grief and overcome by the all too recent loss, and given his tender years his eyes welled up in tears. No one present including the Commissioner was unaffected or could possibly fail to be touched by the boy’s distress.

The British in those days had to undertake long and extensive voyages that involved great durations of time, and journeys back and forth to Britain could not be conducted with the ease of today’s travel. Long-distance travel overland that took several months would eventually get them to a seaport where they would have to wait many weeks for a ship to carry them further. The sea voyage would take a minimum of three months and was not without its own hardships and perils. Because of this, relationships with their own countrymen and women more or less ceased to exist or were few and far between. Other than at the ports, the European population in India at that time was sparse and meagre in numbers; this effectively necessitated interaction with Hindustani society and that is where they turned to for companionship and relationships. Hindustani servants, Hindustani officials, Hindustani friends and some even Hindustani women, thus, they, in essence, became half Hindustani themselves. Mr William Fraser who was the Commissioner of Delhi and the Agent for the Lieutenant General was one such European. He beckoned Sheikh Ahmed Ali towards him, placed his hand on the boy’s head and said; “Why are you distressed? Undoubtedly Makhdoom Baksh is dead, but Fraser is still alive, and that should be enough for your well-being and protection. Where are you living now?” Shaikh Ahmed Ali responded, “After my father’s death my maternal uncle[1] Moulvi Fazal Azeem Sahib Khairabadi took me into his own home”. Commissioner Sahib replied, “You are a young man and I don’t like the idea of you residing in the city, there is plenty of space in my house, I would like you to move there immediately”. There and then he wrote out an order that in recognition of his father’s services, Ahmed Ali should be given a place in the department of writing and translations and a watchful eye be kept on his progress. All those present at the office were indeed (greatly) amazed and astounded by Commissioner Sahib’s extraordinary and unusual behaviour. When Sheikh Ahmed Ali returned, Maulana Fazal Azeem and other friends were of the opinion that this should be considered a blessing from All Mighty God and all agreed that the offer must be availed. Accordingly, the very next day, Sheikh Sahib with his scanty belongings moved to Fraser Sahib’s kothi. This acclaimed building was at that time considered one of the finest  European structures in Delhi.

Fraser Sahib indeed fulfilled all the duties and obligations of an affectionate and considerate father. He had two large rooms in the house vacated for the boy, and because taking meals with Europeans was considered inappropriate in that era, he had one of Sheikh Makhdoom Baksh’s old retainers assigned as a (bawarchi) cook and another as a (khidmatgar) personal servant for him. He instructed them to collect all essentials from the main kitchens and stores on a weekly and monthly basis, take full charge of the food preparation and serving and make sure nothing was lacking in any way to cause any kind of discomfort to the young man.

Sheikh Sahib remained with Fraser Sahib for about ten to twelve years. At the office, during this period, he rose from the position of copyist to office in-charge to the head of the department to the level of supervisor and manager and so on. Fraser Sahib’s trust and reliance in the young man was such that all matters of personal effect and domestic affairs were handled by him. Fraser Sahib never married, but in keeping with the accepted practice and norms of the times he always had several Hindustani women in residence, but the all his accounts and money matters were managed by Sheikh Ahmed Ali. Commissioner Sahib’s European friends, jokingly, referred to Sheikh Sahib as Fraser Sahib’s ‘adopted son’ and were always warm and affectionate towards him. All visitors and Hindustani officials who were desirous of meeting the Commissioner had to channel their request through Sheikh Sahib and as if the effort and recommendation of Sheikh Sahib was not enough, the added comfort of a place to sit and wait for the Commissioner Sahib’s summons could not be overlooked.

Khan Bahadur Moulvi Hafeez Uddin Sahib Dewai Marhoom, retired Munsif[2], and the father of Khan Bahadur Moulvi Nihaluddin Ahmed, Retired Deputy Collector, paid a visit to Delhi during the period that Sheikh Sahib was living at Fraser Sahib’s kothi. Moulvi Sahib would relate that; “When we were in Delhi, we were Sheikh Sahib’s guests and stayed with him in the house that he resided in at that time. This kothi was quite a distance from the city and was situated on a hill; it was always kept immaculate and impeccably clean”. Although Sheikh Sahib had risen within the Office ranks to a managerial position, Fraser Sahib would not give him permission to move out nor would he let him make his own arrangements for buying his own food and necessary provisions. When Sheikh Sahib’s relatives and kin or his friends and acquaintances came for visits or stayed as his guests, their food and drink were also provided by Fraser Sahib’s establishment.

Sheikh Sahib spent the morning hours dealing with the throng of people waiting to meet the Commissioner and present him with their problems and issues. At ten o’clock he left for the office. For conveyance, he kept a horse. He would return at four, four-thirty, and in spite of the distance people would continue to come in from the city. The evenings, however, were free for leisure, and post-dinner was his time for books and reading. Invariably a treatise on tasawwuf (Sufism) would be under study and review. The detail and delight with which the Late Moulvi Hafeez Uddin Sahib would relate a few choice incidents was a clear indication of the high esteem and affection he held Sheikh Sahib in. From my early years, I clearly recall that venerable gentleman who frequently visited Fatehpur on a regular basis and who never failed to beckon me to sit next to him and narrate these stories about my late father.

Sheikh Ahmed Ali had not returned home to his vatan since his father had passed away; his mother yearned to see him and he too longed to see his mother, sister, brother and near and dear ones. Plans for his marriage were also underway and proposals were being sent out. Accordingly, he picked up the courage one day to share all this with Fraser Sahib and ask his permission for leave to visit home. Fraser Sahib had come into the world with a virtuous and compassionate heart. Without considering his own needs, he not only accepted the request for leave but also arranged for all the necessary paraphernalia that was required in those times for such a trip. And so, Sheikh Sahib set out on a journey that was in those days replete with difficulties and hardship.

Bareilly was on the way; there his Chacha, Sheikh Ahmed Baksh had a very successful law practice, and he broke journey to stay with him for a couple of days. As mentioned above, there was a substantial congregation of people from Fatehpur, Dewa etc. in Bareilly in those days. It so happened, quite by coincidence, that Sheikh Baqar Ali Sahib was also present in Bareilly and it was here that he met Sheikh Ahmed Ali for the first time. He took an extraordinary interest in the young man, the reason for this being that amongst the many marriage proposals that had been received for Sheikh Baqar Ali’s only daughter Bibi Salma there was one from Laherpur that had been sent on Sheikh Ahmed Ali’s behalf. The young man made a favourable impression on Sheikh Baqar Ali who thoroughly approved of and liked what he saw in terms of his appearance and deportment, countenance, manners and conduct, and whatever reservations or hesitations he might have had in making a decision from amongst the many proposals received were instantly put to rest after this meeting. After spending a few days with his Chacha, Sheikh Ahmed Ali left for Laherpur. He was still in Laherpur when the acceptance of his marriage proposal arrived. However, he was unable to extend his stay longer and nor was it possible for Sheikh Baqar Ali to make the arrangements for a wedding in so short a period of time and so it was decided that the marriage be postponed for two years. Well aware that the nature of his official employment and Fraser Sahib’s dependence on him in handling his domestic household affairs would make it difficult for him to constantly ask for leave to travel back and forth, Sheikh Ahmed Ali made the decision to take his mother, sister and brother back to Delhi with him and secured a house for them to reside within the city. Although this meant that he was no longer a member of Fraser Sahib’s household, the Commissioner’s former kindness’ and patronage continued unchanged.

A couple of years later, Sheikh Sahib again took an extended leave of absence to make arrangements for his marriage. Cognisant of the complications entailed in re-establishing a household in Laherpur and making the marriage preparations from there, he decided it would be far more practical and expedient to take up residence in Fatehpur and conduct the marriage function and ceremonies there. It was resolved that the ceremony would take place in the ancestral home, but because space was limited there another house would have to be used for living purposes. Consequently, Mian Gohru house, a newly built and extremely spacious structure, located near the Bara Darwaza[3] was chosen. This happy and auspicious event was duly performed with great ceremony under the auspices of Sheikh Ahmed Ali’s paternal uncles[4] Moulvi Hafiz Hakim Mohammad Ali Sahib and Munshi Sheikh Nisar Ali Sahib. Leaving his family comfortably settled in Fatehpur, Sheikh Sahib returned to Delhi. A consequence of the increased familiarity and intimacy that had been forged between his and Sheikh Baqar Ali’s household during this period in Fatehpur was that his younger sister Bibi Marium was engaged to Munshi Barkat Ali, Sheikh Baqar Ali’s middle son. And once more Sheikh Sahib had to make a trip back to Fathepur from Delhi. In this period of time, Sheikh Ahmed Ali had risen to his father’s position, i.e. Sheristadar Commissary-Agency. It was during this sojourn that he had his ancestral home in Fatehpur rebuilt anew with a strong boundary wall and within the compound he had a very large and sturdy pond constructed. Although Sheikh Ahmed Ali lived for a length of time after this however due to his mother and family’s move to Delhi his connections with his vatan were considerably reduced.

As mentioned earlier, Sheikh Ahmed Ali’s schooling had been cut short because of his father’s untimely death and his subsequent employment, but in spite of this, his education had not been impaired. His love of books and learning compelled him to continue to expand on all that he learned before he started working. So much so that he was counted amongst the well-educated people of his time. His writing style was extremely chaste, and his skill and command of the Persian language were evident in his verse and poetry for which he used the taqalus[5]Ahmed.With an intrinsic inclination towards mysticism and Sufism, he took a tremendous amount of interest in the lives and exigencies of Sufi Saints and received ba’it [6]at the hands of his holiness Hazrat Hafiz Shah Mohammad Ali Sahib Khairabadi. Despite all his worldly associations and family relationships, he led a life of individual autonomy and simplicity. Even in the midst of his aristocratic surroundings and circumstances, he did not lose his unworldly intensity which is indeed a very difficult thing. My late mother would recall that Sheikh Sahib’s received his salary on the second or third of the European month, and either that very day or the following day it was dispersed amongst all those who had to be compensated; not a single portion was kept back. Each month, a substantial quantity was allocated for distributed amongst the needy, the widows, the orphans, and a portion for the venerable religious scholars who were custodians of the Dargahs. At some of these shrines, association and ties with the custodians and attendants went beyond faith, devotion and reverence for the Saint to the level of fraternal camaraderie. In particular, he was deeply and intensely devoted to Hazrat Sultan-ul-Masheikh Nizamuddin Auliya and was amongst the special cadre of ardent devotees at this holiest of shrines. In matters of attire and food etc. he was totally indifferent and would eat whatever was placed in front of him and there was never any need for special effort or arrangements in this quarter. By virtue of his affiliations with the Agency, he was expected to attend the Imperial Darbar at such events as the Eid’s, birth anniversaries and other yearly celebrations and festivities. On such occasions, it was customary that the Sheristadar representing the Agency and Commissary be presented with a Khilat or Robe of Honour. In this manner, he received several valuable dushalas or shawls and expensive clothes throughout the year, but these were immediately redistributed amongst friends and relatives. His friends tried to prevail on him retain some of these clothes since he had to regularly visit the Imperial Darbar and interact with high ranking British Officials, but he never paid any attention to it. Chacha Marhoom, Sheikh Ali Ahmed would later recall that; “My habit of having clothes made and taking good care of them arose from observing Bhai Sahib’s indifference to these necessities. Once on Eid, he was getting ready to attend the prayers and go hence to the Fort, when it was discovered that he possessed neither a qaba (full-sleeved outer garment) nor a choja (loose full-sleeved coat) suitable to wear to the court. In the end, it transpired that he would have to be dressed all in white. Once my clothes began to fit him he would wear one of my qabas and go forth. Notwithstanding that until that time a good portion of my treasured wardrobe of expensive shawls and coats had been gifted to me by Bhai Sahib himself. It just so happened that during the period we are talking about, that there was a tailor employed on a full-time basis by Bhai, but his task was confined to make saddlebags and pouches for the horses and goats, collars for the cats and hanging bags for bottles. For himself, he had, at the most, two to four plain outfits stitched in a year”. Every individual has his own special inclinations, attachments and hobbies, Sheikh Ahmed Ali Sahib’s was animals, and he made sure that every animal he kept was nurtured and housed in great comfort and ease. Horses were, of course, necessary for going back and forth from the office and for travelling on tours; camels were used as draft animals; but besides these other animals such as goats, cats and so on were kept purely for enjoyment and extraordinary care was lavished on them. During the period when goats were in favour, a blacksmith was inducted into the household staff. Hundreds of blossom-shaped bells were commissioned that were so meticulously crafted that it appeared as if they had been cast by a good quality machine. It also consistently transpired that the services of a employee would not be severed, the employee could leave if he or she chose to but was never asked to do so by Sheikh Sahib. At one time, there was a need for a carpenter and a painter, and consequently, both were hired; their tasks were completed, but who was going to terminate their services? And if they could not be laid-off, then some new projects would have to be found for them. Soda-water bottles with a rounded base (round bottom) had just recently started arriving from England. In terms of sturdiness and ease of cleaning, these bottles were superior to the bottles that were currently available at that time but since they lacked a stable, flat base they could not be stood vertically. Sheikh Sahib took a great liking to these bottles; the carpenter was instructed to construct arched wooden shelves to hold them; the blacksmith added copper strips to the arches, and the painter painted them. The tailor skilfully continued to stitch the saddlebags for the horses, collars for the cats and strange and odd-looking covers for the boxes and trunks. This was the rationale underlying the vast collections of household utensils that he left behind.

Sheikh Ahmed Ali was one of those whose friendships were deep-rooted and everlasting, indeed whoever he met, he met with an open heart. There was no dearth of invitations to social gatherings and assemblies, of gifts and presents, of food items sent out to him, but he neither went to cultural assemblies or participated in the food exchange, nor with the exception of a few chosen friends did he take part in social gatherings. In the end, people stopped inviting him and sending him dishes of food. Sunday was a day off from work. If he had a commitment he would step out, otherwise, a few of his close, intimate friends would themselves turn up at his house and the day would be spent in their company. Most of the time his visitors were relatives from Khairabad with the addition of two to four members of Delhi’s old aristocratic families, for example, Moulvi Inayat Ahmed (Vakil[7]) and his brother Sheikh Sarfaraz Ali Dehlvi, Malik Jee Ghulam Rasul, a resident of Subzi Mandi[8], Hafiz Varan and others. Malik Jee Ghulam Rasul was amongst the particularly close friends and was one of the most extraordinary of personalities; he was a Malik (Chaudhry)[9] of Subzi Mandi and an extremely charming and well-turned-out individual. He was not an educated man of letters but was nonetheless amongst the finest representatives of Delhi society. People would enjoy his company for years on end, discourse on every subject, every issue, without ever having the slightest clue that Malik Jee was totally unlettered and illiterate. I recall meeting other such distinguished elders from Delhi in my childhood years; such was the society and culture of the times that it created an environment where it was difficult to distinguish between the unlettered and the highly educated.

In those days, it was rare for tawaifs not to be present at the poetry, song and musical assemblies patronised by the princes and dignitaries of the fort, or at those frequented by the inhabitants of the city, even the British. The popular view, widespread at the time, was that they were indeed indispensable at such assemblages and that none could grasp the intricacies and finesse of the Mehfil [10]or gain the refined manners and rules of etiquette without their presence and participation. There is no doubt, and no one cannot deny, that the company of virtuous and chaste women ensures and reinforces politeness, good manners and proper behaviour and decorum at such gatherings and moreover curtails and impedes crudeness, vulgarity and indecency. Although how all this could be achieved at a meeting of wordsmiths is not clear. In any case, whether this point of view was accurate or not, it was widely held, and as a result, a large number of the Ashraf of the of the city were inclined to this practice. I have myself witnessed such bazms taking place and can vividly recall many occasions where our venerable elders and others, both young and old were all present and conversations and discussions took place on every subject. Renowned individuals whom we look up to with great respect and who will be viewed by future generations with even greater respect came and went and frequented these congregations with great ease, informality and familiarity. Thus, in that milieu, for a worldly and cultured man to disapprove of such assemblies in the face of societal sanction and opinion and to choose to abstain from them was not an easy thing to do, but Moulvi Ahmed Ali would not comprise and firmly stuck to his principles on this matter. He eschewed all such events and no one at any of those assemblies that he was present had the audacity to make a suggestion recommending the presence of that sorority that imparted instructions on etiquette and refined culture.

Indeed, in every way, Moulvi Ahmed Ali Sahib was living a simple, comfortable, tranquil and relaxed life when, on the 22nd of March 1835, by an act of God an event occurred that drastically changed everything. The full account of this affair is lengthy and replete with interesting personalilties but this is not the time to go into the details of the case. In short, Fraser Sahib had gone to a party hosted by Raja Kishan Gada in Daryaganj; at twelve at night he was on his way back home when someone put a bullet through him thereby sadly ending a valuable and worthy life. The impact this event had on Moulvi Ahmed Ali is beyond words. An investigation was initiated by the Company and went on for several months, depositions were obtained from dozens of witnesses and many people were arrested. It turned out that the actual culprit was, in fact, an employee of the Nawab Sahib of Firozpur Jhirka and the promoter of the deed was none other than Nawab Shams Uddin Ahmed Khan, the incumbent ruler of Firozpur Jirkha himself. The sentence given to both the culprit and his mentor was death by hanging, and the State of Firozpur Jirkha was seized and confiscated by the government. While the investigations and inquiries were ongoing, Moulvi Ahmed Ali was under extraordinary stress at work; he was constantly in demand throughout the inquest and scrunity and required to provide information, which at times he could from his own memory and at times through consulting Fraser Sahib’s account books and then noting all the pertinent information down. Since none of Fraser Sahib’s kith or kin were in Hindustan, the management and administration of his wealth and property became the responsibility of the Company, and the task of auctioning and disposing of his belongings was assigned to Moulvi Ahmed Ali Sahib. The auction of his properties had not yet begun when Fraser Sahib’s younger brother arrived from Britain. Moulvi Sahib handed him a chest that contained Fraser’s collection of valuable jewellery the existence of which was known only to Fraser Sahib and himself. He also presented him with a list of all the items in use and possession of Fraser Sahib’s mistresses including those that Fraser had bestowed on them as gifts and presents from time to time. One could very well say that all this is an ordinary issue, but at such a time, to stay firm, take a strong stand and to exhibit absolute rectitude and honesty is a something that requires great integrity. Fraser Sahib’s brother was so pleased by Moulvi Ahmed Ali’s trustworthiness and conscientiousness that he did not ask for the return any of the items currently in Moulvi Sahib’s usage and as a memento, he gave him Fraser Sahib’s much admired and cherished horse. This animal was always greatly treasured by Moulvi Sahib who used him lightly and sparingly and thus due to the care and attention he received, he lived to a ripe old age and died in Moulvi Sahib’s establishment. After Fraser Sahib’s assassination, Moulvi Sahib would often exclaim that “now I have truly understood what being orphaned in this world feels like”.

Public opinion about the murder of William Fraser amongst the citizens of Delhi was enormously varied as is common in such incidents. Those familiar with him, his friends and Company employees wanted the culprits punished one way or the other. In addition to these was another faction, which comprised of people who were for one reason or the other, were unhappy and annoyed with Nawab Shams Uddin Khan Sahib, the ruler of Firozpur, this group included Mirza Ghalib as well. I have myself heard directly from people who were present at that time and were involved in the inquiries and investigations that were carried out in this matter, that the first person to name Nawab Shams Uddin in front of the judge was none other than the late Mirza Sahib himself. Mirza Sahib was a regular visitor and admirer of Fraser Sahib. In a qasida [11] he thus declares:

“……………………………………………………………………………………………………” Another faction was composed of those who considered Nawab Shams Uddin Khan blameless and were deeply distressed at what they perceived as the humiliation of a Muslim ruler. The third bloc was the moulvis who did not argue about matters of innocence and guilt, they proclaimed that anyone who was associated with an attempt execute a Muslim in retaliation for a murdered kafir[12] was a sinner (in God’s eyes) and would be held accountable. Under these circumstances, for a Muslim involved in the inquest to remain inculpable and above blame from all these factions was a difficult undertaking. But Moulvi Ahmed Ali was one of those moderate, honest and upright people who despite being totally immersed in the inquest emerged from this predicament unscathed and unblemished and did not give any clique reason or opportunity to object or question his affinity or impartiality.

All this eventually passed, but the reality is that it left Moulvi Ahmed Ali with a heavy heart; the grief and bereavement he subsequently suffered (as a result of) this can be best judged by the fact that after Fraser Sahib’s death he became totally disheartened at his job and lost all interest in official work. He had still not quite recovered from the tragedy when on an unexpected pretext a world-shattering calamity unfolded. At that time Moulvi Sahib resided in Kagzi Mohalla. Now how could a man of Moulvi Sahib’s temperament and spending habits possess the means to purchase a house or have one constructed? Since he had moved out of Fraser Sahib’s kothi he had lived in a rented house. His friends insistently pointed out to him “that you are now a family man with children, you should build a house or buy one; how long will you live in rented accommodations?” The response was always evasive. Eventually, a few close friends proposed a scheme whereby it was decided that a trunk made of strong, solid wood be constructed, closed on all four sides with only a hole at the top large enough to allow rupee coins to be deposited but not to be taken out. At the start of each month, when the salary was delivered, two handfuls of rupees were to be deposited in the trunk without fail and when the trunk had filled up to its capacity, it would then be broken, and the money taken out and used towards the construction or purchase of a house. Some friends took upon themselves the responsibility of being present on the day the salary was received and would either undertake the task themselves or oversee to it. The outcome of keeping this scheme going for a couple of years was that the trunk was eventually full, and so, one day with great care, in the presence of all those friends who were the proposers and proponents of this plan the trunk was broken. Still, the money saved was not enough to purchase a house. In the end, these friends managed to somehow or the other make the necessary arrangements and procured a large house with an attached garden in Kagzi Mohalla and Moulvi Sahib settled in. His attention was focused on making adjustments and repairs to the house and adorning and improving the garden when the chaos of Ghaddar broke lose. Kagzi Mohalla existed in the area where the Saddar Railway station is now located. There used to be an English magazine [13] where the Saddar Post Office building now stands. And the spot where the Church built within the memorial cemetery now stands, is was where Moulvi Sahib’s house stood. There is a burr [14] tree in front of the Church that grew in Moulvi Sahib’s enclosed garden and was very small at that time. Once the mutineers entered the city, those English city dwellers who were unable to flee the city took refuge in the magazine along with their families. The mutineers surrounded the building and reciprocal firing began. Moulvi Sahib’s house was in very close proximity to this battleground and bits and pieces of cannonball shells and bullets constantly flew in. People were frightened of stepping out into the open but Moulvi Sahib, as per his habit continued to wander about the house and his garden and to seemingly protect himself from the bullets he covered his head with a mere kerchief. People would laughingly ask, “Moulvi Sahib, how will this keep you safe?” His response was, “It is not intended to protect, in fact, the real achievement is that in the face of the unfolding disaster one’s resolution and faith must not waver or one’s feet falter”. Walda Sahiba would tell us that in the evening when the barrage of bullets would cease, the house would be swept clean; often the bullets and pieces of cannonballs that fell into their compound were weighed and were never found to be less than five to six seers in weight. Almost all the buildings in the neighbourhood and vicinity had been vacated but Moulvi Sahib did not pay any heed to this and calmly stayed on in his house. In the end, the English realised that safeguarding the arsenal was now impossible for them and that if the magazine fell to the rebel soldiers it would be further sustenance to them, decided to put their own lives on the line and set fire to the magazine themselves. The entire building exploded with a thunderous blast and such tremendous force that innumerable houses in the vicinity and neighbourhood were totally obliterated and countless people were wounded or killed. At such a time who was aware were one’s office was, or what its condition was? The Commissary and Agency offices too had been set on fire by the rebel soldiers, this information reached Moulvi Sahib three to four days after the incident. Under the circumstances and at such a time what could one do? Masti Khan was the darogha[15] of Moulvi Sahib’s domestic household and an exceedingly faithful and trustworthy employee. By caste a Ranghar [16]  and a stout-hearted individual, he was nevertheless amazed at the intrepidness of the household. He tried several times to talk Moulvi Sahib into leaving the house but without success. He concluded that perhaps the suggestion had a better chance of being accepted if it was broached by the ladies of the household. Stepping into the deori[17]  he addressed the lady of the house; “You can see the condition of the house with your own eyes. The fact that no one has been injured so far, or that no serious incident has occurred is indeed a blessing from God. The entire neighbourhood has been vacated and I have entreated the master to leave the house numerous times but to no avail. Perhaps if you reason with him he will relent. You have young children with you, are you also not frightened of the sound of the guns and the constant day and night firing of bullets?” The answer came from within, “Even before you bought this up I had already raised this subject several times, but each time I got the same response, “If you are afraid than arrangements can easily be made for you to leave, but I will not go wandering around aimlessly from here to there”. These condition prevails throughout the city, under the circumstances what can I do? And where can I go leaving everyone at home? Who is not fearful of guns and bullets? But I have grown up with these very sounds in my own home, and my earliest memories are of my Dada, father and Chachas indulging in this activity, therefore unlike other women, I am not alarmed by these sounds”. Masti Khan would say that he was dumbfounded by this reply and thought to himself, if this is the extent of folly within this entire household it is pointless to pursue this matter further. I am in the same situation as everyone else here, one should repose one’s confidence in the Almighty.

Not long after the Mutiny began the mutineers extracted poor Bahadur Shah Zafar from his quiet seclusion and proclaimed him the titular Emperor of Hindustan. For the Imperial court to function, assignments of public duties were necessary and consequently written orders were issued for individuals to fill the highest administrative posts in Delhi. Accordingly, someone was appointed Vizier, someone Sipahsalar[18], someone Counsellor and someone Musahib[19]. Since Moulvi Ahmed Ali was an eminent and high-ranking official in the British administration and had represented the Agency at the court on special occasions such as the two Eid’s and other festivities and was therefore a regular attendant at the Imperial Darbar an honourable order was issued in his name requesting him to accept a high-ranking post. Some of Moulvi Sahib’s close friends advised him to accept the position. Chacha Marhoom (Sheikh Ali Ahmed Sahib) would later recount that “I strongly opposed it and the proposal was judiciously declined. In the end, this prudent act proved to be a life-saver for Moulvi Sahib”, as will be clarified later. When the British army returned to besiege Delhi, Chacha Marhoom would relate “I suggested that he disguise himself and find a way to get to the British camp since that would prove beneficial not only to him but later to his offsprings as well. But Bhai would not accept this either. He addressed me thus; “Perhaps you think that I am oblivious to the final outcome of this masquerade that is being played out right now, that is not the case. The facts and circumstances of this situation, its particulars and conditions are clear to me. But in spite of this, my conscience will not allow me to act in a manner that will in any way antithetical to this drama. Immediately upon my arrival at the camp, I will be questioned about the state of the city and my status will be that of an informant. The very thought of that is hateful to me. I believe peace and rectitude are only possible for me if I stay put within my retreat, neither taking this side or that”. Consequently, that is exactly what he did, and until the British army entered Delhi, and the British government announced that the city be evacuated he did not step out of his house. After that proclamation, staying in the city was dangerous and procuring suitable conveyance for the thousands of sequestered ladies became practically impossible. Since the palanquin bearers and servants had fled even those gentlemen who possessed horses were helpless. Consequently, Moulvi Sahib left his house in this manner; the ladies of the house veiled in their chaddars were encircled by their maids and menservants, the children carried by the servants and he himself on foot along with the horses. On the way the peril of an encounter and of being looted or killed by the mutineers or even the British soldiers was constant, therefore Moulvi Sahib had given strict orders that no woman was to wear any jewellery on her person or carry any item of value or cash. It was decided that they would head towards the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya; some close friends on learning about his departure had already arrived there and informed the custodians of the Dargah Mubarak of Moulvi Sahib’s expected time of arrival and route. They had also made arrangements for two bullocks and were waiting for him outside the city. As soon as Moulvi Sahib arrived, they placed the women and children on the back of the bullocks and directed them towards the Dargah. These gentlemen were determined to return to the city and gather such items of value from the house that could easily be transported, but Moulvi Sahib would not let his friends undertake such a dangerous task. He reasoned that by the time they got back to the house, it would have been cleaned out, so to go forth and put one’s life at risk from unknown dangers was futile. Masti Khan would relate that, “In spite of Moulvi Sahib’s injunction I returned home thinking it might be possible to rescue a few valuables, but by the time I got there, the house which only a few hours ago had been extraordinarily full of household items was, as Moulvi Sahib had predicted, totally emptied out, not a needle was to be found”.

In the end, Moulvi Sahib remained at the Dargah Sharif until such time that people were given permission to re-enter the city and allowed to take up residence there again.

After the return of the populace to the city, a notification was issued by the government that all those people who had been government employees prior to the uprising, report to a certain place at a certain time to appear before Mr T. Metcalf. During this period of turmoil, this gentleman was considered the veritable Hajjaj bin Yusuf[20] of his time. The city was under Martial Law and Mr Metcalfe would conduct a cursory investigation and then and pass judgement as he saw fit. Hundreds, nay thousands of men who passed through his courts were sent to the gallows and for anyone to come back safely from his tribunal was considered a singular achievement. The gallows were placed right out courts, a speedy and superficial interrogation was conducted, the verdict was pronounced was given and immediately on exiting the premises the sentence was executed.

Moulvi Sahib too had to leave his house to face this tribunal and this adjudicator. At home, there was much weeping and wailing. Servants, relatives and a couple of close friends accompanied him. Immediately on arrival, Moulvi Sahib was summoned in. Masti Khan would later relate that because all the clerks and personnel at the courthouse knew him well, they did not stop him from going inside with Moulvi Sahib and he was thus able to hear all the questions and answers that followed. Mr Metcalfe had a sheet of paper in front of him, he kept reading and asking questions from it and on this he also wrote down all the answers that Moulvi Sahib gave him.

The first question Moulvi Sahib was asked was to find out what he had done for the well-being of the government during the uprising. To this Moulvi Sahib replied that this event had been so sudden that no well-wisher of the government, leave alone him, had an opportunity to do anything. After this, a number of questions were asked about the burning down of the Commissioner’s office; “when were you informed of this, and what action did you take, since in your capacity as Sheristadar-Commissary you were obligated to safeguard it”. Moulvi Sahib kept answering the questions until the question-answer session finally came to an end. Mr Metcalfe wrote a few lines and then declared his verdict that “no indication of wrong-doing has been ascertained in your case, so therefore you are restored to your employment”. Masti Khan would recollect that upon hearing this ruling “I stepped outside to inform people of this. After this when Moulvi Sahib came out, people surrounded him, there were loud acclamations of Mubarakbad from all sides and as for his kin and well-wishers, their elation was indescribable. Thus, Moulvi Sahib returned home amidst a jubilant throng of cheerful well-wishers, and from the very next day was back at work in the courthouse.

After Ghaddar, the province of Delhi was separated from the western and north-western regions and transferred to Punjab. A new district, Hissar was formed at this time. Official, administrative work in this new district necessitated the selection of a competent and experienced individual for the position of sheristadar and Moulvi Ahmed Ali was nominated for this post. Although Moulvi Sahib did not want to leave Delhi, nor did the posting carry a promotion, but it was decreed by the rulers and so he had no choice, even if it had meant sudden death. Willing or unwilling he had to accept the transfer and make the move.

Perhaps it was in some measure the sorrow of leaving Delhi, in part ill health, after working in Hissar for three to four years Moulvi Sahib put in an application for early retirement on the basis of his ailing condition several years before it was due, and having procured his pension he returned to Delhi and took up residence there. His sole occupation in those days was book-reading and the compilation and writing of literary texts. Books on Islamic mysticism were constantly studied and analysed, and after that those on Tib[21]. He was exceptionally fascinated and inspired by Sufi Saints and a large portion of his literary compositions were on this subject. Qasr-e-Aarifan is a product of those days; beautifully penned by the late Moulvi Ahmed Ali himself this volume was amongst his other books left behind when our late mother made her preparations to join us all in Hyderabad. She packed this book with all the others in a secure chest and left them in the house in Fatehpur. A man by the name of Rahim Baksh, a native of Fatehpur, who had long been in our service was left as the caretaker of the house. Several years later, we were informed that the roof of the storeroom in which the chest had been left had collapsed during the rains, and he had subsequently transferred all the stored items to the house of our kinsman Hakim Azim Uddin Sahib. For a long period of time, none of us visited Fatehpur. Twenty, twenty-one years later, when Bhai sahib, Moulvi Hakim Mehmood Ali Sahib returned to Fatehpur, he found the aforementioned book missing. This book had been greatly treasured by our late Chacha, Moulvi Ali Ahmed Sahib who deemed it as precious to him as life itself. We people, however, were not cognisant of its value and worth, nevertheless, its loss was extremely distressing. During the time that I began composing this narrative at the behest of my relatives and elders I would often contemplate how useful the aforesaid book would have been, had it been available to me, in augmenting my knowledge of the family history, and at the very least it would have yielded some more information about the writer’s life. But the book had disappeared and we all resigned ourselves to its loss. However, before this narrative was finalised, by a stroke of good fortune certain extraordinary incidents occurred whereby we rediscovered and recovered a copy of the original manuscript.

The astonishing manner in which this manuscript was acquired is in itself a fascinating tale. In 1925, I had to visit Calcutta on official work. On the way, I stopped over at Ajmer Sharif for ziarat [22]; the commotion of the Urs was over, but the majority of the pilgrims assembled were still there. I was sitting in front of the Dargah, listening to a Qawwali recital when all of a sudden, I caught sight of Moulvi Hakim Bashir Uddin Sahib Fathepuri approaching. I was, of course, delighted to meet him. As soon as he sat down he said to me, “I have something important to tell you, but since I tend to forget, you must remind of it after this event.”  When the Qawwali ended, we all gathered at Moulvi Fida Husain Fathepuri cell, a place where he had been residing at the Dargah Sharif for a long time. I reminded Hakim Sahib about the matter he had indicated he needed to inform me of,  he explained that “I have a friend, Khan Bahadur Pirzada Muzaffar Ahmed Fazli, former Deputy Collector Nahar. Khan Bahadur Sahib was unwell in Delhi and sent for me to treat, him and I ended up staying a month to a month and a half at his house. He has a large and valuable collection of books in Arabic and Persian and in particular on Sufism. Amongst them, he has your late father’s book Qasr-e-Aarifan as well which he treasures and holds in great esteem. On finding out that I was related to the late author of this treatise, he showed me the book and praised it immensely,  he also asked about the author’s family and their whereabouts. If you write to him, you will, at the very least, be able to procure a copy of the book”. I took down Khan Bahadur Sahib’s complete address and on my return to Hyderabad, I sent him a letter as suggested by Moulvi Hakim Bashir Uddin Sahib. The letter he wrote in reply to this was very warm and affectionate, moreover, he related the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the recovery of the book. The gist of the story is that he sent for some items from the bazaar which were delivered wrapped up in a sheet of paper and placed in front of him. The paper caught his eye and he picked it up and began reading it and immediately realised that it was a leaf from a handwritten book. One of the sentences he read was

In these times, when the author of these pages presented himself at the Astana of Shah Muhammad Ramzan in Meham, and was graced by the shrine of the saints /exalted ones of this family, I came to the realisation that after the death of Shah Muhammad Ismail (may God sanctify his secret), who was the young brother of Shah Muhammad Ramzan (may God sanctify his secret), the youngest son of Hazrat-e Ishan Muhammad Ghaus (adorned with beauty, simple in his sajjadagi and adorned with the apparent / outwardly and inwardly virtues) was to be invested. When I disembarked at Meham, at the shrine of Muhammad Ramzan, where the ceremony of 10 days was in effect, the son was appointed as the spiritual successor, and the ceremonial rituals were awarded to the faqir (son), upon whose forehead (indicated in his fate) blessing were apparent. (God has showered his blessings upon him). Amin to this prayer, from me and from all the world. ”

Pirzada Sahib wrote, “my frame of mind when I read this paragraph is beyond description because Shah Mohammad Ramzan was my paternal grandfather, Mohammad Ghaus my revered father, Meham my vatan, and I, my father’s only son. It was therefore not difficult to reach the conclusion that the naming ceremony mentioned is my naming ceremony and the child referred to is none other than me, this doddering old man. I was now anxious to acquire and view the book from which this page had been taken. A month of resolute endeavour yielded the above-mentioned book in a fragile and damaged state. To make a copy of it I employed a scribe and appointed a Moulvi Sahib for its health and wellbeing. After spending hundreds of rupees on it I attained two transcripts. I cannot say what there is about this book. I have an extensive collection of books on Sufism, there must be at the least four to five hundred books exclusively on the lives and conducts of Sufi Saints in my library, but I have yet to come across another book on this subject that is as accurate and concise as this”.

Janab Pirzada Sahib was a great lover of books and in all matters pertaining to books was actually very guarded and cautious, nevertheless with much brotherly courtesy and fatherly compassion he granted me a copy as a gift. Since he was ailing by this time and had composed his will, he had added me on as the beneficiary of this book. However, his apprehension at the possibility of loss made the postal service an unacceptable means of sending the book to me. He wanted me to come in person to collect the book or else authorise a reliable, trustworthy individual to the task. In the end, after a lengthy and protracted correspondence, I delegated the Honourable Moulvi Abu Al-Hussain Sahib Banera and Maulana Nazeer Hussain Sahib (Marhoom) Muhaddis[23] Dehlvi to procure the book and through their worthy endeavours, I finally received it.

As Pirzada Sahib had written in his letter, the book is indeed, in truth, exceptional and unique. Frequently in these kinds of books importance is not given to dates and references, but in this case, the (late) author has been meticulous about both these things. What is most useful is that, wherever possible, he has provided the location of the tombs of the Sufi Saints he has written about, especially the tombs of those venerable Saints of Delhi that people are now totally unfamiliar with. The sequential organisation of the book is such that Chapter One contains nazams[24], humds[25], naats[26], and munajat [27]as well as short essays and scholarly research on the Prophets, Auliya and Imamate including four Pirs and fourteen lineages. Chapter Two encapsulates the customs of Hindustan, the conquerors, Shaheeds and Badshahs up till Mohammad Shah. In this section, all those issues that are under learned discussion such as votive offerings, praying for the dead and doing good deeds on their behalf, pilgrimages and visits to shrines and graves are included. Chapter Three offers an account of the Chishtiya Order, it’s distinguished Murids[28] and Khalifahs[29] and includes the conquests of Mehmood Ghaznavi. The Fourth Chapter chronicles the acknowledged Khalifahs and Murids of the blessed lineage of the Qadriya and other Orders. It is quite apparent that this is a copy of the author’s first draft. Here and there are cursory notes, and in spite of Pirzada Sahib’s exhaustive supervision, there are numerous mistakes to be found in the transcription due to which it is often difficult to comprehend and make sense of the narrative at certain places. Both poetry and prose are in Persian, a Persian that is exceedingly chaste, and refined.

I had expected the book to provide me with information about the family and at the very least something about the author and his personal life, but in that, I was totally unsuccessful. The late author wrote with an incredible degree of selflessness,  other than his name at the very beginning, there was no mention of vatan, family or employment anywhere. The strictness with which he guarded this splendid citadel was such that no individual, be he a close friend or relative, was allowed to step in to join the esteemed congregation no matter how capable he was. Even from amongst the venerated individuals of own family he confined himself to concise references of those to whom the term Arif [30]was unequivocally applicable.

Moulvi Ahmed Ali Sahib wrote in an excellent Khaat Shifea script. In my early years, I have seen his kalam[31] in my older brother, Hakim Mehmood Ali Sahib’s possession. The slant cut at the nib of the pen was extraordinarily inverted; at the beginning of a word the tip was utilised, and as the writing progressed the pen would be held straighter and the flow would be fuller and thicker to the extent that it appeared at the end that the piece had been written in one stroke of the pen. I have seen hundreds, perhaps thousands of writing, but the reality is I have never seen one so beautifully elegant. Those unfamiliar with this script might have some difficulty in reading it but its reward is the pleasure it offers to one’s eyes.

Moulvi Ahmed Ali Sahib did not live more than four years after acquiring his pension. He had suffered from diabetes for quite some time, then a small blister appeared on his neck which continued to grow and turn cancerous. The physicians consulted recommended immediate surgical treatment, but in that era, neither were allopathic doctors in great numbers nor did Hindustani’s have much confidence in them. Eventually, one capable surgeon prevailed, but the late Malik Ghulam Rasul who was present at that time would later relate that; “I saw Moulvi Sahib at that time, he bore this severe pain with great forbearance, not a crease appeared on his forehead”. Besides the surgery, other treatments were also pursued but his condition continued to deteriorate day by day. Two days before his death he kept asking over and over again about his younger brother Moulvi Ali Ahmed and incessantly inquired about whether he had arrived or not. In those days Chacha Marhoom was employed at the Kothwali[32] in either Mund or Bhawana near Delhi. He left immediately on receiving the letter and travelling through the night arrived early the next morning and went straight to his brother. The conversation that took place between the brothers and was narrated to us often by our late Chacha, was a strange conversation. Chacha Marhoom would relate that’ “After reading the letter sent to me, I was left in a state of great anxiety and this state of mental unease stayed with me throughout my journey until I entered the room where Bhai Sahib was lying and offered my salaam, Bhai Sahib opened his arms and I laid my head on his breast and tears welled up in my eyes. After a while I raised my head I noticed that Bhai Sahib’s face was flushed, tears were in his eyes and the peaceful expression that was always on his face was no more. Since I was well acquainted with his resolve, his rigorous firmness and perseverance, I inquired with some consternation, ‘Are you apprehensive right now?’, Bhai replied, ‘What is there to be apprehensive about? Yes, at times, the thought of my children worried me, but Alhamdulillah, your presence has put that to rest’. After this, I removed myself the bed and seated on a mundha [33] continued to converse with him. Bhai mentioned that ‘Last night I dreamt I was present at a remarkably resplendent and reverential gathering, the head of this congregation was a Buzurq[34] wearing a green turban, his face veiled by a similarly coloured cloth. I ask people about the identity this esteemed reverend, but nobody tells me. I was still in this state of confusion when I suddenly awoke.’ I responded, ‘With your permission, I would like to offer my opinion on this matter’. He replied in the affirmative, I continued, ‘Your dream is an immensely blessed dream, and a very clear one as well. The Buzurq you were fortunate to pay a pilgrimage to is none other than Hazrat Sultan Al-Masheikh Nizamuddin Auliya al-Rehma, to whom, beyond being a follower of his Silsila [35], you are inordinately attached, the extent of your devotion having reached to the level of a passionate commitment”. Chacha Marhoom recalled that with that, a verse from Zuaq spilled from my lips spontaneously, ……

Chacha Marhoom then stated that “Now you should be fully prepared”. The response was, “Alhamdulillah, Alhamdulillah, I am absolutely ready”.

At that time, it was not quite apparent that the end was so close, but the very next morning, after this conversation he passed away, on the eleventh of Rabi-ul-Awwal 1281/fifteenth August 1864 CE.

Even in those days, it was considered extremely difficult to procure a burial space within the precinct of Hazrat Sultan Al-Masheikh Nizamuddin Auliya al-Rehma’s Dargah. A section though was reserved exclusively for members of the Imperial family and highly esteemed religious scholars, now however due to the lack of space, even this privilege is no longer available. Undoubtedly the spirit and power of Hazrat Sultan Al-Masheikh was with his devotee and disciple, and God answered his prayer in the following manner. A gentleman from amongst the custodians of the shrine, an ancestral relative undoubtedly of Maulana Khawaja Hasan Nizami, had saved a burial plot for himself facing the dwelling of the Pesh Imam of the Dargah mosque. During the period of Moulvi Ahmed Ali’s illness, this gentleman would often visit to inquire about his health. Since Moulvi Sahib had always considered service to the custodians of the shrine auspicious, he had close relationships with all of those people, thus Moulvi Sahib mentioned to him that, “You know my greatest wish and desire is that when I die I am consigned to a modest piece of earth under the auspicious shadow of Hazrat Sultan Al-Masheikh. For me, this would the source of the greatest possible felicity and honour. Is there any way you can help me with this matter?” The aforementioned gentleman replied, “You yourself know that acquiring space within the ambit of the Dargah is exceedingly difficult, but our friendship has been a lifelong one; I have reserved a grave-size piece of land within the enclosure of the Mazar of Hazrat Amir Khusro for myself, right in front, facing the abode of the Pesh Imam that I offer to you”. Moulvi Sahib was elated to hear this, and there and then the matter was decided and that is where he was buried upon his death. As far as I know, he was the last person to buried within the Dargah enclosure, after him, no one else had that honour. The initial grave was unfinished, a few years ago I had a headstone with an epitaph erected. In this undertaking, I was able to rely on the brotherly support extended by Maulana Khawaja Hasan Nizami, which was based on the age-old relationships that had existed between our two families. His unstinted and gracious assistance helped facilitate and complete this endeavour. May God bless him a thousand times. (1281H/1864)

Moulvi Sahib left behind one daughter, Bibi Fatima and two sons, Moulvi Hakim Mehmood Ali and this unworthy Masood Ali, the author of this monograph.

[1] Rishta kay Mamo

[2] Judge

[3] Great door

[4] Rishta kay chacha

[5] nom de plume

[6] Allegiance (for spiritual guidance)

[7] Advocate

[8] A suburb of Delhi

[9] The Chief or Headman

[10] Courtly gatherings for music, singing or the recitation of poetry

[11] Eulogy or ode

[12] Heathen

[13] Arsenal

[14] Ficus

[15] Manager, overseer.

[16] Muslim Rajput

[17] Outer courtyard

[18] Commander-in-chief

[19] Aide-de-camp

[20] Controversial and brutal Umayyad Governor of Iraq.

[21] Indigenous medicine

[22] Pilgrimage

[23] Scholar of Quran and Hadith

[24] Poetry

[25] Verses exclusively in the praise of God

[26] Poems in praise of the Prophet Muhammad

[27] Invocation to God

[28] Followers

[29] Leaders

[30] Sufi/mystic

[31] Pen

[32] Police

[33] Reed stool

[34] Venerable induvial

[35] Sufi Order

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