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 Uttar Pradesh, was at one time an important tehsil.
A prominent building there is the palace of the former Raja of Kasganj, Dilsukh Rai, built by his son, Shankar Singh, a fortlike 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”.
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 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 Mughals 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 14 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 barontey, 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.
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 mustache 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. The most popular one was about the kas grass that is an antidote to carbuncle infection.
The famous carbuncle healer was Amanullah Khah, a landlord. Once, when the wife of the British District Magistrate of Etah was almost on her deathbed because of the carbuncle on her back, he cured her and refused a reward from the Burra Sahib, saying if he took anything for his service he would lose the gift of healing.
Panditji suddenly disappeared in the early 1990s. His kiosk was demolished and the ground where the dal and chappatis were made is now the front yard of a house. But whenever one passes that way to Subhash Nagar market one is reminded of Panditji and Kasganj.
Now some more details about the wife of the British Magistrate cured by Amanullah Khah. She lost her heart to a Rolls-Royce she had seen in Delhi. Blanche Memsahib used to dream about it and pestered her husband at the breakfast table to get her one as it would make up for the absence of children (since they had none).
Robert, the Burra Sahib, knew it would be impossible for him to fulfil his wife’s wish but he went on reassuring her that one day he would help her acquire the object of her desire. Many months passed and Blanche kept hoping against hope that the car would land at her doorstep as if by magic; and then fate condescended to smile and one fine day a young Raja of a princely state came to see the magistrate regarding a large piece of land that once belonged to his family but had been acquired by the government for some project that had not been implemented for 20 long years.
Robert promised to help him and later, on going through the papers, learnt that the project had been shelved. He passed on this piece of information to the Raja, along with his recommendation that the land be returned to his family. The recommendation was finally accepted and the grateful Raja came personally to thank him ask the Burra Sahib what present he could make in return for the kind turn that he had done him.
Robert just shrugged his shoulders but Blanche reminded him about the car. The Raja knew little English and keenly inquired what the memsahib wanted. When her wish was disclosed to him, the Raja smiled and said, “That shouldn’t be difficult.” He did have an old Rolls-Royce, which he would gladly pass on to her as he hardly used it on the bumpy roads of his principality and was looking for a smaller and sturdier vehicle. Robert accepted the offer gratefully and a week later the Rolls-Royce was at his door, much to the delight of Blanche.
But soon after she fell ill because of the carbuncle that had suddenly erupted on her back. It was a painful illness and one which the best of medicine could not cure until Amanullah Khan came to know of her plight. He took a handful of the kas grass and applied it on her back and within three days the garnet-sized carbuncle had healed.
The same thing happened with the second of three daughters of Nawab F Z Khan Sherwani and Amanullah, refusing any reward, returned home to effect more cures till his death in 1988. He, however, came to Agra for the wedding of Manjli Bubu, the girl whom he had relieved of her misery with the near miraculous grass of Kasganj. But only a handful few can bring about cures with it, for it is supposed to be a gift from a Sufi saint to his chosen devotees, though same claim that it’s a boon of the Devi, who is venerated in the riot-hit historic town