Rampur and the Mahaseer

I remember being surprised by the presence of fish on the coat of arms of a number of princely states, until I learnt that the fish represented was the famous Himalayan Mahseer. It has been is said that “it was its tenacious nature, that made the Mahseer famous, earning them comparisons with the big cats of India.”  Among these states was Rampur, located in northern Uttar Pradesh which appeared to be following a Persian culture, by which the Mahseer was a symbol of royalty.  Rampur’s cuisine also did not have any fish recipes, except for Mahi Seekh. When I mentioned this to a friend, she made a comment that made  perfect sense, “How can you expect The Rampur cuisine to have a recipe of fish when the Mahseer occupies a position of respect on its coat of arms?”  How indeed!  However, no one will miss this as there are many other recipes, that make Rampuri cuisine very special.     

Before we move to Rampur cuisine, we need to mention some very special details about Rampur. Te begin with, it is the district with the highest Muslim proportion in Uttar Pradesh and has never had a major Hindu –Muslim riot. It was also the first princely state to accede to the Indian union and is the only place apart from Delhi’s Rajghat, where Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes are preserved. Also, the state’s first parliamentary representative was the freedom fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who in October 1947 urged Muslims at Delhi’s Jama Masjid to “pledge that this country is ours, we belong to it and any fundamental decisions about its destiny will remain incomplete without our consent”.

Nawab, Kalve Ali Khan, went down in history for initiating Rampur’s celebrated connection with music. His dream of setting up a darbar that could match the brilliance of the pre-1857 Oudh court, was achieved by his son Nawab Hamid Ali Khan. Rampur added to the country’s cultural heritage by giving Hindustani classical music its Rampur–Seheswan Gharana. Also, some of India’s greatest musicians are known to have  practised their art at Rampur, including tabla player Ahmad Jan Thirakwa, sarangi player Bundu Khan, sarod player Fida Hussein Khan, and Kathak dancers Acchan Maharaj and Kalka Prasad. The Nawab’s own guru, Wazir Khan, a member of the family of Tansen, was treated with great respect and given a seat next to the Nawab’s throne.

Raza, the last ruling Nawab of Rampur, was himself a poet and an artist who composed Hindi poetry and played the khartal (a percussion instrument). He is remembered  performing in front of family members on many occasions. Raza is known to have given the famous ghazal singer Akhtarbai Faizabadi the title of Begum — a title that she was  known by thereafter. He also presented her with a blue diamond nose ring.


The royal palace Khas Bagh, built in stages and completed in 1930, is a strange amalgam of Mughal and British architectural styles. The first palace in India to install an air-conditioning unit, it is now in a sad state — its wood panelling , chandeliers, carpets and the

many portraits of Nawabs, look lonely and uncared for.  It has been said that the kitchen was a very important place in early

days. With visits from royalty from other states, the Pakace was a very

busy place indeed. The kitchen had specialised cooks— there was one who could make two types of rice dishes in a single handi, while another was an expert in ‘Shab deg’. An air strip for landing of planes was especially built to ensure the rulers of Gwalior, Dholpur and Patiala could arrive in their private jets. It was the last great celebration witnessed by Rampur before it merged with India.

We now go back to the finer points of Rampur cuisine as we see it now. Since both Awadh and Rampur cuisines are an extension of Mughal cuisine, they are very similar. The difference lies in the fact that Rampur recipes do not use any perfumes such as rose or kewra water in their food. In addition their use of spices is also more subtle. Rampuri cuisine had in fact almost disappeared, but there has been considerable effort to revive and promote, it of late.

It will interest everyone to know that it was the Rampur cuisine that introduced the use of papaya and bottle gourd as mutton tenderizers. Use of  varq (silver foil)on food was also their invention and used liberally to dress up their famous halwas. Rampur cuisine also uses clay pots for cooking many of their dishes. Onion in different forms was the essential base of each dish that was made—such as raw onion paste, golden onion and sometimes brown onions. Among the interesting spices used, is Saffron root.

It has also been said that Rampuri Cuisine has imbibed many influences from other cuisines— more than say the Lucknowi Cuisine.  In addition to Mughlai, there were the cuisines from  Afghan, Lucknow and Kashmir dishes that the khansamas (cooks) were exposed to. These influences  have now become part of the Rampuri tradition.  Recently a famous Chef  admitted that Rampuri cuisine has its own ‘Chungezi Masala’, which is a blend of more that 20 spices and herbs.

Some of the special dishes that everyone looks forward to are: Doodhiya Biryani, Meethe Chawal (cooked in sugarcane juice that looks like pillaf, Gosht ki Tikki, Murg Jehangir. Mahi Seekh Kebab, Mutton Biryani, Adrak ka Halwa and Subz Meetha. The most famous among the Rampuri specialities is Gosht Taar Korma, which consists of Mutton cooked in rich marrow gravy. 

It was during the last ruling nawab of Rampur’s reign that Rampur merged with India and ceased to exist as a state.  Raza did not sign the merger agreement under duress, but graciously gave up some of his most precious possessions, like his collection of books.

The Rampur Raza Library is housed in Hamid Manzil, a European-style mansion of Italian marble and gold-plated walls, located in the heart of the  town. It stores 2,500 specimens of Islamic calligraphy, 5,000 miniature paintings, 17,000 manuscripts, and 60,000 printed books. The collection includes a seventh century Quran written on parchment and ascribed to Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Hazrat Ali. Another rare book is a Persian translation of Valmiki’s Ramayan — said to be Aurangzeb’s personal copy. 

Shona Adhikari