When is qasbah?

Growing up in Calcutta, I knew ‘Kasba’ (spelt with a ‘K’) as a proper noun— the name of a locality east of Ballygunge, in the southern part of the city. I did not know what it meant, except that the locality did not have the art deco houses of the 1940s and ’50s that I was familiar with. Instead, it had hastily planned apartments and lacked the sense of domesticity I associate with residential neighbourhoods. This difference was strengthened by the fact that further east were the East Kolkata Wetlands that opened up the city to a vast web of deltaic formations, stretching all the way to the Sunderbans. For those who considered themselves residents of Calcutta ‘proper’, Kasba was on the fringes of their city, both ecologically and discursively. Ever since, Kasba has walked on the ramp of development to become more of a city, distancing itself from the wetlands that it once connected the city to. In a long process of reclamations that sought to transform ‘temporary landscapes’ into fixed property, the wetlands have been reduced to ecological specimens within the ever-expanding limits of the city.1 Since the early 2000s, I have seen Kasba lose its ‘kasbaness’ to make space for malls, restaurants, plush offices and residential complexes that mimic the swankier parts of the city. Indeed, for some, the name itself was a matter of embarrassment because it wasn’t urbane enough, and the joke amongst non-residents was to call Kasba Casablanca.2

The Kasba of my childhood was never a destination, let alone a subject of interest or enquiry. Nearly two decades later, when I arrived in a qasbah in Uttar Pradesh, I had learnt to spell it with a ‘q’, the Latin equivalent of the Arabic qaf. I had also learnt a few other things about it as a student of history. Broadly, the qasbah was distinct from a shahr (city) and often emerged around the qila (fort) of a military commander. In some parts of the Islamic world, the qila itself was called a qasbah. Historians have variously translated the qasbah as ‘small township’, ‘commercial mart’, ‘between a village and a city’ and ‘garrison town’. Indeed, qasbah has implied different kinds of settlements in different places at different points in time, and these meanings are accessed through the lenses of those who wrote about these settlements ‘not as points or areas on maps, but as integrations of space and time; as spatio-temporal events’.3

Historiographically, the qasbah seems to have acquired certain stable characteristics by the end of the eighteenth century. Christopher Bayly, amongst other historians, delineates features of the north Indian qasbah in a rather cogent manner. These settlements developed around gentry Muslim (and in some cases Hindu Rajput) lineages that combined imperial service and multi-generational landholdings with scholarly pursuits. Families of theologians, jurists, teachers and poets emerged as the loci of cultural authority in these places. Over time, a distinct sense of history and belongingness condensed amongst the residents of the qasbah, which Bayly sees as a sense of pride in one’s watan (homeland). What allowed historians like Chris Bayly and Mushirul Hasan to write thick histories of the qasbah was the prolific textual production of its prominent residents, particularly from the eighteenth centuries up to the present. These texts, largely in the genres of tazkirah (biographical compendium) and tarikh (history), constructed the qasbah as a unique and sacred space.4 The qasbah begins to be populated with the lives of people in these writings. In turn, the dead become important makers of the qasbah’s present, as a community that imbues the place with history.

I visited qasbah Mahmudabad in the winter of 2019. Its water bodies, orchards, shrines, the shops lining the main road that leads to the Qila, small karkhanas (workshops) and ashraf5 neighbourhoods mirrored things that I have read about in both Urdu memoirs and academic writings and seen in films. In fact, the elaborate Muharram julus (procession) in Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman (1978) was filmed in the Qila of Mahmudabad. Mahmudabad’s Muharram, of which the Qila and the shrines leading to Karbala6 are the main nodes, drawing people from far-off places. A group of kids that took me around the shrines mapped the qasbah in terms of the Muharram rituals—they pointed out the imambaras, stealthily enacted the different kinds of matam (mourning), sketched Zuljanah’s7 route and spoke of the crowd with enchantment. By the time we reached Karbala, I had an idea of how these kids experience certain localities of their qasbah, or at least how they want to present their experience of the qasbah to visitors. S, the eldest amongst them, proudly invited me to visit Mahmudabad during Muharram to see the julus. It is the month of mourning, but also a month of spectacles, that makes their qasbah a unique place. 

Like other old settlements, Mahmudabad has many histories. It is the possibility of coming across a simultaneous story, often unremarked, that makes it an interesting place. Beyond Karbala are vast fields where the density of construction drops. ‘Aagey khet hain’ (there are farm lands ahead), S tells me. What intrigues me is the tendency of Mahmudabad’s streets and lanes to open up into vast fields under cultivation, grazing grounds for the cattle and a few unkempt groves distinct from fruit-yielding orchards and gardens. A sudden shift of the horizon into the rural makes me wonder, is it a qasbah or a village? Or is it the nawahi (surroundings) of the qasbah that some writings refer to? Where does one end and the other begin? But more immediately, what place is Mahmudabad? What all places are Mahmudabad? 

Buffaloes languidly grazing near Karbala, Mahmudabad.

In the administrative vocabulary of the Uttar Pradesh government, Mahmudabad is a tahsil in the Sitapur district. Currently, there are 361 gram panchayats in the Mahmudabad tahsil. The Arabic word ‘tahsil’ has its roots in hasal, which means ‘to acquire’, and thus, it refers to an administrative unit designated for the collection of revenue, although the modalities of taxation in north India have changed over the longue durée. The state, both colonial and postcolonial, has repurposed premodern administrative categories such as the tahsil. From 1858 onwards, Mahmudabad was recognized as an estate by the colonial government. A set of talluqadars (big landowners) were recognized after the 1857 revolt and expected to be loyal subjects of the British Crown. Their talluq or ‘relationship’ with their estates, and land in general,was reaffirmed by the Crown. This was particularly significant for the rajas of Mahmudabad, because Raja Nawab Ali Khan ‘Muqim al-Daulah’ participated in the revolt against the British and was martyred in 1858. His son, Raja Muhammad Amir Hasan Khan ‘Amir al-Daulah’, was given a British education and became a part of the colonial establishment.

Baradari in the Qila of Mahmudabad.

Amir al-Daulah’s period (fl. 1870s–1903) saw the conscious fashioning of Mahmudabad as a riyasat (dominion of a ruler or ‘fief’). Besides deploying the modes and motifs of colonial rule—notably in the architecture of the reconstructed Qila—older vocabularies of power were adapted. In fact, the most visible foundations of Mahmudabad’s aristocracy are from this period. Take, for instance, the ceremonial gateway that leads to the Qila, which has a foundation inscription in Urdu with the date 1291 Hijri (c. 1874 CE). It is a poem composed by Munshi Hadi Hasan in praise of the lofty gate and its builder. The first three distiches are in order:

dar-i daulat hai ye us mohtasham ka
falak aiwan ka jiski sayban hai

Amir al-Daulah zi-jah hai woh
sayyid al-mulk fakhr-i rajgan hai

falak si kah rahi hai rifat-i dar
ke ye ruy-i zamin par asman hai 

This is the felicitous gate of that powerful one
the canopy of whose palace is the sky

Amir al-Daulah the honourable, he is,
the sayyid of the realm, the pride of kings

To the sky speaks the elevation of this gate
for it is the sky on the face of the earth

Munshi Hadi Hasan’s verses on the dar-i daulat or the main gateway to the Qila.
The main gateway to the Qila from a distance.
A detail from the main gateway to the Qila.

The shrines dedicated to Imam Ali, Hazrat-i Abbas and Imam Hussain on the road to Karbala were also constructed in this period. These shrines stand out for their design. With their flanking minars, chamfered edges of inner chambers and monumental pishtaqs,8 they replicate the shrines in Najaf and Karbala. This was in keeping with Amir al-Daulah’s travel to Iraq in 1888 and the ties forged between the rajas of Mahmudabad and the ulama (scholars) of the holy shrine cities of Iraq. As one of his descendants, the scholar Ali Khan Mahmudabad, puts it, the family, and indeed Mahmudabad, emerged as a ‘local node in a transnational network’ across the Islamic world.9 This locatedness is also visible in the architecture of the shrines—Mahmudabad’s artisans freely decorated the Iraqi replicas with Awadhi stucco and sgraffito, and as a result, localized grand designs. Amir al-Daulah’s period was certainly not the originary moment in the history of the qasbah or its aristocracy, but clearly much of what we have in terms of architectural investments dates back to it.

Google Earth image showing the shrines and Karbala.
The pishtaq and minars of Dargah-i Hazrat-i Ali, replicating the shrine in Najaf.
Surface decoration in the shrine of Hazrat-i Abbas.

During my visit, I met Lal Mohammad Sahib in the Qil’a of Mahmudabad. Lallu Baba, as he was fondly called, worked in the bawarchi khana (kitchen) of the rajas of Mahmudabad for over six decades. An expert nanpaz (breadmaker), he was the last of the old-timers skilled in making a variety of breads. Lallu Baba’s culinary knowledge was imbued with the nostalgia of hereditary service. His father, Imam Ali, worked in the bawarchi khana as well. As a child, he assisted his elders in the kitchen, inheriting a sense of belongingness to the place, its techne and rituals, mediated through service. He had memories of the proper etiquette of transporting and serving food, the list of items prepared as nazar (offerings) during Muharram and the rivalry between expert cooks and a cartographic familiarity with the Qil’a of Mahmudabad—its kitchens, imambaras, gardens, stables and residences. Much of what he told me was from what he called ‘riyasat ka zamana’ (the period of reign). This zamana gestures at the past, in particular to the time of Raja Muhammad Amir Muhammad Khan (1914–73), the father of the present raja, but extends both before and after him. Surely, the edifices that serve as the setting for this lost zamana mostly date back to Amir al-Daulah’s time, when a conscious effort to (re)construct the riyasat was made. 

The garden in the Qila, locally called Phulwari. It has a canal with a tiny overbridge across it.

For Lallu Baba, nostalgia is an important mode of thinking through the qasbah, of which the Qila is the centre. He also had biographical details on people like Sadiq Bawarchi, Bahraichi Bawarchi and Hazari Bawarchi, darogha-i matbakh (superintendents of the kitchen), and connected individuals through kinship and apprenticeship—valuable material for the author of a tazkirah. I wonder to what extent his memories, not committed to writing, are iterable within the repertoire of histories that constitute places like Mahmudabad. A foggy temporal category like ‘riyasat ka zamana’ may not make into texts concerned with the historical teleology of a qasbah, but it opens up unique ways of thinking about the history of a place as lived by its inhabitants. In fact, in this coming together of riyasat (involving politics) and zamana (time), Lallu Baba shows an alternative path to the qasbah, leading me away from the search of origins and closer to the contexts in which individuals like Amir al-Daulah and Munshi Hadi Hasan constructed a place like Mahmudabad in texts, landscapes and practices. 

Since I had always thought of Mahmudbad as a qasbah, the category itself became more complicated for me after the visit. It is not only the ‘possibility of the existence of multiplicity’ but also the realization that a qasbah ‘can never be that completed simultaneity in which all interconnections have been established, and in which everywhere is already linked with everywhere else’.10 I am reminded of Rahi Masoom Raza’s Aadha Gaon. The narrative voice in the novel reminds me of S, my little friend from Mahmudabad. They are both young and elfish, and fascinated by the spectacles of Muharram. But there are other things in the novel that make me think of places and their quicksilver nature. Raza calls his novel a bhumika (preface) to a mahakavya (epic) on Ghazipur that he desires to write someday. This preface is a long halt in Gangauli, the gaon (village) in Aadha Gaon. As I re-read Raza, I could see similarities between Mahmudabad and Gangauli—gateways and imambaras, ancient trees, Karbala, the qabristan (graveyard) of sayyids, a pond lined with the paraphernalia of washermen, abandoned workshops, vast fields. Then how is one a village and the other, a qasbah? Is it because the people of Gangauli think of it as a village and those of Mahmudabad, a qasbah? Perhaps. Perhaps also because the limits of places are negotiable. And some negotiations elude the archives, gently along the grain. 

‘Kalkatta kisi shahr ka naam nahi hai. Ghazipur ke bete-betiyon ke liye yah bhi viraha ka ek naam hai … Kalkatta, Bambai, Kanpur aur Dhaka is shahr ki hadein hain. Dur tak phaili hui hadein … yahan ke rahnewale yahan se jakar bhi yahin ke rahte hain.’ 

Calcutta is not the name of a city. For the youth of Ghazipur, it is a synonym for separation. Calcutta, Bombay, Kanpur and Dhaka are the limits of this city. Limits cast far and wide … the people of Ghazipur continue to belong here even after moving away.11

—Somok Roy

I am grateful to the Mahmudabad family—Raja M. A. M. Khan, Rani V. Khan and Professor Ali Khan Mahmudabad for giving me the opportunity to stay and work in their historic households in Lucknow and Mahmudabad in the winter of 2019–20. My thanks to them and Irfan Bhai, Lallu Baba, Chabban Sahab, my little friend S, Ashima Singh and many others for wonderful conversations through a particularly chilly winter. To Samprati Pani and Sarover Zaidi for encouraging me to write this piece and temporarily unmooring me from a set of disciplinary commitments that doesn’t allow one, in Aveek Sen’s words, to ‘write promiscuously’. I am also grateful to Dr Gholam Moinuddin for reading the gateway inscription with me. All translations are mine, so are the errors and inadequacies. 

Cover image: The road to the Qila of Mahmudabad.
All photographs © Somok Roy.

Complement Somok’s essay with Sarover Zaidi’s ‘Letters from Karachi’ on the multiple, shifting meanings and affects of watan and ‘cities that flow through us in the form of stories, memories and beloveds’. 


  1. On the urban land market in the Bengal Delta, see Debjani Bhattacharyya, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  2. Moroccan port city on the Atlantic. The kasbah is ubiquitous in the Maghreb, and it is likely that the old city in Casablanca, called Madina, is also referred to as qasbah, as in other Maghrebi settlements. Unintentionally, the homophonic joke gestured at a connection across the Islamic world.
  3. Doreen Massey, For Space. London: Sage, 2005, p. 130.
  4. Christopher A. Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion 1770–1870. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012 (third edition). See esp. pp. 230–34, 423–46.
  5.  Ashraf (plural of sharif) refers to Muslims who laid claim to a prominent and noble social status on the basis of sharafat, a cultivated moral code of behaviour. Such claims were often entwined with other cultural resources like an illustrious genealogy. 
  6. Most north Indian settlements have a stretch of land called Karbala after the eponymous place in Iraq, which formed the setting for the battle between the Umayyads and the forces of Husayn ibn Ali, the Prophet’s grandson, in 680 CE. In north Indian towns and villages, the Muharram processions end at the Karbala on Ashura (10th of Muharram) with the ritual burial of the martyrs’ tabuts (biers).
  7. Husayn ibn Ali’s horse at Karbala. A white riderless horse called by the same name is an important part of the Muharram procession and the memory of Karbala at large.
  8.  A portal around an arched opening, usually leading to an iwan (rectangular hall, usually facing a court).
  9. Muhammad Amir Ahmad Khan. ‘Local Nodes of a Transnational Network: A Case Study of a Shi’i Family in Awadh, 1900–1950’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 24, no. 3 (2014): 397–413.
  10. Massey, For Space, pp. 11–12.
  11. Rahi Masoom Raza, Aadha Gaon. New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1966 (2021: 24th edition), p. 10.

1 thought on “When is qasbah?”

  1. Jarwal qasba is also one of them.
    Their maqbara, the now lost kothi of Athar Miyan, and Karbala were very famous. Mahmudabad is a qasba where I spent 20 summer vacations … Rudauli and many other qasbas lie near the Ghaghra river.


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