It was their tenacious nature that made the Mahseer famous, earning them comparisons with the big cats of India. A number of Indian princely states – Rampur (northern Uttar Pradesh), Bhopal and Kurwai (both in Madhya Pradesh) put the Himalayan Mahseer (Tor putitora) on their coats of arms. This practice seems to have been derived from Persian culture, where the doughty fish was considered a symbol of royalty. The interesting thing is that the states mentioned above were established by Afghan adventurers (whose country had been deeply influenced by the courtly culture and etiquette of Iran, the result of a process known as Persianization). I have already narrated the story of Bhopal, established by a Pashtun commander in the Mughal army – Dost Mohammad Khan (1657-1728).

The state of Rampur in northern Uttar Pradesh has a similar tale. In 1773-1774, a war (known as the First Rohilla War) broke out between the Kingdom of Awadh (Oudh to the British, a region located at the heart of Uttar Pradesh) and  the Rohilla Afghan chiefs. The Rohillas were Pashtuns (or Pathans) hailing from Roh (a region around Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan). Belonging to different tribes – Bangash, Barech, Yusufzai and others, they had migrated to India under the leadership of one Daud Khan Barech (who was employed by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb) in 1705. Pleased with the services of Daud, the Emperor granted him the territory of Katehr (present day Bareilly District).

Aurangzeb had done so to pacify the region’s fractious Katehriya Rajputs. The Rohillas served as mercenaries in the Mughal Imperial Army. With the decline of the Empire, local potentates (like Daud Khan) began to emerge and fill the vacuum. Daud Khan was succeeded by his adopted son, Ali Muhammad Khan Bangash in 1721. He captured the town of Bareilly, converting it into his headquarters. The Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah appointed him Nawab in 1737. Pashtun settlements sprang up in the territory. Their numbers swelled when the Persian warlord Nader Shah invaded the Empire in 1739. The region of Katehr had by now become famous as Rohilkhand.

The invasion of 1739 severely weakened the Mughals. Meanwhile, Ali Muhammad Khan had been appointed governor of Rohilkhand (1740). He was succeeded by Hafiz Rahmat Khan Barech in 1749. These were troubled times for North India, with invaders pressing in from all directions. From the northwest came Ahmad Shah Durrani, from the south the Marathas. The imperial family was in turmoil. Emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur (reign 1748-1754) was deposed by his courtier, Ghazi ud-Din Khan Feroze Jung III, who raised Alamgir II to the throne (reign 1754-1759). The new sovereign, desperate to escape the clutches of Feroze Jung III, tried forging an alliance with Ahmad Shah Durrani. He had his daughter married to Ahmad Shah’s son – Timur.

This provoked the wrath of Feroze Jung III and his Maratha allies. Delhi was besieged (in 1757) and Alamgir II assassinated (1759). A new puppet Emperor was installed – Shah Jahan III (reign 1759-1760). The Mughal capital was plundered. Marathas attacked Alamgir II’s son-in-law, Timur Shah Durrani, who had been governing from Punjab. These actions drove his father, Ahmad Shah Durrani into a rage. He would inflict a terrible defeat on them in the Third Battle of Panipat (1761). Shah Jahan III was toppled by Alamgir II’s son – Shah Alam II (reign 1760- 1806).  Assisting Ahmad Shah Durrani in the Third Battle of Panipat was a Rohilla commander, one Najib ad-Dawlah (or Najib Khan Yusufzai).

Also present were Hafiz Rahmat Khan Barech of Rohilkhand and Shuja-ud-Daula of Awadh.  They played a key role in the Maratha defeat, a fact not forgotten by the latter upon their return to Delhi in 1771, following Najib ad-Dawlah’s death. Having won Delhi, they turned their attention to Rohilkhand (1772). But Shuja-ud-Daula intervened, foiling the invaders’ designs. This he did on promise of a payment, something which the Rohilla chiefs reneged on. Enraged, the Nawab of Awadh (joined by forces of the British East India Company dispatched by Warren Hastings) launched a punitive expedition. Hafiz Rahmat Khan was killed (1774) and Rohilkhand ravaged. Villages were burnt down and inhabitants butchered. Survivors fled across the Ganges to safety.

Hastings’ role in the First Rohilla War invited a lot of criticism back home. Faizullah Khan, heir of Ali Muhammad Khan Bangash, gathered the surviving Rohillas and established the state of Rampur under British protection. His capital (present day Rampur), established in 1775, was known as Mustafabad. His dynasty, the Nawabs of Rampur, would go on to be counted as one of the few Shia Muslim dynasties in South Asia (along with the neighbouring Nawabs of Awadh). They remained loyal to the British (even during the Rebellion of 1857) and merged their state with the Indian Union in 1947. One of the most distinct symbols of the state, its coat of arms, bears a distinctly Persian motif – the Mahseer on a shield held by two rampant Tigers. Behind the shield are two swords bearing a crown and a parasol.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows Rampur State’s coat of arms. The kingdom was centered on Rampur, a city in Rampur District (northern Uttar Pradesh). A Shia Muslim dynasty, the Nawabs of Rampur, were of Pashtun descent. Their coat of arms, like that of the state of Bhopal, is a reflection of the Persian influence in South Asia.