Building bridges with the past- Memories as our community history | The Qizilbash Tapestry of Kashmir

The Agha clan to which Agha Ashraf Ali traces his ancestry has comes  from a powerful tribal military confederacy collectively known as the “Qizilbash”.

Qizilbash (meaning Red-Capts) were a Turkic martial race based in present day Azerbaijan. The confederacy was divided into sub-tribes, each one ruling over a small principality. In 1501 AD they conquered Iran and established the Safavid Empire which was also known as “Mamlikat-I-Qizilbash”.

The term Agha (which is of Turkish origin & means Lord, Master) was originally used for a commander among the Qizilbash or for their provincial/tribal chiefs, thus being a military title. However by the end of the 18th century this word got mixed with its Persian homonym (Aaqa/Aaka-title used by Sayid clerics) and is now used by many Sayids (even the non-clergy) across the subcontinent.

The Qizilbash army helped Mughal Emperor Humayun recapture the throne of India. Prominent among them being the powerful Bairam Khan Turk, regent & chief mentor to Akbar. The progenitor of the Nawabs of Murshidabad, Agha Aqeel Khan Afshar was a Qizilbash. In Persia after the fall of the Safavids, the Qizilbash confederacy formed their own kingdoms famous being the Afsharid dynasty founded by Nader Shah and the Qajar dynasty founded by Agha Muhammad Khan Qajar. After the fall of the Afsharid dynasty with its main epicentre in Afghanistan, the Durranis came to power and then started a fierce cold war, a fight for racial supremacy between the native Pashtuns, and the Turkic Qizilbash. This resulted in major migrations of the Qizilbash Amirs from Afghanistan to safe havens in order to avoid persecution on political and religious grounds. They migrated in groups and settled in old cities of Peshawar, Lahore, Awadh and Ludhiana. My ancestor moved to Srinagar and settled here in 1801. He had heard about the beauty and peaceful environment of Kashmir from his relative Mohammad Khan Jawansher Qizilbash, then Naib Subahdar of Kashmir. From a first lieutenant till 1772 in the Royal Cavalry Corps to a business magnate, Sardar Agha Rahim Qizilbash settled near the seventh bridge in the area called Khanqah-e-Sokhta, Nawa-Kadal. Rahim’s father Sardar Amir Agha Ali Afshar Jung Qizilbash (d-1755), a Sepah Salar in the Royal Afsharid Cavalry till 1747 came from the lineage of Amir ul Umara Agha Ahmad Sultan Qizilbash- (d-1520s) one time Commander in chief and Governor of Meshad during the reign of Shah Ismail-I and Amir Agha Qasim Sultan Qizilbash (d-1630) (Commander in chief and Governor of Mosul). In Srinagar Rahim built a vast estate on 5 Kanals naming it after his Kandahar fort, “Qasr-e-Qizilbash”, before passing into History. After the first Anglo Afghan war the family fell on hard times as the doors to their native place were shut forever and they could no longer import merchandise. The two grandsons of the Agha, became Hakims (Physicians).

While the rest of our clan members in Peshawar, Lahore, Awadh and Ludhiana integrated well with the new establishment by joining the military and bureaucracy with British bestowing upon them the hereditary title of Nawabs ( prominent being Nawab Agha Ali Raza Qizilbash & Nawab Agha Sir Fateh Ali Khan Qizilbash-KCIE of Lahore) they regained that sense of power long gone, however, the family in Kashmir was struggling financially after the first Anglo Afghan War ended in 1842. They say patience is the key to joy, finally luck favoured them and it was in 1856, that Maharaja Ranbir Singh, while passing through Nawa Kadal in his Royal boat called, “Parindah” with 24 rowers, suddenly fell sick with a colic. His physician accompanying him failed to cure him. The helpless officials started looking for a Hakim. An officer heard about a Hakim – Agha Muhammad Baqir called Gareeb Nawaz (for being beneficent to the poor). They rushed towards him and asked for his help. He inquires about Maharaja’s condition, prepares some medicine and takes it along with him. The Maharaja who was in a semi conscious state with a terrible colic found immediate relief with what this Hakim gave him and within no time the Maharaja bestows upon the gleeful Hakim, his dagger, a diamond ring while announcing his appointment as Royal Physician and grants him a big Jagir in the outskirts of Srinagar. After Agha Muhammad Baqir’s appointment as Royal Physician, the family saw its re-rise to prominence. Under the patronage of Agha Baqir who besides being a physician was also a polyglot, the Maharaja established a translating institute called Daarul Tarjumah where books related to medicine in Arabic & Latin were translated into Persian & Dogri languages. (Akhbaraat-e-Mirza Saifudeen) G.M.D.Sufi in his book , “Kasheer” mentions Baqir curing a paralytic patient miraculously by applying living wasps to the body. Later this procedure was replicated at a County Hospital in London. Agha Muhammad Baqir translated enormous medicinal books, after which the Maharaja bestowed upon him the title of “Afsar-ul-tibba”, made him the Chief Physician of the State and named a village after him “Gund Baqir” in Sopore which became the family’s another hereditary Jagir. Maharaja Ranbir Singh also established a separate Ministry Wizarat-e-Tibb with Chief Minister Diwan Amar Nath holding the additional charge of Wazir-e-Tibb. Agha Baqir as the Chief Physician, was instrumental in establishing Shifa Khanas which later culminated into small hospitals. Later Agha Baqir was designated as the Wazir-i-Tibb after receiving the Firman-i-Mubarak (Royal Decree) with the title of “Arfa-ud-daulah” and a public service medal in silver. Agha Baqir’s brother Agha Muhammad Taqi was appointed as “Wazir-e-Dakhila”. After Agha Baqir’s death in 1885 his only son Agha Ali Naqi took over as Royal Physician and Musahib (Courtier) to Maharaja Pratap Singh. G.M.D.Sufi mentions him curing a patient suffering from double pneumonia which was given up as a hopeless case by English doctors. Agha Ali Naqi was equally competent like his father and was bestowed with a distinguished medal of honour by Maharaja Pratap Singh with the title of “Hakim-e-Aaala” and Jagirs in many villages of Kashmir. Agha Ali Naqi’s sons Agha Mirza Ali (d-1925) & Agha Sher Ali (d-1950) became Thanadars. Agha Sher Ali went on to become Superintendent of Jails and later a member of the Royal Commission. Agha Baqir’s grandson (daughter’s son- Khan Bahadur Aga Syed Hussain) who was later adopted by his maternal uncle, became the first matriculate of Kashmir in 1894. Muhammad din Fauq in his “Tareek-e-Aqwaam-e-Kashmir”, mentions him as Kashmir’s English speaking Muslim. The Maharaja sent him to Punjab Chief’s college for further studies after which he was inducted in the Dogra administration. He passed the Wazarati examinations on the advice of Sir Walter Lawrence and later became Wazir-e-Wazarat, performed the first settlement of Ladakh in 1901, and went on to become Governor of Kashmir, later Judge of the first High Court of J&K and Home & Judicial Minister of the princely State. His daughter Begum (Agha) Zafar Ali was the first woman matriculate of Kashmir (1930) who went on to become the first woman chief Inspector of schools, Kashmir. She worked for women empowerment and social justice all her life. Her younger brother Syed Ahmad Aga was in the civil services later a member and acting chairman of the public service commission till 1966. He fought the Lok Sabha elections of 1967 and became a Member of Parliament. It is said he had a key role in convincing the congress government especially Indira Gandhi in 1974 to release Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, which they did after the Indira-Sheikh accord. Some prominent members among the later generation include three brothers, Agha Nasir Ali, Agha Showkat Ali and Agha Ashraf Ali. Agha Nasir Ali was  the first civil servant of Kashmir who got selected through an open competition (K.C.S introduced in 1941). He was the first Deputy Commissioner of Srinagar and retired as India’s Labour Secretary in 1977, Agha Shaukat Ali, resigned as a Tehsildar and became General secretary of Muslim Conference at the request of Muhammad Ali Jinnah who had visited the Aghas in Srinagar twice in 1936 & 1944. Shaukat moved to Pakistan in 1947 after the United Nations brokered his release for Brigadier Ghansara Singh. He retired as a federal Secretary in the Pakistan Civil Services and wrote many books.

Agha Ashraf Ali, the eminent academician and educationist passed away on 7th August,2020.  He will be remembered as a scholar, master orator and a conscientious chronicler of our dreams and pain. Through his sage reflections Aga sahab unraveled for us how confluence of ideas will shape our destiny. He held important positions in the Education sector of the State where he initiated path breaking reforms. He was the architect of mass education introduced in the state way back in early fifties. In rest of the country this right was granted in 2009 under the ‘Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act.

His life is a celebration of passion, hard work and commitment to his people and that will live in our  community memories.

Agha Faisal Ali is a Srinagar based lawyer and writer. He intends to publish a book on his family history.