Afrasiab Khan not the Marathas renamed RAMGARH as Aligarh

Entrance Aligarh Muslim University
  • Some say Marathas changed the name of Ramgarh to Aligarh. Author presents historical evidence to prove that Afrasiab Khan not the Marathas changed town’s name to Aligarh. Fort is under control of local University and not Archaeological Survey of India. 

'Historians exercise great power and some of them know it. They recreate the past, changing it to fit their own interpretations. Thus, they change the future as well.’ - Frank Herbert, Heretics of Dune.

In light of renaming requests for various places in India, an ‘eminent historian’ recently wrote an article asserting that Ramgarh-earlier name of Aligarh was changed by Marathas. 1 He tried to pin the blame of renaming on them, with subtle insinuation that since Marathas changed the name to Aligarh, so why does the government plan to change it again.

It would be hilarious to even suggest that Marathas, who used Sanskrit names for Punjab’s rivers, like Iravati (Ravi), and Vipasha/Vyasganga (Beas)2, 3 and Shatadru (Sutlej);3 would change the name of a town from Ramgarh to Aligarh. However since the assertion comes from the ‘eminent historian’ (but without any primary references) and not from some anonymous SM handle, it is imperative to share the facts. 

Here is an example of letter (Marathi) sent by Hari Bhide to Nana Fadnavis describing the Maratha campaign in Punjab where the original Sanskrit name of the river has been used;

“सेवक हरि रघुनाथ भिडे कृतानेक सां नमस्कार विनंती उपरी. येथील कुशल ता चैत्र शुद्ध१३ मु लाहोर, नदी इरावती तीरी आनंदरूप जाणून स्वकीये स्वानंदलेखनाज्ञा करीत गेले पाहिजे.’    

Translation: Maratha noble Hari Raghunath Bhide writes to Nana Fadnavis that on 13th day of Shuddhapaksh (waxing moon) in the month of Chaitra, he (i.e. Maratha forces) has camped on the banks of Iravati (Ravi) river near Lahore. 2

Documentary references of Koil/ Ramgarh (period 1750-1770)

The original name of Aligarh was Kol or Koil which was in use till the start of 19th century. The Jat as well as Maratha records shows the name of village as Kol /Koil and the fort as Ramgarh, earlier name Sabitgarh after its erstwhile Mughal commander - Sabit Khan.4

In the biography of Maharaja Surajmal, it is stated that Abdali laid siege to Ramgarh in end-March 1760. The fort commander, Durjan Singh, fought valiantly for 15 days but had to surrender as no relief was forthcoming. After its capture, the fort’s name was changed by Najib Khan; a theory proposed by many early historians;5 including Ganda Singh, whose biography of Abdali mentions that ‘he (Abdali) captured Koil (Aligarh) from Jats in April 1760’.6

But this theory doesn’t look credible, due to the fact that both Abdali and Najib were Sunnis and Shuja, a Shia, had not yet formally joined the coalition. Hence, the possibility that the name change from Ramgarh to Aligarh was carried out to appease him appears very slim. Similarly Najib’s own biography by Nuruddin doesn’t support the claim, as it contains ‘Koil’ multiple times in the narrative in place of Aligarh. 

After capture of Ramgarh from Jats, Najib requested Abdali to spend the summer of 1760 in India, as he was sure that a Maratha reinforcement was on the way and if Abdali left India prematurely, Maratha fury would turn towards him.

Abdali took the advice and camped at Koil pargana. The camp was either at Koil or between Koil and Jalesar (Maratha documents sometimes called them collectively as Kol-Jaleshwar). The recently conquered areas were handed over to Najib for maintenance of Abdali’s army in India.7

The biography of Hafiz Rehmat Khan, another important Rohilla chief, supports the theory that the old name of Ramgarh-Koil was unchanged at that time. This can be confirmed from going through Gulistan-i-Rehmat (official biography of Hafiz Rehmat Khan) where the place was mentioned as ‘Coel’.8

Another letter written in May 1761 i.e. after the battle of Panipat, describes the journey of Abdali towards Kabul. The letter depicts that since Abdali had left, Rohilas are now much anxious and looking for peace with Marathas. It also describes movements of Maharaja Surajmal confirming that he, with Vazir and Gangadhar Yashwant (Diwan of Malharao Holkar) would reach ‘Kol-jaleshwar’ in couple of days and the Rohila chiefs’ had planned to meet them at Koil for peace talks with Jats and Marathas.9

The Maratha document’s from early 1770’s shows that name of Koil-Ramgarh was unchanged. 

‘सेवक नारो नरसी कृतानेक सा नमस्कार विज्ञापना, येथील वर्तमान तागाईत छ२१ सफर जाणून मु रामगड प्रा अंतर्वेद कृपाकटाक्षेकरून यथास्थित असे, विशेष.’

Translation:A letter written by Naro Narasi to Nana Fadnis in June 1770 shows that the he is currently encamped at Ramgarh in Antarved (also known as Duab- i.e. area between Ganga and Yamuna).10

Aligarh Fort is under the control of Aligarh Muslim University, not ASI.

As per Najib’s biography, the Maratha camp was pitched in Koil pargana in 1770; and they wanted to control the fort of Ramgarh. 11 In this camp Najib became seriously ill and secretly left towards Najibabad due to fear of Marathas and died shortly afterwards at Hapur.    

Hence, the question remains that if Najib renamed Ramgarh as Aligarh, why this name change was not reflected in his own biography written by Nuruddin?

References of Koil/ Ramgarh (period 1770-1800)

A letter written by Sadashiv Dinkar (Peshwa’s agent in the camp of Mahadaji Shinde) in August 1785 to Nana Fadnavis clearly mentions that Maratha commander Rayaji Patil has been dispatched to capture Ramgarh. The possession of the fort is critical to severe the link of Shuja and British from Delhi. Rayaji’s forces had captured Koil town and now they are besieging the fort ‘Ramgarh’. 12

Another letter written in September 1785 mentions that British and Shuja were planning to come to aid the besieged garrison of Ramgarh. 13 A report on the strength of Maratha forces under Mahadaji Shinde in various theatres of war was also given for the year 1785, which confirms that the forces under Rayaji Patil were now augmented with other Maratha nobles like Bapuji Malhar and Phalke with their contingents. 14 Hence by end of 1785, Rayaji Patil had 11,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry for the siege of Ramgarh. The fort was captured in late January 1786.15

Similarly we can check the memoirs of De Boigne for continuation of name Koil, for example (in French).

‘Sindia lui assigna les villes d Horel et de Palloel pour son arsenal et sa fabrique d armes; il lui délégua toute l'autorité civile el militaire sur ce pays et l'y établit avec un pouvoir illimité. M. de Boigne fixa son quartier générai à Coél, dans le Douab, entre le Gange et le Jumna.’    

Translation: Sindia assigned him (Boigne) the villages of Horel (Hodal) and Palloel (Palwal) for his arsenal and its weapons factory; he delegated to him all civil and military authority over this country and establishes him there with unlimited power. M. de Boigne fixed his headquarters in Coél (Koil), in the Doab between the Ganga and the Yamuna.16


‘Gopaul-Rao-Bho’ donna ordre à Lukwa-Dada de le joindre avec le reste de la cavalerie Marhatte, et M. de Boîgne avança' de Coël, a marches forcées, avec l'infanterie et ses cavaliers d’élite.’

Translation: Gopaul Rao Bhau gave order to Lakhba Dada to join him with the rest of the Maratha cavalry, and M de Boîgne advanced from Coël (Koil) with forced marches, with the infantry and its elite (Maratha) cavalry.17

So even the French commanders of Maratha army were not using ‘Aligarh’ for Ramgarh/Koil. Yet some are trying to pin the blame on Marathas for the alleged name change. With the above records we can certainly assume that even till 1792, the name Aligarh for Ramgarh/ Koil was not popular and were used mostly by Mughals and English East India company officials.  

Now we will come to other critical part i.e. to check the assertions by ‘eminent historian’. Since ‘the author’ has not given any primary references it is bit difficult to conclude, how he has arrived at this inference, when he claims;

1) Aligarh was captured by Benoit de Boigne’s forces in 1759   

According to the memoirs of de Boigne, he joined the regiment of de Clare in 1768 when he was 17 years old. 18 It means Boigne was born in 1750-51 and in 1759 was around 8 years old, a little too early to command the armies in the field. Also, as per authors assertion if Boigne was in India in 1759 itself and commanding Maratha armies, then the question remains what was he doing during the famous battle of Panipat that was fought in January 1761?

In reality Boigne came to India for the first time in 1778, landed in Madras as an ‘adventurer’ and joined the Madras Presidency forces under EEIC. He narrowly escaped capture by Tipu Sultan’s forces in 1780, as he was escorting the convoy of grains with two companies of 6th battalion and was away during the destruction of Col. Baille’s detachment (Battle of Pollilur). 19 He joined the services of Mahadaji Shinde in 1784-85, so there was no question of his leading Maratha forces in 1759. 20

2) Who was ‘Najaf Ali Khan’ – the alleged Maratha governor of Aligarh?

The simple answer to the above question is there was no Maratha governor named Najaf Ali Khan. The ‘eminent historian’ is describing here either Mirza Najaf who was at that point of time the Paymaster General (Mir Bakshi) and sword arm of Shah Alam-II or Najaf Quli Khan-another Mughal commander and adopted son of Mirza Najaf. 21 But none of them was a Maratha commander.

So, who changed the town’s name from Ramgarh to Aligarh? 

The answer to this critical question has been given by Tahmas Beg (popularly known as Miskin-humble) in his autobiography. Born in 1738, Tahmas Beg was brought to India as a slave alongwith some Turkish captains who took employment under Abdali. He was first sold to Muinulmulk (Mir Mannu) in 1753. After the battle of Panipat he left Mughlani Begum’s service (widow of Mir Mannu) and took employment under Najib and later with his son Zabita Khan. After Zabita’s defeat in 1772 by the combined Mughal-Maratha armies, Tahmas Beg (now in his mid-thirties) entered the Mughal Court due to the patronage of Mirza Najaf. 22

When Mirza Najaf was trying to revive the Mughal fortunes, Tahmas Beg became one of the minor but important nobles in the Mughal court. In January 1775, when Mirza Najaf planned his second phase of campaigns against Jat King Nawal Singh, two contingents were sent under Afrasiab Khan and Najaf Quli Khan - both were born in poor Hindu families, captured at a young age by Mirza Najaf, converted, kept first as a slaves and later as adopted sons. Tahmas Beg was part of Afrasiab Khan’s army who went to attack Jat domain in Doab.23

Jat Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh giftd land for Aligarh Muslim University. See Ref 29.  

Afrasiab’s forces captured areas like Sadabad, Jewar and laid siege to the fort of Ramgarh. After around three months siege, when supplies were running low and Mughal forces were looking for quick closure, the negotiations started. The fort was transferred to Afrasiab Khan in April 1775 by Jat commander after the requisite payment and renamed by him as ‘Aligarh’. This was the first time the name Aligarh was used for Koil/ Ramgarh by any contemporary chronicler. 24

The name change from Ramgarh to Aligarh by Afrasiab Khan can also be confirmed through Marathi documents.

After death of Mirza Najaf in 1782, and assassination of Afrasiab Khan, Shah Alam-II once again applied to Mahadaji Shinde for Maratha protection, offering them posts of Vaqil-i-Mutlaq and Mir Bakshi (both were earlier held by Mirza Najaf) 25. In a graphic description of tottering Mughal Empire, Sadashiv Dinkar confirms that after assassination of Afrasiab, the strong forts of Agra and Ramgrh are still with his family, who are now turning rogue and looking for succour from Shuja-ud-daulah and British.

Afrasiab’s second wife was staying at Ramgarh while her father Shuja-uddin and his brother and erstwhile artillery chief Bayazid Khan, with all his artillery, were holding the fort of Agra. He further mentions that, the name of the Ramgarh fort was changed to Aligarh by Afrasiab Khan and it was rumoured that all the accumulated wealth of Mirza Najaf and Afrasiab Khan has been stored in the fort, which was under Jahangir Khan (the brother of slain Afrasiyab Khan). 26

Another letter written by Govind Purshottam Hingne (Maratha diplomat in Delhi) in early April 1785, confirms that Maratha forces under Rayaji Patil had captured the fort of Agra from Shuja-uddin Khan on 30th March 1785 and now Mahadaji was planning to dispatch him towards Ramgarh, whose name has been changed by ‘Najab Khan’ to ‘Aligarh’. 27

The letter however mistakenly attributes the renaming of Ramgarh to Mirza Najaf, the C-in-C and Mir Bakshi of Mughal Empire, under whom Afrasiab was working. Either Govind Hingne - the Maratha diplomat had written Najab in place of Najaf or the error is during translation of the letter from Modi script  (Marathi correspondence till early 20th century is in script known as Modi and not the current script which is known as Balbodh style of Devnagari), due to which some early historians had incorrectly attributed the name change to Najib Khan. But after going through the whole letter written by Hingne and biography of Najib by Nuruddin, which confirms no name change and two independent sources viz. autobiography of Miskin and letter of Sadashiv Dinkar given above, we can safely conclude that the person actually responsible for renaming Ramgarh to Aligarh was none other than Afrasiab Khan.

The letters exchanged between Daulatrao Shinde - the successor of Mahadaji Shinde, and British officials, written from 1800 to 1803, contain the word Koil at-least 31 times, whereas the word ‘Aligarh’ was used only 4 times; that too by British officials while replying to it. This shows that the Marathas doggedly continued to use the name Koil/Ramgarh till the start of 19th century. 28

However with the destruction of Maratha forces by treachery of Perron in 1803; they not only lost effective political control but also the control over the historical narrative.              

I hope this article puts to rest the controversy on who changed the name of Ramgarh to Aligarh. If you think differently, please present your case with references. This paper also establishes the original name of Aligarh. SO should the name be changed is a thought I wish to leave you with.


1. Politics of renaming Aligarh or Harigarh Frontline and NewIndianExpress

2. Sardesai, G.S, Ed.-Selections from Peshwa Daftar-Volume-27, Government

Central Press, L-218, Page-215, 1933.

3. Joshi, S.N, Ed.-Bhau Sahebanchi Bakhar’, Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal, Page-34, 1955.

4. S. Nuruddin Hasan, Sarguzasht-o-Najibuddaulah- Tr-Abdur Rashid, The

Cosmopolitan Publishers, Page-33, 1952.

5. Sharma Upendranath, Brajendra Bahadur Maharaha Surajmal Jat, Mangal

Prakashan, Page-381, 1986. 

6. Singh G., Ahmad Shah Durrani, Asia Publishing House, Page-236-37,


7. S. Nuruddin Hasan, Sarguzasht-o-Najibuddaulah- Tr-Abdur Rashid, The

Cosmopolitan Publishers, Page-33-34, 1952.

8. Khan M., Gulistan-i-Rehmat, Tr.- Charles Elliot, J. Murray, Page-59,


9. Khare, G.H-Ed., Hingne Daftar-Volume-1, Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal,

Page-148, 1945.

10. Sardesai, G.S, Selections from Peshwa Daftar-Volume-29, Government

Printing Press, Letter-260, Page-265, 1933.  

11. S. Nuruddin Hasan, Sarguzasht-o-Najibuddaulah, Tr-Abdur Rashid, The

Cosmopolitan Publishers, Page-133, 1952.

12. Sardesai, G.S, Historical Papers related to Mahadaji Shinde, The Alijah

Darbar Press, L-411, Page- 584, 1937.

13. Ibid, L-418, Page-593.

14. Ibid, L-411, Page-584 & L-406, Page-576.

15. Ibid, Maratha forces-L-423, Page-597, Capture of Ramgarh- L-432, Page-


16. Boigne B., Memoire Carriere Militaire Et Politique, De M.Le

Général, Comte De Boigne’, Ed.- G. Raymond, Societe royale academique

De Savoie, Page-98, 1830.

17. Ibid, Page-104.

18. Ibid, Page-41.

19. Ibid, Page-45-46.

20. Ibid, Page-61-62.

21. Sarkar, J, Fall of the Mughal Empire-Volume-3, M.C. Sarkar & Sons, 65,


22. Beg T., Tahmas Nama, Tr. & Ed.- Rao, S.M, Popular Prakashan, Preface- vii& viii, 1967.

23. Sardesai, G.S, Historical Papers related to Mahadaji Shinde, The Alijah

Darbar Press, L-323, Page-427, 1937. & Sen S.N-Ed.-Calendar of Persian

Correspondence-Volume-7, IRD-Manager of Publications Delhi, Footnote-

Page-116, 1940.

24. Beg T., Tahmas Nama, Tr. & Ed.- Rao, S.M, Popular Prakashan, Page-134,


25. Sardesai, G.S, Historical Papers related to Mahadaji Shinde, The Alijah

Darbar Press, L-372, Page- 512, 1937.

26. Ibid, L-363, Page-495-96.

27. Rajwade, V.K, Marathyanchya Itihasachi Sadhane-Volume-12, Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal, L-50, Page-36, 1912.

 28. Singh, R, Poona Residency Correspondence-Volume-9, Government CentralPress, 1943.

29. About Jat Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh 


Author Saurabh is an avid reader and keen researcher, especially in the history of Maratha Empire. After meticulous research of over two years, he has written his first non-fiction historical, which will be launched by end-2021.

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