Archive Review: Maulana Azad Library and other collections at Aligarh Muslim University

AMBER ABBAS, Department of History, The University of Texas at Austin

Published on November 15, 2011

In 2009, funded by a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship for India, I spent a total of five months working in Aligarh, and I lived there full-time from late February to mid-June. I returned in October, but unrest at the University after the October 17 Sir Syed Day celebrations prompted my quick departure and I didn’t return until November- December when I completed my work. Fulbright-Hays organized a university affiliation for me with Professor Shireen Moosvi, a respected medieval historian. My research is on the University and its students during the 1940s and 1950s, a particularly sensitive time in the university’s own history, and I sometimes encountered resistance as I sought access to archives. With Professor Moosvi’s guidance and references I was able to secure permissions to work in the Sir Syed Room, at the Sir Syed House/ Sir Syed Academy and in the stacks of the Maulana Azad Library.

RESEARCH:

Maulana Azad Library

To get permission to work in the Maulana Azad Library, I had to submit a letter from Fulbright-Hays explaining my needs, and a letter from my Faculty Supervisor at Aligarh. These letters should be addressed to the Librarian-in-Charge. Once granted permission I was given a temporary library card which I was required to show daily as I entered. My bag was usually searched coming and going and I was not permitted to check out any books.

The Maulana Azad Library has been digitally cataloging its collection and I found the electronic catalog easy to use when I was looking for published books in the stacks.

I worked in the closed stacks for several weeks, the librarians let me into them to search by hand for the sources I needed (mostly university reports and pamphlets) and I shared the work space with several AMU research scholars. The stacks were not air conditioned and power was spotty. There were large fans in the stacks but if you can plan to travel there in the cooler months, the work environment will be more pleasant.

Sir Syed Room at the Maulana Azad Library

The Sir Syed Room is the place to go to find the materials on the history of the university. This includes The Aligarh Magazine, the Aligarh Institute Gazette and the Muslim University Gazette (available on microfilm through The Center for Research Libraries, Chicago) as well as Academic Council Minutes, Executive Council Minutes, Sir Syed’s papers and publications and much of the secondary literature on AMU. It is a well- lit quiet room, with an AC and several fans. I was often the only person working there, and I was able to plug in my computer, and take occasional photographs of the sources. The Sir Syed Room has a dedicated archivist, Ramesh, but I also often interacted with the librarians in the Manuscripts room, especially Dr. Shayesta Khan. They were unfailingly helpful.

I was rarely permitted to make photocopies, and when I did so, I needed the permission of the Assistant Librarian. The photocopies are cheap (I think Rs. 1/ page) and can be made on the ground floor of the Maulana Azad LIbrary.

Sir Syed Academy

Sir Syed’s old house has been converted into an archive for published and unpublished materials on Muslim History and the University. The archive is currently run by historian Shan Mohammad, an expert on AMU. I was unable to gain access to the archives, being told alternately that the things I was looking for (materials from the 1930s and 1940s) did not exist, or that because they were in the process of updating the indexes I would not be allowed to use the collection.  I did use some of the large collection of published books and enjoyed working in the large reading rooms.

Muzammil Manzil

Apart from the MA Library, there is another large collection of Persian manuscripts, historical newspapers and magazines and books at the home of Nawab Rahmatullah Khan Sherwani (Nawab Sahib) in the Muzammil Manzil.  Part of his house is the "Blossoms" School.  He has over 2000 catalogued Persian manuscripts on a variety of subjects but he is particularly interested in Persian poetry.

The Nawab Sahib is bedridden, but employs a full-time librarian. The best way to reach him is through Mehr Ilahi (ph. 05712709453) who is a retired AMU librarian. Mehr Ilahi lives on the grounds of Muzammil Manzil behind a little cafe called Aligarh Durbar and you can go into that cafe and ask for him or leave a message for him if you cannot reach him on the phone.

Ibn Sina Academy

Another useful collection is at the Ibn Sina Academy in Dodhpur, Aligarh.  This private (open to the public) library is owned by Professor Hakim Zillur Rahman and focuses on Unani Medicine (Unani Tibb), Muslim History, poetry and the history of Sir Syed and AMU. He has many copies of University Hall Journals that I was unable to find elsewhere. He has a lovely, clean, quiet reading room which is a pleasure to work in. Also, he has a Reverse Osmosis water filter in the lobby.

The place is located off the main road in Dodhpur Market and the opening to his lane is directly opposite the Royal Restaurant- it's the first big house on the right. Hakim Sahib is currently renovating his home to add more library and museum space and an auditorium. The library is open from about 9-2 and again from 6-9 in the evening. It is closed during the hot hours of the afternoon.

http://www.ibnsinaacademy.org/

*More on this collection coming soon!

LODGING:

As a woman, finding housing for an extended stay in Aligarh was considerably more complicated for me than it would be for a man! There are few options for unaccompanied women in this conservative town.

The New Guest House

The Guest House rooms must be booked by a University Professor, Staff or Administrator, so you cannot get a room there without a connection/ affiliation. I paid for my lodging there myself and the room rates were very reasonable (Rs. 150/night). I stayed in the Guest House on more than one occasion and found the beds generally clean, though the rooms often had bug problems (mosquitoes, cockroaches, large ants) and one room had only a single lightbulb. The rooms I had did not have TV or internet, or heating in the winter, though a wall-unit AC cooled the room sufficiently in hot weather. The bathrooms were simple stone and tile with Western toilets- though in order to get refills of toilet paper the staff required me to hand in the empty cardboard roll. Perhaps easier just to BYOTP to avoid this awkward interaction?!

I think that some of the rooms in the Guest House are better equipped, recently refurbished with flat screen TVs, etc. But I never saw the inside of any of these rooms!

The food served in the dining room was simple but good, and never made me sick. Breakfast was Rs. 15 and consisted of eggs and toast, Dinner was Rs. 55 and is available veg or non-veg. I always bought bottled water in the Guest House (Bisleri for Rs. 12) but I believe they do have a water filter.

It was not sustainable for me to stay in the Guest House for a variety of reasons and so I continued my quest for housing.

Apartments

There are many apartment complexes in Aligarh, but none would offer an apartment to a single woman for a short or long-term stay.

Private Hostel/ Paying Guest Accomodation

As I arrived in Aligarh in the middle of the university term, I was unable to find a paying guest accommodation. This is what most female post-graduate students do if they are not living in the University’s women’s hostels. I explored a couple of options, but some of them require you to provide your own food which means buying a propane cooker, utensils, etc.

Through contacts at the university it may be possible to find acceptable Paying Guest Accommodations (a rented room).

I was finally able to find a room in the newly opened Ashiyana Hostel in Dodhpur (opposite Tameer-e-Millat Madrasa) a Muslim area within walking distance of the University. As the hostel had opened only a month before I was able to negotiate a single room with an attached bath (the only one in the hostel). I paid for “two beds” as the room would normally have been double occupancy. The monthly fee was Rs. 6000 and included three meals a day, and morning and evening tea. The remaining 42 girls living in the hostel shared rooms (up to four per room) and bathrooms (12-15 girls per bathroom). There were sparsely furnished common areas. The bathrooms and rooms were cleaned daily but common areas tended to be messy, dusty and unkempt. Trash was often not removed promptly and sometimes became quite odorous. The hostel maintains a 5pm curfew unless residents have special permission to attend evening tutoring. I was granted some leniency in this. If I planned to be out beyond the curfew I was asked to hand a note to the Warden of the hostel explaining where I would be and when I would return. I normally was in by evening because there wasn’t much else to do in Aligarh! See “Fun” below.

The truth is that even this arrangement left something to be desired. I received special treatment because I was a foreigner and quite a bit older than most of the girls. The food was simple and never made me sick though the meal times often varied unpredictably. Some days we ate dinner at 8pm, other days not until 10pm. I kept my own utensils and dishwashing soap in my room so that I could ensure that I was eating with properly cleaned and dried plates and silverware.

Gulmarg Guest House

On one occasion I stayed a single night in the Gulmarg Guest House. I would not recommend it at all, though I think that some rooms have been refurbished and may be better. I stayed in a room with a detached, shared bath and I believe I was the only single female in the hotel and so I felt very uncomfortable. The room was dirty and loud. The food, included in the Rs. 100 room rate, however, was good and safe.

Hotels in Centre Point

The main commercial area of Aligarh has a few hotels, including the Melrose Inn with room rates of about Rs. 2000/night. I have also heard of The Royal Residency which advertises as a 3-star.

TRANSPORTATION:

Nearly everything in the Civil Lines (the AMU side of the Railroad Tracks) is accessible by cycle rickshaw for a fare of Rs. 10-20. Cycle Rickshaws are the primary form of public transportation in Aligarh.

Since I was in Aligarh for an extended stay, I purchased a bicycle in Aligarh City (the other side of the Railroad Tracks) with the help of the hostel Warden. While I was an unusual sight in Aligarh-- a woman older than 13 riding a bicycle—I loved the freedom it gave me and it meant that I didn’t have to spend my life negotiating with rickshaw drivers every time I wanted to go somewhere.  It also allowed me to explore the City and the Civil Lines. Though, as a woman, it is not really advisable to go too far afield alone, or at night.

The best way to get to and from Delhi is to take the Shatabdi Express. The train leaves Aligarh Station at 8:00pm and reaches Delhi at 10:00 pm and is usually prompt. You can return to Aligarh on weekdays at 6:15am, arriving in Aligarh at 8:15am. In order to save myself a trip to the train station where I found buying train tickets frustrating, I worked with a travel agent:

Convenience Tour and Travel
3, R.K. Puram Colony, Agra Road
Aligarh 202001
Ph. 9837007392

The travel agent charged a fee per booking, but I could pick up tickets from his office and it saved me the trip to the station. I communicated with the travel agents primarily in Hindi/Urdu.

In Delhi I worked with an outstanding travel agent in Defense Colony Market.

Inderjit Singh
Quick Travels (Quick Electronics)
28A, Defence Colony Market
New Delhi 110024
Landline: 41551288, 41551299
Mobile: 9818002529, 9818779595
Email: quicktravels@airtelmail.in

Inderjit was extremely helpful, quick on email and helped me out a couple of times in a pinch. I booked both air and train travel through Inderjit and he was always professional and helpful. I communicated with Inderjit primarily in English. I recommend his services very highly.

“FUN”:

The "hip" hang out place is Milk Bar on Marris Road on the way to Centre Point but you'll probably feel very awkward going there alone.  There is a Baskin Robbins in Centre Point. In Dodhpur Tandoor Nights serves up yummy snack food.

The Paradise Restaurant on Medical Road (a 15 minute walk from the New Guest House), the restaurant at the Melrose Inn on Marris Road, and one or two other Family Restaurants in Centre Point serve up some good, safe food.  The Sindh Sweet Shop in Centre Point has the best samosas (with mint and tamarind chutney that are out of this world) and paneer pakoras.

Also, there is a big park right next to the Guest House where I would go for long walks sometimes. In the spring it is full of blooming flowers!

ADDITIONAL TIPS:

The Foreign Registration Officer is located in the Police Lines and will require proof of residency (a rental agreement) to give you your Certificate of Registration and Residency Permit. Also take photocopies of your passport and all letters pertaining to your official research business.

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