Somewhere around 1824, three brothers debarked at Mangalore, far from their home in Shiraz, the glittering, garden city filled with art, literature and the Persian poetry of Hafiz and Saadi. Along with them sailed a string of 200 Arab horses bought en route at the bustling commercial port town of Bushehr in south-western Iran. They intended to trade them in Bangalore where there was apparently a great demand. Their journey continued across the perilous Western Ghats, through dense forests and the turbulent politics of the Deccan. Family stories say that as they passed through Coorg, the hapless Persians were imprisoned on suspicion of being British agents in disguise, only to be released eventually by East India Company troops. They then cautiously made their way to Bangalore via Mysore and the horses fetched a good price at the British Remount Depot in Mathigiri, Hosur.
Haji Mohammed Hashim and Mashadi Qasim returned to Shiraz in 1825, leaving behind their youngest brother, Aga Ali Asker to expand the business. He was born in 1808, around the same time the Bangalore Cantonment was being built. While Aga Ali Asker’s great-great grandfather, Tarverdi and his son Allaverdi had spent their entire lives in Tabriz, it was Haji Murad, Allaverdi’s son (Aga Ali Asker’s grandfather), who migrated to Shiraz with his family in the 18th century. Here, he proceeded to buy large estates and successfully invested his capital in property. A few decades later, the fortunes of the family were on the move again. The three brothers took leave of their father, Haji Abdullah and set sail on a bold and courageous journey to India, an unknown land.
Aga Ali Asker settled in quickly and married Khadu Bebe, the sister of Abdul Rehman from Channapatna. She passed away sometime later, leaving behind two daughters and two sons; Mohd. Bawkher and Abdul Hussain, both of whom grew to ably assist their father in his business dealings. While on work in Bombay a year later, Aga Ali Asker’s business acquaintance and friend Mohd. Hashim Namazi introduced him to Bebe Shahr Banu, daughter of Haji Ali Reza Shoostari. They were married in Bombay soon after. Artistic, administrative and commercial migrations from Iran to India had been fairly de rigeur for centuries, and her paternal grandfather too had arrived here from Shoostar in Iran to settle in Hyderabad. Her paternal uncle, Aga Mohd. Shoostari was the Subedar at Aurangabad and she was born in Jalna, Maharashtra.
Aga Ali Asker was now an influential businessman and a gentleman who traded in horses. He had a distinguished clientele and friends that included the British Commissioner, Sir Mark Cubbon, Hassan Ali Shah, the first Aga Khan and HRH, the Maharaja of Mysore, Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar III who received him at the Mysore durbar with honour. He was also presented to HRH, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) during a ceremonial visit to Mysore around 1889. This impeccably dressed man, who it is said, often wore `English socks and shoes’ under his traditional Persian robes, owned large tracts of land in High Grounds and Richmond Town and built over 100 bungalows across the city, including the current Governor’s Residence, the State Guest House- Balabrooie and Leela Nivas off Cunningham Crescent. He also built five beautiful bungalows off Cunningham Road and named them Behesht, Aliabad, Hussainabad, Azimabad and Askerabad. They are said to have been the names of his father’s houses in Shiraz.His own palatial home, a large, two-storied pistachio coloured building, was till recently opposite Fatima Bakery on Hosur Road in an area called Arab Lines, because of the horses that were stabled here. It was demolished recently.
When his beloved friend Karam Khan died at the age of 33 in Madras, a grief stricken Aga Ali Asker bought land to bury him and established what is now the Shia Persian Cemetery on Hosur Road. A few years later, Aga Ali Asker’s elder brother, Mashadi Qasim, who was on a business visit to Mysore went swimming in the Cauvery before breakfast and never returned. His body was found downstream from their camp at Srirangapatna and he too, along with other members of the family, lies buried here.
To meet the needs of a growing community, Aga Ali Asker willed that a mosque be built nearby for a sum of Rs.800. This wish was executed after his demise in 1891, when the Masjid-e-Askari was built in Johnson Market (1909). He extended generous financial support to friends and cherished his family deeply. The story goes that he had a bakery of his own built in Richmond Town where cooks were employed to prepare meals. These were delivered daily to his children in the homes they had each received as inheritance. He enjoyed taking his family on a picnic once a week. Attendants went on a day earlier to prepare the place. Barbecues were set up and massive pans were hung over fires to cater to a family that had now grown to extremely large proportions. On most evenings, everyone gathered together around him while one of his sons (usually Aga Abdulla) would translate the English newspaper out aloud.
The area’s narrow lanes remain rife with memories. Arab Lines has a street named after Aga Abdulla, who endowed the now crumbling Sadut Dispensary in memory of his wife, Sadut- un- Nisa, the granddaughter of Karam Khan. She was reputed to be a crack shot with weapons and a first class rider herself. The beautifully maintained Sadut Gardens still remains at the corner of the Johnson Market meat shops. Another son, Aga Abbas Ali, lends his name to a road in Ulsoor. Bebe Shahr Banu, herself a cultured lady, was fluent in Urdu and composed many `nauhas‘ (elegies) under a nom-de-plume. She succumbed to a plague epidemic in Bangalore in the late 19th century but endowed her private cottage, located within the compound of their home, to serve as a community Ashurkhana for the Azadari (mourning) during the Islamic month of Moharrum. The Shia community of Bangalore continues to gather here over a hundred years later.
While members of the family still distinguish themselves in Bangalore, India and overseas, Aga Ali Asker’s legacy is rooted in the city. Mohd. Qasim (Aga Jan, d.1909), his eldest son from Bebe Shahr Banu was appointed ADC to the Mysore Maharaja, Chamaraja Wodeyar X and later the Dowager Maharani. He was also in charge of the Mahraja’s entire racing string. Aga Jan’s youngest son, M Ali Asker II, too, was prominent among Bangalore’s horse breeding and racing circuits. But the eldest, Amin-ul-Mulk Sir Mirza M Ismail (1883-1959), needs no introduction to those familiar with city history. Classmate to HRH, Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, at the Royal High School, he was the farsighted Diwan of Mysore, Hyderabad and Prime Minister of Jaipur. His administrative and aesthetic vision influenced the `golden age’ of princely Mysore (including planning the Brindavan Gardens) and laid the foundation for a modern Bangalore with graceful public infrastructure, wide, flowering avenues and landscaped parks. It continues to linger in public memory as the long gone Garden City.
Aga Ali Asker arrived seeking new opportunities, only to settle in the city and make it his home. His name remains irrevocably linked with that of Bangalore. Ali Asker Road may be a quiet thoroughfare that gets you from Infantry Road to Cunningham Road in minutes. But it is named after a man whose long journey from Persia left a mark on the city forever.
This story was originally published in the Bangalore Mirror, August 11th, 2014. read it here.
The memories and information in this story are a part of `A remembered city’, a project that maps Bangalore through the personal narratives of its people.