The Gond king, Bakht Buland Shah, who embraced Islam in his later life, established Nagpur as a city and turned it into his capital around 325 years ago, linking about 12 small habitats and villages along the Nag river, according to the Nagpur Gazetteer of 1904.
The Maratha Bhonsles took over from the Gonds and turned the city into a flourishing place in about 65 years of their rule, building new lakes, temples, and palatial houses, apart from promoting handlooms. From Nagpur, the Bhonsles ran their huge empire, which at one point stretched from Berar to Bengal.
“They (Marathas) kept their army around the (water conservation) tanks," says Pradyumna Sahastrabhojanee, an architect and member of Vidarbha Heritage Society. “These were built a short distance away from the old walled city that we now call Mahal," he says. The remnants of Mahal are all but gone, save one gate now christened Gandhi gate. The Mahal area is also the part of Nagpur where the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) held its first shakha in 1925 and where the sitting member of Parliament Nitin Gadkari currently lives.
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When the British arrived in the region, following the decline of the Bhonsles, they brought the railways and made Nagpur a centre for new ideas. They made Nagpur an administrative capital of Central Provinces and Berar and linked it to Kolkata and Bombay.
They did not touch old Nagpur. They built a new city, to the west of the railway station.
They built a seminary, the seat of lord, in the north. Then, the seat of judiciary, so the high court was next, a bit to the south of the seminary. Then, the seat of power, so the administrative units, and then the Civil Lines, the residential property. The new city dissected the river.
There is a third important city structure sandwiched between the old Bhonsle-period and the newer British era, which housed the cotton textile mills and the historic cotton market.
Jamsetji Tata built his first integrated textile mill here in 1874 and laid the foundation of central India’s bustling textile industry.
Nagpur was where the east-west and north-south highways met. Therefore, the Zero Mile. It was the only city to lose its capital status post the reorganization of the states in the 1950s. The Bengal-Nagpur Railway brought in waves of new migrants in the 1860s and transported minerals, mainly manganese, from the region by railroads. The Great Indian Peninsular Railway connected Nagpur to Bombay.
When the city was eventually expanded and rebuilt in the 1930s by the British, they created a Civil Station Sub Committee which became the Nagpur Improvement Trust (NIT) in 1937. As the city prepares for a vastly new century, the NIT has morphed into the Nagpur Metropolitan Region Development Authority, whose mandate is to plan the development of the city as well as the immediate region beyond. The authority’s presence is a clear parting of ways with Nagpur’s erstwhile “small town" tag. How far those ambitions will take it, only the next chapter of history will reveal.