Land of the Nawabs

 Ayon Mandal |  2015-03-08 22:12:00.0  |  New Delhi

Land of the Nawabs

In Murshidabad, rural Bengali life and 18th-century architecture meld on the verdant shores of the Bhagirathi river. We met Abdul Momin near the edge of a field, blooming with yellow flowering mustard plants. He was taking a short cut to his school, books in his cycle carrier. Upon asking directions to Khosh Bagh, he insisted we do not miss the Jafraganj cemetery on our way back. As he hurriedly cycled on, it occurred to me that for Abdul and his friends, their history lesson is bit

different from ours. Here history comes alive, the open pages of its book to be read at leisure.

Mughal emperor Aurangzeb appointed Diwan Murshid Kuli Khan as the first Nawab of Bengal. Murshid Kuli Khan shifted his provincial revenue headquarters from Dacca to Murshidabad (named after him) in 1,700, beside the river Bhagirathi. In its heyday, it was a throbbing and vitally important trading centre, thronged by  French, Dutch, Armenian and English merchants. Born and raised in Murshidabad, Abdul also doesn’t need a history book to learn that the city’s last independent Nawab, Siraj-ud-daula, was defeated here at the battle of Plassey (now Palashi), on 23 June, 1757, by Colonel Robert Clive of the East India Company, who bribed Mir Jafar, the commander in chief of Siraj’s army, and attacked Calcutta. Betrayed by his own uncle Mir Jafar, Siraj was assassinated at the Nimak Haram Deori (Traitor’s Gate) after his defeat. The accession of Mir Jafar marked the start of British rule in India.

Much of today’s tourist activity in Murshidabad revolves around the sprawling Hazarduari palace, named for its 1,000 doors (real and false), built here for the nawabs in 1837. It houses an astonishing collection of antiquities from the 18th and 19th centuries in its museum. Built overlooking the Bhagirathi under the supervision of Colonel Duncan McLeod of the Bengal Engineers in 1837, in the Italianate style, the entire complex extends for over a kilometre along the riverside. Two ceremonial lions flank either side of the wide staircase that leads to a pillared terrace. Standing on the terrace, one can see the massive Great Imambara mosque opposite, on the sprawling palace grounds. Originally built by Siraj-ud-daulah, the Imambara went up in a fire in 1846 and was rebuilt the following year by Nawab Mansur Ali.

This serene and austere building is out of bounds to the public except during Muharram. Eight long galleries and more than hundred rooms are spread out over the three floors of the museum. On the ground floor, the armoury galleries are the most striking with every possible variety of sword, pike and firearm on display. Pride of place is occupied by Mir Kasim’s sword Zulfikar, that has a bifurcated blade. An ivory sedan chair used by the emperor Shah Jahan draws the eye as do a range of ornate howdahs. Under the ground floor stairs, there are two magic mirrors in which one can see everyone else’s face but one’s own. The library and archives hold almost 11,000 books and 4,000 manuscripts, including an early copy of the Ain-i-Akbari. Other beautiful structures in the 40-acre complex include the Nizamat Imambara, the clock tower, the Wasef Manzil, a former regal residence, the Moti Jhil (Pearl Lake) just to the south of the palace, the Muradbagh Palace, the Khushbagh Cemetery, where the remains of Ali Vardi Khan and Siraj Ud Daulah are interred, and the elegant Madina Mosque.

The complex also boasts of an enormous cannon. Apparently, it was fired only once and the resulting boom caused a large number of women to miscarry, so it was promptly christened Bachhawali Tope.
There are more attractions along the riverside. A short tonga ride away is the tomb of Azimunnisa Begum, daughter of Murshid Kuli Khan, also known as the Kaliji-khaki or liver-eating begum.. According to legend, the begum suffered from a heart condition and her physician prescribed a medicine, which contained the livers of freshly slaughtered children. The begum’s illness receded but not her craving for liver. Not surprisingly, she was buried alive, but this is likely to be a local tall tale. Further down the road is the Jafraganj cemetery (which Abdul had suggested we visit), with over a thousand members of traitor Mir Jafar’s family interred in it.

History becomes more intriguing when we find a Jain Marwari, Jagat Seth’s one-storey mansion dating to 1873. Among all the Muslim Nawabs, Jagat Seth thrived as a major business magnate and state banker of the time, having enormous financial power. It was Jagat Seth who built the nearby Kathgola Gardens, a vast complex of orchards, pavilions, Jain temples, ornamental pools and a secret tunnel. There is also a palace and museum, where you find a monstrous four-poster bed that is mounted with a tall stepladder.

A little away from the town, the five-domed, imposing Katra mosque is on a high platform in the centre of a huge courtyard. Four big minars similar to Egyptian pylons were built at the four corners. Murshid Kuli Khan is buried here under the stairs in the basement. Founder of the Nasiri dynasty of Nawabs in Bengal, he was sold into slavery in childhood and was bought by Haji Shafi Isfahani, a high ranking Mughal officer from Iran, who educated him, before he rose through the ranks of the Mughal army to become ruler. A visit to nearby Cossimbazar is highly recommended.

One can find the Rajbari or the Cossimbazar Palace in stately dotage; the Sripur Palace or what was left of it and renovated three years ago; the temples, watch tower and museum of the well-kept Choto Rajbari, the ‘small palace,’ and the sylvan British and Dutch cemeteries, in the former of which lies buried Warren Hastings’ wife, among other grand folk who lived in those exciting times, remembered by richly ornamented or elaborately inscribed tombstones and monuments like a cupola, a pillar and a pyramid. You can also view an earthen rampart, the historic Dutch factory, an Armenian settlement (there’s a lovely renovated red brick church with a bell tower and garden), a French factory (the French were Siraj-ud-daulah’s great allies) and couple of old Shiva temples. In a mud-thatch home at the edge of the road, Karim Chacha has no time for Siraj or Clive or for that matter the Jains or the French. He has a mustard harvest to tend to, couple of goats to feed and a small souvenir shop to manage in front of the Katra mosque.

A great way to experience life along the sacred river Ganges and discover ancient Murshidabad is on a boat cruise, where you can bird-watch from the deck of your cruiser and watch the sun go down on the river. The delicious local food is a mix of Bengali and Mughlai styles. With succulent potatoes added to meat curries, abundant milk used in sweets, and the nuts replaced in places with poppy seed paste, this amazing cuisine from a glorious era includes; Mutton Tikia, Jhal Tengra, Dar Chini Gosht, Dhuki Haser Gosht, Tok Murgi, Chicken Korma, Shiraji Murgir Goleya, Oal Korma, Tostori Mocha, Lalbagh Mushur Dal, Rui Macher Kaliya, Murshidabad Murgi Biryani, Seekh Kebab, Badi Pholodi, Kolayar Dal, aloo chop, shukhto, Chitua bread, Shiraj Porota, tawa ruti, Chana Boda, gobindo bhog chaaler mishti Chanar Polao and Poshto Halwa.

Murshidabad is also known for its mangoes, litchis and silk. Hotel Manjusha has a wonderful setting on the bank of the Bhagirathi, behind the Great Imambara, with both river and Hazarduari views. Berhampore, 15km from Murshidabad, is its bus and rail  hub. Shared autorickshaws whizz between Murshidabad and Berhampore and cycle-rickshaw-wallahs offer guided half-day tours.

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