West Bengal: Heritage trail in Murshidabad

West Bengal: Heritage trail in Murshidabad
Photo Credit: Swapan Nayak

The ersthwhile capital of Bengal, prior to the coming of the British, attempts to defy time through its many monuments

Abhijit Gupta
November 11 , 2014
09 Min Read

Imagine a single railway track stretching to eternity. Imagine mustard and paddy fields bisected by a straggling ribbon of asphalt. Imagine a cluster of thatched-roof houses. Where imagination fails and wonder takes over is the derelict mosque with the three broken dome, where it is forever afternoon. Forgotten by the faithful, the towering mosque now watches over three children and a dog who run their heedless ways through the columns of sunlight and the pillars of shadow.

It is a mild winter day in Murshidabad and we are standing at the only spot undisturbed by tourists. Pestiferous day-trippers and picnickers, many of them carrying portable sound boxes, which will eventually be installed close to the river, overrun the rest of the erstwhile capital of the Nawabs of Bengal. A fire will be lit, a huge saucepan full of water will be put to boil and remixed dance tracks will play over and over again. In the distance, the boat office loudspeaker will try to entice picnickers to cross the Bhagirathi and visit the enchanted Khosh Bag, the last resting place of Alibardi Khan.

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Much of such tourist activity in Murshidabad is likely to be observed in and around the sprawling Hazarduari complex. This is roughly two kilometres from the city outskirts, or more correctly, from the tollbooth that levies a surcharge on all tourists and vehicles that enter the city limits. From the tollbooth, a narrow road squiggles its way through the usual mofussil urban clutter but, every so often, a ceremonial arch or the remnant of a stately palace are reminders of the glory that was Murshidabad. Even the street-names bear testimony to the opulence of the Nawabs: the astabol mor—or the ‘crossing of the stable’—is now a traffic bottleneck but in its glory days is said to have housed almost 2,000 horses, 650 camels, 800 mules, 330 donkeys and a small fleet of phaetons, automobiles and tikka-gadis. Of these, only the horses are in evidence today, used to pull the creaky buggies that ferry tourists between the various sites.

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The centrepiece of the Hazarduari complex is undoubtedly the palace-turned-museum whose name—Hazarduari— means the ‘mansion with a thousand doors’ though the actual number is thought to be about a hundred short. Built near the Bhagirathi between 1829 and 1837 under the supervision of Colonel Duncan McLeod, the entire complex extends for over a kilometre along the riverside. If you enter the complex through the ceremonial arch at the back, you will encounter a warren of decaying buildings, which are still inhabited by the extended families of the nawabs. This is followed by the so-called New Palace or Wasif Manzil (entry Re 1), which was completed in 1904 but is already in a state of utter desuetude. There is some rather hideous statuary in the front garden which one passes with a shudder but the small display of palace memorabilia on the first floor is not without interest. Some old Persian documents dating back to the mid-19th century are on display but since there is no attempt to curate the collection, the visitor is none the wiser. The contrast with the splendid Hazarduari palace could not be greater. 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 on the opposite side of the sprawling palace grounds. Originally built by Siraj-ud-daulah, the Imambara went up in fire in 1846 and was rebuilt the following year by Nawab Mansur Ali. The serene and austere building is out of bounds to the public except during Muharram. Not so the palace, which cost over Rs 18 lakh to build and served no other purpose than showcasing nawabi opulence at a time when Murshidabad had lost all relevance as a centre of political power.

The displays inside the palace are well mounted though information about the exhibits is rather sparse. Eight long galleries and about 120-odd rooms are spread out over the three floors. 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, presumably for delivering a messier coup de grâce than the ordinary single-blade variety. An ivory sedan chair used by the emperor Shah Jahan draws the eye as do a range of ornate howdahs. Under the ground floor stairwell, there are two magic mirrors in which one can see everyone else’s faces but not one’s own. For those of a more scholarly persuasion, the library and archives hold almost 11,000 books and 4,000 manuscripts, including an early copy of the Ain-i-Akbari. The complex also boasts of a clock tower and a humungous cannon. Apparently, it was fired only once and the resulting boom caused a large number of women to miscarry, whereupon it was promptly christened Bachhawali Tope.

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It is hard to do justice to the museum in one day or afternoon, but there are more attractions all along the riverside. A short tonga ride away is the tomb of Azimunnisa Begum, daughter of Murshid Quli Khan, also known as the Kaliji-khaki or liver-eating begum. Such a dietary preference would not have raised eyebrows had it not been for the fact that the livers in question were of human origin. 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 human 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 (entry Rs 2), with over a thousand members of Mir Jafar’s family interred in it. A family of hereditary caretakers wage a forlorn battle against the ravages of time and neglect—along with the entry stub, you are likely to get an appeal stating that their salary has remained static at the princely sum of Rs 11 per mensem for the past two centuries.

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Not far from the cemetery is the so-called Namak Harami Deori—or Traitor’s Gate—referring to the treacherous role played by Mir Jafar at nearby Plassey. The triple-arched gate is all that remains of Mir Jafar’s palace, the palace grounds being currently occupied by a mosque and various kitchen gardens. The Nashipur Rajbari is next in line, another stately pile now falling gently to pieces. The entry fee of Rs 2 allows you to wander its high corridors and sprawling courtyard once famous for puppet shows and jhulan jatra. This is followed by a one-storey building of more recent origin, one of the many houses of local magnate Jagat Seth and currently undergoing extensive renovation. It was Jagat Seth who built the nearby Kathgola Gardens, a vast complex of orchards, pavilions, pergolas, ornamental pools and a secret tunnel. There is a palace as well containing some items of furniture, including a monstrous four-poster, which has to be mounted via a large stepladder.

The other heritage route in Murshidabad is on the opposite side of the railway track, roughly two kilometres from the riverside. This is the NH34 along which stands the imposing Katra Masjid. This is also the tomb of Murshid Quli Khan, who lies buried in the basement under the stairs. A separate article could have been written about this amazing man, who was born a Deccan Brahmin, was sold to a Muslim merchant, rose to become the governor of Bengal and founded Murshidabad. A stone’s throw away is another big gun, the Jahan Kosh cannon forged in 1637 and also reputed to be a one-shot wonder.

At the end of the day however, it was the hole-in-the-dome Fauti Masjid that held us in thrall. As we stood surrounded by crumbling masonry and collapsing stairwells, we found it an appropriate symbol for the city of Murshidabad: decaying yet defiant, bowed but not without pride. All around us, the air seemed heavy with the sighs of its once and future kings.

The information

Getting there
Murshidabad lies on the banks of the Bhagirathi, 14km from Berhampur and 225km from Kolkata.
By rail: The nearest railway station is Berhampur Court, reached by either taking the Bhagirathi Express or the Lalgola Passenger from Sealdah. The journey takes five to six hours. The former reaches the station at roughly 4am and the latter is no less inconvenient, clocking in 10.30pm if it is running on time.
By road: Murshidabad is a straight drive from Kolkata down NH34, via Barasat, Bethudahari and Plassey, and the state highway from Berhampur. The drive should take about five hours.

Where to stay
Most people tend to stay in Berhampur and drive to Murshidabad (20-25 minutes) but there are now a few reasonable hotels in Murshidabad as well. In Murshidabad, Hotel Manjusha sits on the banks of the Bhagirathi, behind the Great Imambara (Rs 200-400; 03482-270321). In Berhampur, try the White House (Rs 300-625; 03482-255443) or Hotel Samrat (Rs 200-600; 03482-251147). A very good website on Murshidabad tourism can be found at murshidabad.nic.in.

What to see
Completed in 1837, the Hazarduari (admission Rs 5/Indians, Rs 100/foreigners; 10am-5pm, closed on Fridays) is Murshidabad’s chief tourist attraction. A classical-style palace named for its supposedly 1,000 doors, it houses an astonishing collection of antiquities from the 18th and 19th centuries (including historical paintings, like Marshall’s Burial of Sir John Moore). Also on the palace grounds is the dilapidated Great Imambara, and its interior is worth a look. Attractions around the palace include Wasif Manzil (the New Palace), Tripolia Gate, the Dakshin Darwaza, the Chak Darwaza, the Gharighar (Clock Tower), the Bachhawali Tope and the Madina Masjid.

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Murshid Quli Khan, the Dewan of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, who moved his capital here from Dhaka in 1705 and after whom Murshidabad is named, is buried under the stairs of the Katra Mosque. The Namak Harami Deori is where Siraj-ud-daulah was assassinated. The Kathgola Gardens (admission Rs 7; 6.30am-5.30pm) house a small museum and a Jain temple.

 


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