Murshid Quli Khan, the governor of Bengal, was ordered by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb to
Murshid Quli Khan, the governor of Bengal, was ordered by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb toshift his capital here from Dhaka in 1704. Not surprisingly, the new capital took his name. Prior to that, it was called Muqsudabad, possibly having been founded sometime during the reign of Akbar (r. 1556–1605). The area also bears traces of ancient Jain settlements.
Today it is difficult to imagine this semi-rural settlement as a city that once matched London in size and opulence. After its brief boom, Murshidabad kept shrinking due to successive exoduses. As people moved out, nature moved back in, creepers climbing up the façades of ancient mansions and weeds choking the walks of pleasure gardens.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Murshid Quli Khan, constructed many public buildings. Most of these are within a few kilometres of each other in Lalbagh. His greatest achievement was the magnificent Katra Masjid, which was constructed on the lines of the Muslim Holy of Holies, the Kaabah. This mosque-cum-madrasa is a massive structure set inside fairly well-maintained grounds. It had cells for some 700- odd Koranic scholars as well as a large prayer hall. There is room for thousands to offer namaaz in the vast courtyard. The arches in the main structure are cracked and the entire structure leans because of the massive damage sustained in an earthquake in 1897.
Mosque of Kaliji-khaki Begum
Another, even more dilapidated early 18th-century mosque is the Mosque of the Kaliji-khaki Begum. The ‘liver-eating’ begum was a daughter of Murshid’s and she was married to the man who became the second Nawab, Shuja Khan.
Madam Begum was reputed to “greet young men every night as though they were her new husbands” in the colourful phrase of the local guides. That must have been the cause for quite some scandal. But the story goes that she also suffered from a cardiac malfunction and the local physicians suggested a remedy, which required the ground livers of freshly slaughtered children.
According to legend, her husband eventually grew tired of being cuckolded and buried her alive. Then he constructed a mosque in her name. This has now more or less fallen apart due to being in a spot which the Bhagirathi floods persistently. The grave remains, under the stairs, the location presumably being prompted by the considerations similar to those governing Murshid’s grave at Katra.
The Imambara, Hazarduari and Medina Masjid are all in one complex and of more recent construction. Siraj-ud-Daulah built the massive colosseum-like Imambara, with its huge courtyard. This is open to the public only on Muharram, although the goats seen grazing on the lawn inside have access round the year. Actually, the building we see is of 1848 vintage – the original Imambara was destroyed in a fire in 1846 and Nawab Mansur Ali spent several lakhs reconstructing it.
There is yet another massive cannon on these lawns, cast in the 1640s, in the same foundry as the Jahan Kosh. This cannon has a rather macabre legend attached to it. Apparently it caused a massive sonic boom when it was test-fired, tragically inducing many spontaneous abortions in the locality.
Timings 10.00am-4.00pm, Closed Fridays
The Medina Masjid Clock Tower was also affected in the 1846 fire. It is believed that Siraj’s mother built this mosque – modelled on the tomb of the Prophet at Medina – as a token of gratitude that Siraj, born a sickly child, survived to attain the throne. More likely, it was in fact constructed by Siraj himself. It is said to incorporate clay from the battlefield at Karbala, where the Shias suffered the tragic defeat mourned every year at Muharram.
The Hazarduari Palace, the Mansion with a Thousand Doors, also doubles up as Murshidabad’s museum. It has in actuality perhaps 900 ‘real’ doors (including the French windows) as well as a plethora of false doors. Located near the banks of the Bhagirathi, it is a premier landmark in the Lalbagh area. Designed by British sapper General Duncan Macleod, the palace was constructed in Italian marble between 1829 and 1837. Nawab Nazeem Humayun Jha is reputed to have spent an unbelievable ₹18 lakhs (for that time) on this, his official residence. By then, the city’s relevance as a centre of political power was nonexistent, so the palace was purely a nawabi indulgence.
Spread over three floors, the Hazarduari has around 120 rooms and eight long galleries. The pink stucco walls are patterned in floral designs and lined with unending rows of oil portraits of nawabs and East India Company officials. Artefacts on display include the silver throne of the nawabs, magnificent chandeliers and antique furniture. The museum-palace also displays a motley collection of old paintings in the style of Titian, Raphael and Van Dyke. These are proudly proclaimed to be authentic.
The armoury section is superb. It features some 2,700 different items of weaponry ranging from the extremely business-like to the completely absurd.
The museum’s archives are on the third floor of the palace. The archives have English and Persian texts with a catalogued collection of some 10,792 books and 3,791 ancient pandulipis, traditional texts written on barks and leaves.
Museum Entry Indians ₹10; Foreigners ₹100
Timings 9.00am-5.00pm, Closed Fridays
TIP Permission required for photography; contact museum staff
The pearl lake or Motijheel lies just off the main Murshidabad-Berhampur road. This is a large oxbow lake, supposedly used for culturing pearls – yet another unlikely local legend. On the banks stands a completely desolate palace, which was occupied at some stage by Ghasiti Begum, grandmother of Siraj-ud-Daulah. Siraj resided at this palace until his defeat at Plassey and subsequent assassination. Lord Clive also used the palace for a while.
There is now a small, completely overgrown family graveyard here and a madrasa as well as a little museum-cum-picnic-spot. You’ll get a lovely view if you go there around sunset; but after dusk it is ominously deserted.
The Kathgola Gardens of Jagat Seth (a leading banker and financier to the nawabs of Murshidabad in the days of Mir Jafar) are still owned by descendants of the family who held that title. This is a vast complex of orchards, pleasure gardens, pavilions, marble statues, crazy-China paved walks and gazebos, complete with several ornamental bathing tanks, a secret tunnel (albeit now flooded) and a Jain temple. It was named after the wood rose, planted here in profusion – Kathgola is a corruption of kath golaap.
Don’t miss the bizarre layout of the bathing area reserved for the eunuchs who guarded the harems of the Seth brothers. Several vantage spots command a view of it so that the guards could be unobtrusively observed at their ablutions – a precaution to ensure that the guards were indeed eunuchs.
The Jain temple has some superb marble tracery and very interesting iconography, illustrating tales from the lives of the tirthankaras.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
Berhampur is the best place to stay on your visit to Murshidabad. However, there are a few good establishments in Murshidabad too. Your best option here is Indrajit Hotel (Tel: 03482-271858, Cell: 09434000435; Tariff: ₹500-1,500) near the railway station. It has both air-conditioned and regular rooms, a bar and multi-cuisine restaurant. The New Mayur Hotel (Tel: 274630, 274478; Tariff: ₹600-900) on Philkana Road has 23 rooms and a restaurant. Located close to the Hazarduari Palace and by the Bhagirathi river is Hotel Manjusha (Tel: 270321, 270572; Tariff: ₹500-800), a bed and breakfast establishment with lot of greenery around. None of these accept credit cards.
When to go From October to March Location On the banks of the Bhagirathi river, a major tributary of the Ganga, 14 km north of Berhampur in central West Bengal Air Nearest airport: Kolkata Rail Nearest rail: Murshidabad, Berhampur Court
Tourist/ Wildlife Offices
Information & Reservation Centre
Govt of West Bengal
3/2, BBD Bag (East), Kolkata
Tel: 033-22436440, 22488271
Gorkha Bhavan, No. DD-28, Sector 1
Salt Lake City, Opp City Centre Mall
Kolkata. Tel: 23377534
6A, Raja Subodh Mullick Square
7th Floor, Kolkata
Directorate of Forests
Office of the Principal Chief Conservator of
Aranya Bhawan, LA-10A, Block III
Govt of West Bengal
18-19, Bhai Veer Singh Marg
Near Gole Market, Opp Petrol Pump
67-A, Kali Temple Road
Tel: 24550917, 24549719, Cell: 09733000442
GTA Tourism, Hill Cart Road, Siliguri
Neora Valley National Park
Gorumara Forest Office
(Gorumara Wildlife Division)
Aranya Bhavan, Jalpaiguri
Tel: 03561-222233, 220017
STD code 03561
Deputy Director, Tourism
Gorkhaland Territorial Administration Silver
Fir Building, Bhanu Sarani
STD code 0354
Berhampur Tourist Lodge
Near Railway Station, Berhampore
Tel: 03482-259711, Cell: 09732510031
STD code 03482
Sunderbans Biosphere Reserve
Office of the Addl PCCF & Director
Bikash Bhavan, 7th Floor
North Block, Salt Lake, Kolkata
Sunderbans Tiger Reserve
Canning PO, District 24 Parganas (South)
STD code 03218