Let us suppose decadence leads to elegantly crumbling riverside mansions set against a backdrop of lush mango
Let us suppose decadence leads to elegantly crumbling riverside mansions set against a backdrop of lush mangoorchards, while ‘progress’ is equated with grimy underground stations, traffic jams and concrete jungles. Where would you rather go on holiday? Progress and decadence are, after all, just two sides of the same coin. In 1757, Robert Clive won the toss at the climactic Battle of Plassey on London’s behalf. It’s interesting to imagine the consequences if fate had flipped in favour of Murshidabad instead. At that instant, Murshidabad and London were roughly the same size and at the same levels of prosperity.
If Bengal’s Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah had won at Plassey in 1757 — the battle which gave the British a decisive foothold into India — would Murshidabad have somehow transmuted into a multi-racial, multi-cultural metropolis over the next 250 years? Probably not, but stranger things have happened and Murshidabad does induce strange thoughts. Paramount, however, is the melancholy this district evokes with its reminders of a past replete with unfulfilled promise.
When the Mughal Empire fell apart, the nawabs of Bengal could well have ended up with an independent centre of power (as happened in places like Hyderabad and Avadh); but they didn’t. Murshidabad could have become a regional trade centre due to its strategic location; it didn’t. Other towns, such as Siliguri and Malda, became trading outposts; Murshidabad dwindled. It was as though the city was built just for one brief, glorious day. And then the fair had to pack off.
Things to See & Do
Today it is difficult to imagine this semi rural settlement as a great 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, with creepers climbing up the brickwork of the ancient mansions and weeds choking the crazy-china walks of the pleasure gardens. It isn’t even the district headquarters anymore, though the district is named after it. The headquarters is now at nearby Berhampore, where most tourists stay.
The twin towns of Berhampore and Murshidabad straddle the Bhagirathi River and the old Pala and Malda Gaur kingdoms are within metaphorical spitting distance. It is a beautiful district in terms of natural aesthetics. Berhampore is handy for hiring local transport and making travel arrangements. And is capitalising on the tourist trade, since travellers are charged ₹25 per day as tax when they hire a car here!
Once you get to Berhampore, the drive to Murshidabad takes 25 minutes, with the river on the left and rural scenery on both sides. The entire area is unusually heavily wooded. Even in the heart of the Old City, there are as many trees as people and the narrow, winding streets of the old imperial area of Lalbagh are straight out of a poster fora rural idyll. The mango orchards in these parts are justly famous; the rice, jute and mustard crops are interspersed with long, serried ranks of mango and banana trees; clumps of bamboo grow by the lakes and streams. West of the river, there are mulberry groves where some of the finest silk in the country is still cultivated.
Murshid Quli Khan, the Mughal governor after whom Murshidabad is named, was a serious ‘builder’, constructing 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 Kaaba. This mosque-cum-madarsa 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. The arches in the main structure are cracked and the entire structure leans because of the 1897 earthquake.
Around the corner from the Katra is Jahan Kosh, the ‘world conqueror’, which stands in solitary splendour. This cannon was forged in 1637 by a gunsmith named Janardan Karmakar, who hailed from Dhaka. This 17-foot,8-tonne monster must have been more or less ceremonial and is reputed to have been fired only once. It used solid round shot with a 450 mm bore.
Another, even more dilapidated, mosque from the early 18th century is the Mosque of the Kaliji-Khaki Begum. The ‘liver-eating’ begum in question was a daughter of Murshid Quli Khan and she was married to the man who became the second nawab, Shuja Khan.
Madam Begum was ‘reputed’ (if that is the right word) to “greet young men every night as though they were her new husbands”, in the colourful phrase of the local guides. In other words, she was a nymphomaniac. That, in itself, would have been cause for some scandal. But the story goes that she also suffered from a cardiac malfunction and the local physicians suggested a remedy which required ground livers of freshly slaughtered children.
According to legend, her husband eventually grew tired of being cuckolded and buried Madam Begum 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. Entry fee ₹ 2 Timings 10 am-4 pm
The Imambara, Hazarduari and Medina Masjid are all in one complex and of more recent construction. Sirajuddaulah built this massive colosseum-like imambara, which has a huge courtyard. This is open to the public only on Muharram, although the herds of goats seen grazing on the lawn inside presumably 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 the1640s, in the same foundry as the Jahan Kosh. It has a rather Gothic legend attached to it. Apparently it caused a massive sonic boom when it was test-fired, inducing many spontaneous miscarriages in the locality.
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 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 was designed by British sapper General Duncan Macleod, and constructed in Italian marble between 1829 and 1837.
Nawab Nazeem Humayun Jha spent an unbelievable ₹ 18 lakh on this, his official residence. By then, Murshidabad’s relevance as a centre of political power was non-existent, so the Hazarduari was purely a nawabi indulgence.
Spread over three floors, the Hazarduari has around 120 rooms and eight long galleries. Artefacts on display include the silver throne of the nawabs, magnificent chandeliers and much antique furniture. Nawab Humayun Jha’s collection of decanters and green dining plates were supposedly designed to shatter if poison was served in them— another of the charmingly weird legends floating around. The museum palace also displays a motley collection of old paintings in the style of Titian, Raphael and Van Dyke. These are claimed to be authentic.
The armoury section here 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 10,792 books and 3,791 ancient pandulipis, traditional texts written on bark and leaves.
Entry fee Indians ₹ 10, foreigners ₹50 Museum timings 10 am-5 pm, closed on Fridays and second Wednesdays of each month Photography Permission required, contact museum staff.
Jafri Palace is locally known as Traitor’s Gate — Namak Harami Deori. This used to be Mir Jafar’s palace, apparently a fine Italianate structure until it was dismantled and mustard fields planted by locals who saw no reason to let fertile land go to waste. Just across the road is the Jafar family graveyard, which houses an incredible number of corpses — some 1,100 members of the family are buried here. This cemetery is in rather shabby shape, although a family of sajida nashins (grave tenders) still lives in the complex.
Lakes & Gardens
The ‘pearl lake’ Motijheel lies just off the main Murshidabad-Berhampore 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 Sirajuddaulah. Siraj resided at this palace until his defeat at Plassey and subsequent assassination. Lord Clive also used the palace for a while.
The Kathgola Gardens of Jagat Seth (a leading financier to the nawabs of Murshidabad in the days of Mir Jafar) are still owned by descendants of the family. 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 here has some superb marble tracery. Entry fee ₹5 Timings Sunrise to sunset.
The garden graveyards of Khoshbag, Roshnibag and Farahbag lie across the river, on its west bank. The early nawabs were buried here. Roshnibag, where Shujauddaulah’s grave lies, surrounds an 18th-century mosque built by Nawab Alivardi Khan of Bengal.
The silk manufactured in this region has been a hot item of sale since the 17th century. Pick up some of Bengal’s finest silk saris and fabrics at Chandrakanto Resham Khadi in Khagra. Parimal Karmokar sells items made of shola pith, a soft reed. Murshidabad is also known for its sweets. Try the popular chhanabora from Anand Sweets in Naya Sarak and Kalika Mishtanna Bhandar in Doyihatta Road.
Where to Stay & Eat
Berhampore is the best place to stay on your visit to Murshidabad, but don’t expect 5-star accommodation. And if you’re not too particular, it is possible to find accommodation in Murshidabad as well. Though there are no proper restaurants either in Berhampore or Murshidabad, food in most hotels is uniformly good and the local sweets are excellent.
You can opt for the Sunshine Hotel (Tel: 03482-277322; Tariff: ₹ 1,299-4,999), a 3-star property in Behrampore. The White House (Tel: 255443; Tariff: ₹ 450-1,550) is another good option. It has excellent food and AC rooms. WB Tourism’s Berhampore Lodge (Tel:252952; Tariff: ₹ 600-2,000) is the billet of choice for most tourists.