Murshidabad: Death of a Capital

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    Visitors keen to relive the charms of Murshidabad had better come armed with a lively imagination. Apart from a smattering of neglected monuments, there is nothing else to suggest that this was once the grand capital of the Nawabs of Bengal, a thriving financial and cultural centre that boasted palaces, temples, mosques, gardens and mansions. Rigor mortis has long since set in and clues to the city’s glorious past are being erased at an alarming pace.

    Murshidabad was founded in 1702 by Murshid Quli Khan, who moved the capital of Bengal from Dhaka to Murshidabad, and derives its name from the title ‘Murshid’ given to Khan, the first Nawab of Bengal.

    During the reign of the Nawabs, Murshidabad was a principality of the Mughals and it very quickly grew into a magnificent urban centre. It was so rich that many European powers set up business operations in the vicinity, to conduct business with the wealthy merchants here. The silk industry, which flourished here, added to the city’s fortunes and Murshidabad evolved into a vibrant centre of culture and the arts.

    But its glory days were short-lived. The Battle of Plassey in 1757 saw the defeat of the last independent Nawab of Bengal, with the British East India Company seizing the reins. The shifting of the capital to Calcutta was the beginning of the end of this once splendid capital, but the British were only one among a cast of characters who contributed to the death of this city.

    Nature’s fury and unplanned urban expansion in the 20th century have fundamentally changed Murshidabad. Today, the city’s priceless architectural heritage is decaying and disappearing at an alarming rate, and in the absence of any concerted attempts to document the city and its history, this former capital is in a shambles.

    What we know about the once magnificent monuments of this city has been gleaned from a book titled The Musnud of Murshidabad compiled by Purna Chandra Majumdar and published in 1904. Majumdar was a lawyer by training and he served as private secretary and legal adviser to the Nawab of Murshidabad from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. More than a century later, his book remains the only comprehensive document of the monuments of this city.

    Sadly, almost half the monuments it lists are impossible to locate today. Some are difficult to find as the names of streets and neighbourhoods have changed, but the majority have simply vanished. Khurshid Daula’s Deori, Rajmahal Deori and Mir Mohammed Taki’s tomb are only three among a number of monuments listed in The Musnud of Murshidabad that can no longer be found.

    Nature has taken a heavy toll on Murshidabad. The Bhagirathi River is fickle and, as it changed course many times over the last two centuries, it washed away important parts of the city, including Siraj-ud-Daula’s Hirajheel Palace and the original house of Jagat Seth, one of the first families of Murshidabad.

    There was also the earthquake of 1897 that wrought monumental damage. While it levelled cities and towns across Bengal, Murshidabad was especially badly hit. The earthquake turned into rubble the fabulous New Palace of the Nawabs of Murshidabad, with its unique vaulted roof. It also demolished three of the five domes of the Katra Masjid.

    In his report for the Geological Survey of India, Richard Dixon Oldham noted that scarcely a building in Murshidabad had been left unscathed. The final blow was slow and equally excruciating. For around a century, the East India Company gradually dismantled the former capital of the Bengal Subah or Mughal principality, and shifted trade and administration to Calcutta. The Company even moved the Nawab himself to Chitpur for a while. This was a death blow for Murshidabad, whose decline further hastened once the focus shifted to the new colonial capital, Calcutta.

    But Murshidabad’s predicament is due more to a failure to preserve the city in the post-independence era than natural calamities. Archaeologist Dr Tathagata Neogi, founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta, has made several trips to Murshidabad in recent times, hoping to create a map of the city. He points out that there are no publicly available maps of Murshidabad, which is a fundamental problem that a visitor faces. “People do not see Murshidabad as a site, only as a set of disconnected monuments,” he says.

    On his last trip, Neogi located a number of ruined and abandoned temples, each one made in similar architectural style. They were located close to each other, a little to the west of the Phuti Masjid. He believes this was once the Hindu neighbourhood in this predominantly Muslim capital. However, the lack of a map to show what Murshidabad looked like two centuries ago makes this assumption almost impossible to confirm.

    Further dangers arise from uncontrolled urban expansion and construction in the city, often within arm’s length of protected monuments. Siraj-ud-Daula Road, immediately outside the compound of the Hazarduari Palace, for instance, is choc-a-bloc with cheap hotels. Hotels like these, which often lack even basic amenities, have cropped up on almost every street in the city. Making matters worse, they are often built after demolishing older, historic structures.

    Neogi points to the re-use of old bricks, a phenomenon seen all over Murshidabad. “It is alarming how common this practice is,” he says. “This indicates that a lot of what we see in Murshidabad today – homes, shops, hotels – were all built from parts of dismantled older structures.”

    One of the principal victims of this dismantling is the city’s wall. The area within which the Hazarduari Palace is located is still known as ‘Kila Nizamat’ but this ‘kila’ or fort is missing a wall, a moat, or any kind of defensive fortifications. But stroll around the city and bastions keep popping up all over! Bereft of a context, with the wall connecting these bastions having been demolished long ago, they are all that remain of Kila Nizamat’s ‘walls’. However, portions of the wall survive on Astabal Road, as do some of the gates leading to the older mohallas or neighbourhoods.

    The Astabal or Nizamat Stables are perhaps the most glaring symbol of the neglect and apathy that plagues Murshidabad. Majumdar’s book mentions a steam-powered engine that was once used to prepare feed for the horses and a giant clock that kept time. Both are long gone. As for the stables, which once housed several hundred horses and a dozen elephants, is a shadow of its former self.

    The plaster has long disappeared and the structure is being used as a market. Heavy trucks keep arriving and departing, and the vibrations they cause weaken the already precarious structure. There are rumours that the municipality is considering demolishing the structure entirely and constructing a modern, multi-storey market in its place.

    The neglect isn’t limited to obscure monuments in the city. Across the Bhagirathi, the walls of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula and Alivardi Khan’s tombs in Khoshbag are covered in a thick layer of moss. Guides and staff working at Khoshbag say that the roof is in terrible shape. The Nizamat Imambara, the largest of its kind in India, is a major tourist attraction and yet it is also in bad shape. Local residents who have access to the interiors say the roof has sprung leaks in many places and might cave in unless urgent repairs are carried out.

    The ruins of the New Palace, which could have been a fascinating place for visitors to explore, are covered in thick, impenetrable jungle. The tomb of Nausheri Banu Begum, wife of Murshid Quli Khan, has been forgotten entirely and the rock garden behind the Hazarduari Palace, once decorated with fountains and palms, is now desolate and derelict.

    But it isn’t just the monuments that are being neglected. The intangible aspects of Murshidabad’s Nawabi culture are fading into oblivion as well. Chief among these is food. Majumdar makes a mention of a special kind of pilaf made in Murshidabad which was made using the same amount of rice and ghee, and if the chef was really good, he writes, the rice would completely absorb the ghee.

    Local resident and academic, Faruq Abdullah, has been trying to collect old recipes from members of the Nawab’s family, who still reside in the city, especially fish dishes. But unlike the Sheherwali Jain community of Murshidabad, which has managed to preserve it culinary traditions, much of Murshidabad’s Nawabi cuisine, he says, may have already been lost forever.

    But what ails this former capital? Dr Syed Mohammed Reza Ali Khan, one of the descendants of Nawab Mir Jafar, mentions two major issues. First, with the state government caring for some of the monuments and the central government overseeing some others, there is a lack of synergy and coordination. Second, the Nawabi family, now numbering well over a hundred, have a long history of family feuds and legal disputes over property ownership. This makes it impossible for large properties, often fragmented among multiple family members, to be developed or preserved.

    But the primary reason for the terrible condition of the former capital city, he says, is administrative apathy. “If writers and journalists in Calcutta are aware of the state of the monuments here, do you think the local administration does not know? Of course they know! And they are doing nothing about it,” he remarks, bitterly.

    Tourists visit Murshidabad expecting to see monuments and remains from Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula’s time. They are disappointed when they realise that most of what they see was built by Nawab Mir Jafar and his descendants, and it is perhaps the state of the Jafragunj cemetery, where Mir Jafar lies buried, that is an apt metaphor for the rest of this city.

    Elaborate and ornate stucco-covered tombs are withering away as the cemetery is taken over by vegetation, which flourishes in Bengal’s humid climate. A guide ruefully remarks, “If the government decides to take over the cemetery, it will be restored. If not, this too will decay and disappear like the rest of the city.”


    Deepanjan Ghosh is a broadcast professional from Kolkata, India. A history buff, a landscape and architecture photographer and blogger, he has has been writing about heritage since 2013.

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