In Search of the Lost Palace of Siraj-ud-Daulah
Siraj-ud-Daulah has sadly been immortalised in history as the tragic Nawab who lost the Battle of Plassey in 1757, paving the way for the British conquest of India. Interestingly, when you visit the old Nawabi capital of Murshidabad, you see a number of beautiful and historic buildings but little or no trace of any built by Siraj-ud-Daulah. This is not surprising, considering the monuments you see were built by the successors of the very man who betrayed him, his commander-in-chief Mir Jafar.
The only two things associated with Siraj that still survive in Murshidabad are the Medina which once stood at the centre of Siraj’s Imambara, and his tomb in Khoshbagh.
The one thing you expect to see when it comes to a famous ruler is the remains of his palace. Sadly, Siraj’s palace and the fabled Hira Jheel or pleasure garden are said to have been lost to the appetite of the Bhagirathi River. Is there absolutely no trace of his palace? As it turns out, there is, but only if you look really hard.
While Siraj is hailed as ‘Banglar Shesh Shadheen Nawab’ (the last independent Nawab of Bengal) by Bengalis today, contemporary accounts of him are far from flattering. Contemporary Muslim historian Ghulam Husain Tabatabai wrote in his Siyar-ul-Mutakherin, “He made the houses of men and women of distinction the scenes of his profligacy, without minding either rank or station. In a little time, he became as detested as Pharao. People on meeting him by chance used to say, God save us from him.”
Ghulam Hussain Salim wrote in his Riyaz-us-Salatin, “Whoever went to wait on Siraj-ud-daulah despaired of life and honour, and whoever returned without being disgraced and ill-treated offered thanks to God.” Even the Frenchman, Jean Law, wrote, “This thoughtless young man had no real talent for government. He ruled only by inspiring fear.” Three days after Siraj was born, his grandfather Alivardi Khan was offered the deputy governorship of Bihar. Alivardi thus came to regard Siraj as a lucky child. Siraj was raised by his grandfather in Murshidabad and was by all accounts a “spoilt brat”.
But while there are many accounts of the man, descriptions of his palace are few and far between. For that, we must depend on the only comprehensive book on the monuments of Murshidabad – Purna Chandra Mazumdar’s The Musnud of Murshidabad (1904). Mazumdar writes that Siraj had two large structures built on the banks of the Bhagirathi, directly opposite the Jafragunj Palace, which was the home of Mir Jafar and his family. One was Hira Jheel, or Lake of Diamonds, a pleasure garden surrounded by an artificial water body. The second was a large palace known as Mansurgunj Palace. Inside the palace complex stood the Emtazmahal, which was apparently large enough to accommodate three European monarchs.
There are almost no other contemporary descriptions of the palace in the public domain, except for one small detail – the stone used for the construction and ornamentation of Mansurganj Palace was sourced from the ruins of Gauda or Gaur, Bengal’s ancient and abandoned capital city. One European account speaks of black stone arches that had been brought from Gauda.
While Mazumdar does not cite the source of his assertions, he does provide an interesting story relating to the construction of Siraj’s palace. Apparently, when construction of the palace was almost complete, Siraj invited his grandfather Alivardi Khan, then the Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, to see the place. When Alivardi arrived, he was warmly welcomed by Siraj, who offered to take him on a tour of the palace. As the two were strolling on the property, Siraj tricked his grandfather into stepping into a room which he then locked from the outside. Siraj told the trapped Nawab that he would only let him out if he provided for the upkeep of the palace.
Alivardi, not wanting to disappoint his favourite grandchild, promised to set up a market, the tax raised from which would provide for the palace’s maintenance. The market still existed when Mazumdar’s book was published and the tax raised by it, a little over Rs 5 lakh annually, came to be known as the “Nazrana Mansurganj”.
But how did this massive palace disappear? British-era publications such as the District Gazetteers all say that the palace was “cut away by the river”. The river in question is the Bhagirathi, which is known to have changed its course frequently in the past. Changes in the Bhagirathi’s course are also said to have been responsible for the destruction of the original house of the banker, Jagat Seth. But how true are these claims?
Archaeologist Dr Tathagata Neogi, founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta, decided to scan the Murshidabad landscape using sophisticated satellite imagery, which can see what the human eye can’t. Through this, Neogi confirms that the story of the river changing course is indeed true. The Geographical Information System or GIS satellite image shows a scarred landscape, filled with dozens of lines. Each of these lines, Neogi says, represents a course of the river.
Another reason for the disappearance of the palace was its location. Neogi says that most of what was Murshidabad city back in the day would have been part of Bhagirathi’s flood plain. In an era without dams, floods would have been an annual occurrence. The fact that most of the surviving monuments in Murshidabad are located on elevated ground is no coincidence, he points out.
Siraj, however, had chosen the site of his Mansurganj Palace to keep it away from the prying eyes of his family. In doing so, he unfortunately chose one of the lowest areas in Murshidabad. This meant that in the event of a flood, the palace would have been completely inundated. Repeated dunkings in flood waters must have weakened the structure, leading to its eventual collapse. However, it has not been possible to find a specific date when the palace was ruined.
But while Mansurganj Palace and Hira Jheel pleasure garden do not feature on tourist maps, it is still possible to find these sites, thanks to villagers, who are aware of the location. For those using Google Maps, the coordinates 24°12'03.2"N 88°15'23.5"E will be helpful. While the area is primarily agricultural fields at present, parts of the field appear to be slightly elevated. Closer inspection reveals that the edges of these elevated plots are framed by old bricks. These lines of bricks are remnants of Mansurganj Palace’s walls and foundations.
A path leads away from the fields and along the river bank. As you follow the path, large chunks of masonry become visible. Some of it overhangs the river, while other chunks peep out of the river itself. These appear to be parts of the palace floor. Along the path, you can find the top of a brick arch. In 1904, Mazumdar had mentioned that all that could be seen of the palace were its pipes and drainage system. This arch appears to be the top of one such drainage channel.
There have been no major, known attempts to excavate the site of the palace or even place markers to make people aware of its existence. Unless you know the local language and have good people skills, finding the site may be an impossible challenge.
The loss of the Mansurganj Palace is a tragedy since it is the site of multiple historic events. It was at Mansurganj that Siraj took refuge after his loss in Plassey. It was from this palace that he attempted to flee in a boat, with his valuables and his favourite wife Lutfunnisa. But, most importantly, it was at Mansurganj Palace that Mir Jafar was crowned.
After the loss at Plassey, and barely six hours after Siraj had fled his capital, Mir Jafar entered the city of Murshidabad. From 24th June 1757 he took up residence in the Mansurganj Palace. On the day of his coronation, the stone throne used by the Nawabs of Bengal (now inside the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata) was placed at the northern end of the largest hall of public audience in Mansurganj. Robert Clive led the hesitant Mir Jafar by the hand and placed him on the throne. After this, he presented the new Nawab with a nazrana of gold mohurs and told his audience that it was fortunate for the country that in place of a tyrant, they had found a good ruler.
Mazumdar’s book also mentions vast treasures stored in Mansurganj Palace. The outer treasury, Mazumdar writes, contained 176,000 rupees in silver, 230,000 rupees in gold, four chests of jewellery, two chests of gold ingots and two chests of loose gems. The inner treasury contained another 8 million sterling. Much of these treasures were placed on barges and immediately shipped to the East India Company stronghold of Kolkata.
Murshidabad today is a shadow of its former self. Visitors find only a set of disconnected monuments, but there is no one to tell them the stories that connect these monuments to one another. As Dr. Neogi says, we have failed Murshidabad as a site, and have therefore failed to attempt a reconstruction of the capital as it was in its heyday. Even marking the location of Mansurganj Palace along with other monuments now considered to be lost would go a long way in telling that complete story.