Murshidabad’s Temple with a Maratha Connection

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    Murshidabad is one of the most popular tourist destinations in West Bengal. However, most visitors to the city are there for its Nawabi heritage and its Islamic culture and architecture. Beyond the obvious in Murshidabad, many little gems are missed, none more so than a curious little temple which may contain the only Marathi inscription in all of West Bengal.

    The little Shiva temple is located adjacent to the tomb of Nawab Shuja-ud-Deen Mohammed Khan, in Roshni Bagh, on the western bank of the Bhagirathi River, opposite the modern city of Murshidabad. While Khosh Bagh, which contains the tombs of Nawabs Alivardi Khan and Siraj-ud-Daula receive many visitors, Roshni Bagh itself receives few. Shuja-ud-Deen Mohammed Khan was the successor and son-in-law of Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, after whom the city of Murshidabad is named, and Roshni Bagh was a pleasure garden built for the Nawab, who was also buried here as well.

    Outside the north-eastern corner of the garden, there is a small temple marked as the ‘Ekalinga Shiva Temple’ on Google Maps. The temple is perfectly ordinary for Murshidabad, although it might seem unique to outsiders. It consists of a small, square room, topped by a bulbous dome, with four small minarets at each corner. Temple-building in Murshidabad, especially from the 17th century onwards, was heavily influenced by mosque architecture, which has given the temples of the area this rather unique appearance.

    The entrance to the temple is from the south, through an Islamic-influenced scalloped arch flanked by ornamental columns. Beyond the arch is a tiny, covered porch and a small, rectangular door which opens into the sanctum sanctorum, which contains in its centre a stone phallus or Lingam representing the Hindu deity Shiva. Multiple large, round stones on either side of the Lingam also appear to be worshipped since they are smeared with vermillion and covered in flowers.

    Things start getting interesting when one approaches the temple and looks above the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum. Here, fixed on the wall is a black stone tablet, possibly made of granite, which contains an inscription that appears to be Hindi at first glance. Closer study reveals that the inscription is, in fact, in Marathi. While a part of the inscription is obscured by paint, historian and native Marathi speaker Pushkar Sohoni translates the inscription thus:

    1 śrī gaṇesāyanamaḥ

    2 śrī saṇ va ta 1873

    3 phāguna vadī 14 ranganā

    4 theśvara mahādeva sthāpita

    5 ranganātha paṇḍita mahārāṣṭra

    6 munshi adhikāra sadara [xx]

    7 [x] ra kampanī varhāḍa [xxx]

    The inscription begins with salutations to the elephant-headed Hindu deity, Lord Ganesha, whose worship is most closely associated with Maharashtra and the Marathi-speaking people. Two details become immediately clear from the above translation. First, that the temple is named ‘Ranganatheswara Mahadeva’ Temple, and second, that it was founded by a certain ‘Ranganatha Pundit’.

    The naming follows the usual Shaiviite convention one finds even in the Hoysala temples of Karnataka. The suffix ‘eswara’, meaning ‘Lord of’, is added to the name of the founder or the region the temple is located in. The inscription also reveals that Ranganatha Pundit was a ‘munshi’ (a clerk or similar administrative post) and given that the word ‘company’ is included, it would not be unreasonable to suppose that he was employed by the East India Company.

    British presence in Murshidabad, even after the Battle of Plassey (1757), would have been significant. There was a factory or trading post in Cossimbazar, only about 11 km away, and Murshidabad was a major centre of silk production and ivory carving. Sohoni is quick to point out that “The [va] in sanvata in the second line is added above the [ta]. If it is Vikram Samvat, then the date would be approximately March 1817”.

    Murshidabad was also on one of the four major postal routes of the time. Mail from Calcutta to Patna was routed through Murshidabad. The distance of 398 miles was broken up into 48 stages, each stage being a distance of 8 to 9 miles. To each stage was appointed 3 harcaras, 1 lamp bearer to show the way at night, and 1 drummer to scare away wild beasts on the jungles through which mail ‘runners’ often passed.

    Among the 48 stages, there were 4 capital stages – at Murshidabad, Rajmahal, Monghyr and Patna. Each capital stage also had in addition to the usual retinue, a munshi and two timekeepers, who kept a record of when mail arrived and left. So, Ranganatha Pundit could well have been a ‘daak’ or postal munshi as well.

    An additional marble plaque to the right of the door of the sanctum sanctorum mentions that the temple had been repaired in 1414 as per the Bengali calendar, which would mean around 2007 CE. The plaque mentions Hotel Sagnik and credits owner Ashish Kumar Rakshit sponsoring the repairs. But the real question is, what was a Marathi munshi doing deep in Bengal in the early 19th century?

    It was not unheard of for people to migrate great distances even for work which, by the standards of the time, would have been classified as white collar. The Malda silk factory employed, for instance, a munshi by the name of Ghulam Hussayn Salim, who came from the principality of Oudh. Salim would later become famous as the author of the Persian-language history book Riyaz-us-Salatin, which details Muslim rule in the Bengal region. Likewise, Ranganatha Pundit too may have migrated to Murshidabad in search of work.

    There is also another explanation for his presence in the city – the ‘Borgi’ invasions. Around 1742, Bhaskar Pundit headed a large Maratha light cavalry unit which invaded Bengal through Panchet. They were ostensibly there to aid Rustam Jung, the Naib Nazim of Odisha, who had been unseated by Alivardi Khan, the new Nawab of Bengal. But, spurred on by turncoats such as Mir Habib, a courtier from Cuttack who crossed over to the Maratha side, the Maratha presence in Bengal would continue for a decade.

    Bhaskar himself would be assassinated by Alivardi Khan at a peace meeting, but that did not end the war. Hostilities finally came to a close only in 1751, upon payment of ‘chauth’ (an annual tax or tribute, levied at 25% on revenue or produce) and the de-facto handing over of Odisha to Maratha control. The Maratha light cavalry units had first developed their guerrilla warfare techniques under a former African slave named Malik Ambar, a powerful, 17th century military commander in the Deccan. Ambar had named this new form of ‘bargeer-giri’, from which the Bengali word ‘borgi’ originates. The Borgis are still remembered in a very popular Bengali lullaby.

    'Borgi' Lullaby

    Khoka ghumalo, paada judaalo, bargi elo deshe,
    Bulbulite dhaan kheyechhe, khaajnaa debo kishe?
    Dhaan phurolo, paan phurolo, khaajnaar opay ki?
    Aar kotaa din shobur koro, roshoon boonechhi

    English Translation

    When the children fall asleep, and all is quiet, the Borgi raid our land.
    But the bulbuls have eaten all the grain, what shall I pay them?
    There is no grain, there are no paan leaves, so what is the option?
    Wait a few days. I have sown garlic.

    There are those in Bengal who still claim descent from the Borgis. There is, for example, the zamindar family of Itachuna, whose palace was seen in the Ranveer Singh-film Lootera. There is also mention of a Maratha presence in Murshidabad in the book Musnud of Murshidabad (1904) written by Purna Chandra Mazumdar. Mazumdar mentions that there was a family of Marathi pundits (priests) living in the city during Alivardi Khan’s time.

    He also mentions an incident that occurred on the morning of 4th February, 1743. That morning, a Marathi-speaking priest by the name of Ram Chand Pundit seems to have passed away. His widow, then aged only 17, chose to commit sati by burning herself on her husband’s pyre. Lady Russell, wife of Sir Francis Russell, chief of the British East India Company factory at nearby Cossimbazar, apparently tried her best to persuade the teenager not to kill herself. But she failed, and her self-immolation was witnessed by Holwell, who would later go on to survive the Black Hole of Calcutta.

    The spot where the incident occurred came to be known as ‘Sati Chowraha’. A temple was built to commemorate the incident, although by the early 20th century, the temple was in bad shape. Mazumdar writes that the stone door-frame and commemorative slab had been removed by the time he published his book. Locals speak of a flood some time ago, which completely cut off the Sati Chowraha crossing and today it is impossible to pinpoint the location where the temple once stood.

    Mazumdar’s book remains the only comprehensive study of Murshidabad’s monuments to date. He had also studied the inscription on the Ranganatheswara Temple at Roshni Bagh and in his translation, he adds a line that is not visible today. At the end of the inscription, there was an additional line, which dated the temple to ‘Maha Falgun San 1226 Bangala’. The fact that the temple date was written in both Vikram Samvat as well as according to the Bengali calendar may indicate that Ranganatha Pundit had integrated into the Bengali society that he lived in.

    Murshidabad is home to various communities who had migrated to Bengal from other parts of India, such as the Afghan Pathans who settled in the region ages ago. Many of these communities have retained their identities and speak in languages and dialects that are incomprehensible to the average Bengali.

    However, the Maratha presence in the city seems to have disappeared entirely, in a little over two centuries. The Ranganatheswara Temple is its one standing reminder.


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

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