Murshidabad was the erstwhile capital of the Bengal Subah – the wealthiest province of the Mughal era. Its flourishing seventy years of opulence came to an end when the British East India Company moved the capital to Kolkata. The city gradually lost its importance. Today this historic city is lost in the crammed modern outgrowth, what remains is the silent testimonial of its predecessor’s glory and misdeed. Footlooseinme shares the story of this city built by the Nawabs of Bengal along with a pictorial Murshidabad tour.
I would like to start the story of Murshidabad from the chapter of Murshid Quli Khan in history as I take you on the Murshidabad tour. By the 17th century, the Bengal Sultanate was under the Mughal Empire. Azim-us-Shan, grandson of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was the ‘subedar’ of Bengal with his capital in Dhaka (in present-day Bangladesh.) Murshid Quli Khan was subordinate to the Diwan of Vidarbha under the Mughals. Pleased with his handling of revenue matters Aurangzeb appointed him as the Diwan of Bengal, adding to the annoyance of Azim-us-Shan.
Dhaka was then the capital of the Bengal Subah. Following an assassination attempt on Quli Khan by us-Shan, he moved his office to Mukshudabad (present-day Murshidabad) citing its advantage of being centrally located within the Bengal province. Aurangzeb transferred us-Shan from Bengal to Bihar and promoted Quli Khan as the subedar of Bengal and granted him permission to change the name of Mukshudabad to Murshidabad (after Murshid Quli Khan.) The capital of Bengal province was moved from Dhaka to Murshidabad in 1703.
The Bengal province generated the highest revenue in the Mughal court. Quli Khan continued to send the revenue in a similar manner even after the death of Aurangzeb to maintain a cordial relationship with the Mughals so that he could rule his province without any interference. In 1717, Quli Khan was appointed as the Nawab Nazim by the Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar. His area of jurisdiction increased from Oudh in the west to the border with Arakan in the east. Murshidabad began to flourish in trade and the economy got a major boost. Trade links were established with many countries. He built many buildings along with the most remarkable Katra mosque (where he was later buried after his death in 1727.)
Murshid Quli Khan was succeeded by his son-in-law Shuja-ud-Din Muhammad Khan. Shuja-ud-Din was considered the most successful Nawab of Bengal. He handled situations in a mild tactful manner and was popular among his subjects too. He handled the Mughal Emperor, Marathas, East India Company, and his ambitious Nazims with proper deft. He also dealt with the Hindu Zamindars in a liberal and kind way which in turn assured him of proper collection of revenue. Bengal reached new heights in terms of trade and economy. Various traders and bankers from different regions came and settled here.
Jagat Seth was one such name among others. The family of Jagat Seth originally belonged to Nagaur of Rajasthan. The founder was Jain Hiranand Shah who settled in Patna in 1652. In 1707, Prince Farrukhsiyar bestowed the title of Jagat Seth (meaning the merchant of the world) on Manick Chand (the descendent of Hiranand Shah) in return for the financial favours that helped him ascend the Mughal throne.
Their business increased multifold and they became the largest banking house in the country. They also hold an important position in managing the finances of the Nawabs of Bengal. They hold the monopoly of minting coins in Bengal. In 1750 the total wealth of the family was approximated to be 14 crores. Jagat Seth, Fateh Chand was the banker during the rule of Shuja-ud-Din while Alivardi Khan was the Naib Nazim.
Shuja-ud-Din fell ill and died in 1739 and was buried in Roshnibag. He was succeeded by his son Sarfaraz Khan. Soon after, Alivardi Khan, Jagat Seth, and other influential people hatched a plan and killed Sarfaraz. Alivardi became the Nawab of Bengal. Thus the Nasiri Dynasty of Nawabs came to an end and the reign of the Afshar Dynasty began. Alivardi Khan remained the Nawab of Bengal from 1740 to 1756.
Alivardi Khan, originally known as Mirza Bande or Mirza Muhammad Ali, was based in Deccan and was a distant cousin of Shuja-ud-Din from his mother’s side. Khan was employed by Shuja-ud-Din and later promoted to Naib Nazim with the title of Alivardi Khan. Later he was also entitled to Shuja ul-Mulk (Hero of the country), Hassemm ud-Daula (Sword of the state) and Mahabat Jang (Horror in War) and the rank of Paach Hazari Mansabdar (The rank holder of 5000) by Nawab Sujha-ud-Din.
After seizing power he legitimised his position with the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah. A significant part of his reign was engaged in conflict with the Marathas under Raghuji Bhonsle. Bengal province was repeatedly ravaged by the Marathas in 1742. In 1747 a large force of Marathas continuing their rampage and plunder in Orrisa were marching towards Bengal. The then Subedar of Bengal, Mir Jafar (nephew of Begum Sharfunnisa the wife of Alivardi Khan) withdrew his troops and remained silent waiting for the arrival of Alivardi along with his forces. This act enraged Alivardi and he discharged Jafar from his service and shamed him.
Alivadi’s men even with the help of the Mughals could not stand the marauding army of the Marathas. Finally, in 1751, Orrisa was conceded to the Marathas and a peace treaty was signed between the Mughal emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur, Alivardi and Raghoji. More than half of the period of Alivardi’s reign was engaged in fighting the Marathas, the peace treaty gave him the opportunity to focus on building various monuments in his capital and restoring Bengal.
He maintained a neutral policy towards the East Indian companies trading in Bengal so that there was no unrest among the European powers in his territory. Alivardi Khan died in 1756 and was succeeded by his grandson Siraj-ud-Daula, from his youngest daughter Amina Begum. This act of succession enraged Mehrunnesa (better known as Ghaseti Begum) the childless eldest daughter of Alivardi. She wanted Shaukat Jung, the son of her second sister Maimuna Begum to succeed Khan. She possessed immense wealth and held a compelling position in the court.
Mirza Muhammad Siraj-ud-Daula became the Nawab of Bengal in 1756, at the age of 23 after the death of his maternal grandfather. Siraj was the son of Alivardi’s youngest daughter Amina Begum and Mirza Muhammad Hashim, the youngest son of Haji Ahmad (the elder brother of Alivardi Khan). Siraj was the favourite among all his grandchildren and was considered a fortunate child.
Siraj was often criticised for his defects in character and his philanders. After he ascended to the throne, his maternal aunt Ghaseti Begum, the dismissed Mir Jafar, Jagat Seth Mehtab Chand and Shaukat Jung out of jealousy tried to conspire against him. Aware of their misdemeanour, Siraj seized her wealth and removed Mir Jafar and Shaukat Jung from their positions. Meanwhile, the British East India Company was making Calcutta their stronghold increasing their influence on the Indian Subcontinent.
Siraj was unhappy with the moves of the Company. The British strengthened the fortification of Fort William without his permission. They abused the trade rites that they enjoyed leading to a huge loss of revenue. They also sheltered some of the ousted officials from Siraj’s court with the intention of conspiring against him. Siraj captured Calcutta for a short while. The British sent a huge force from Madras to recapture Fort William and force the Nawab to retreat.
Siraj was under the threat of attack from the north by the Afghans under Ahmad Shah Durrani and from the west by the Marathas so he could not engage his entire force against the British. The retreating Nawab and his troops met the British at Plassey and hence the historic Battle of Plassey was fought in 1757. This battle marked the beginning of a new era in the history of the Indian Subcontinent – the start of British rule in India. In the battle, many of his men along with Mir Jafar and Jagat Seth conspired against him leading to his defeat.
This was the end of an era of independent Nawab of Bengal. Siraj-ud-Daula was captured and killed by Mir Miran, son of Mir Jafar in Namak Haram Deorhi as part of the agreement between Mir Jafar and the British East India Company on 2nd July 1757. Mir Jafar betrayed Siraj-ud-Daula and earned the name of a great traitor in history. Hence his family was known as the family of traitors. He became the puppet Nawab of Bengal under the British East India Company.
Mir Jafar entered into a secret treaty with the Dutch East India Company. The British replaced Mir Jafar with his son-in-law Mir Qasim in 1760. He turned into a popular ruler and seemed threatening to the British. Mir Jafar was reinstalled as the Nawab in 1763 while Mir Qasim, Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula of Awadh and Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II went into war with the British. Mir Qasim and his allies were finally defeated at the Battle of Buxar in 1764.
In 1765, Robert Clive secured the Diwani of Bengal presidency from the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II and became the Governor of Bengal. In 1772, the system of dual governance and the concept of Bengal presidency was abolished and Bengal came under the direct control of the British. Along with it, the Nizamat of the Nawabs were also taken away and they remained as mere pensioners of the Company.
This is when the famous Hazarduari Palace (which is now the most important attraction while on Murshidabad tour) was built as the residence of the pensioned Nawabs in 1880. It was also used by British officials. Nawab Mansur Ali Khan was the last Nawab of Murshidabad. He was severely debt-ridden and so was the plight of the city which was once bustling in its opulence. All the offices and the power were moved to Calcutta and the family of the Nawabs remained as mere zamindars.
On my recent visit to Murshidabad, I found the city just like any other busy small city in India. The narrow roads through the localities and mango orchards lead to the massive monuments of the past, a few of which are maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India while the rest are held privately. The most iconic and famous monument of Murshidabad is the Hazarduari complex. Its name is almost synonymous with the city, though it is more recent in the period of construction than its predecessors.
Hazarduari Palace (which means a palace with a thousand doors) was built by Nawab Nazim Humayun Jah during 1824-1838. It was built on the site where the old small fort called Kila Nizamat was located. Of the thousand doors the palace has, 100 of them are fake to confuse the miscreants so that by the time they figure out the original door they are captured by Nawab’s men.
The large Hazarduari Complex comprises other historical monuments like the Nizamat Imambara, Madina Mosque, Clock Tower, Chawk Masjid, Zurud Mosque, Shia Complex and the Bacchawali Tope. (So while on the Murshidabad tour, you can tick off many places on your list by visiting the Hazarduari Complex.) Nizamat Imamabara is considered the biggest Imambara in India. It was originally built by Siraj-ud-Daula in 1740 AD. The Imambara was partially destroyed in a fire incident in 1846 and was completely destroyed in another fire in 1846. It was rebuilt in 1847 by Nawab Nazim Mansur Ali Khan, the last Nawab of Bengal.
I started my Murshidabad tour from the Hazarduari complex, next, I went to the Katra Mosque, where lies the tomb of the founder of Murshidabad. It was built during 1723-1724 as a caravanserai and mosque. It is one of the largest caravanserais in the Indian Subcontinent and was built for traders as Murshidabad was the centre of trade in Bengal. In his old age, Murshid Quli Khan wanted to have his tomb near the Katra mosque and hence he was buried under the stairs of Karta mosque.
Then there was the ruin of the Footi or the Fauti mosque. This ill-fated mosque was built by Nawab Sarfaraz Khan in 1740. Just before the completion of this mosque, he was killed by Murshid Quli Khan and thus bringing an end to the construction and eventual dilapidation. As the Nawab attained ‘Faut’ (meaning death in Urdu) in the battle, this mosque came to be known as Fauti Mosque. No prayer (Nawaaj) was ever held in this mosque. This unmaintained monument may crumble down on any fateful day.
My next destination on the Murshidabad tour was the Tomb of Azimunissa Begum. She was the daughter of Murshid Quli Khan and the wife of the second Nawab, Shuja-ud-Din Muhammad Khan. There used to be a mosque at the site which was washed away by the flooding waters of Bhagirathi. The ruins of the mosque remain on the site along with the burial of the begum under the stairs of the mosque.
There is an interesting folklore associated with the begum, though the truthfulness behind it is unknown. It is said that Begum fell ill with some mysterious incurable disease. Hakim prescribed her to have the liver of the children. Surprisingly she got cured but developed a habit of consuming the livers of children. This led her to slaughter the children and eat their livers. Enraged by her murderous, inhuman habit her husband, Shuja-ud-Din, buried her alive under the stairs of this mosque and it came to be known as ‘Kalija Begum er kabar’ (burial of the liver Begum).
Then, I visited the privately maintained properties of the eminent personnel of Murshidabad. The Nashipur Rajbari was the palace built by Raja Kirti Chandra Singha Bahadur in 1865 beside the old one, which was built by Raja Debi Singha and is in ruins now. He worked as a Revenue collector under the British Raj in the Nawab era. The next stop was the famous and much crowded House of Jagat Seth. With a secret tunnel, this mansion and the compound are now preserved as a museum. The displays include personal possessions of the Jagat Seth family, ancient coins, muslins, silks and expensive embroidered sarees.
The Jafarganj cemetery and the ‘Namak Haram Deorhi’ are situated opposite one another. Namak Haram Deorhi was the palace of Mir Jafar who is better known as the traitor. His palace was later known as ‘Namak Haram Deorhi’ (Traitor’s Gate). It was because of Mir Jazafar’s guileful pact with the British that helped them to capture the East of India very easily. The Jafarganj cemetery was the palace’s kitchen garden which was converted into a graveyard by Mir Jafar. This became the cemetery of the Nawabs with Mir Jafar and his descendants of the Nazafi dynasty being buried there.
Then the final destination in Jiaganj (the Eastern side of River Bhagirathi) on my Murshidabad tour was the Kathgola Palace situated within a vast compound within the mango orchard. Murshidabad was a flourishing place during the 19th century and many traders settled here. They were mostly the Marwari Jain traders which included the Jagat Seth, the Dugars, the Dudhorias, the Nahars, the Kotharis and the Nowlakhas. The magnificent, huge Kathgola Palace and Garden was built by Dhanpat Singh Dugar and Lakshmipat Singh Dugar in 1873.
I ended my Jiaganj episode here returning back to Azimganj, the other side of the river. This post has already become long enough so I will cover my remaining story of my Murshidabad tour in my next post.