Murshidabad, situated on the idyllic banks of river Bhagirathi, is an amazing historic city of echoes, tales and the splendours of the Mughal era in Bengal. I boarded the Hazarduari express from Chitpur station in the early hours of March 26 and reached the Murshidabad station at around noon. It was a bright, shiny day with humid weather. Our train came to a halt in a small municipality station and I was awed to see a fleet of horse driven and paddled rickshaws through a flock of tourist guides. I quietly walked past and boarded a rickshaw for the Manjusha hotel, close by to the Hazarduwari palace vicinity.
My garrulous rickshaw puller kept on narrating historical happenings. The city, in contrast to the rickshaw puller’s exuberance, seemed rather sleepy. My 20-minute journey followed by four more rickshaw journeys exposed a city full of potential for heritage tourism. The main road leads to a number of alleyways and cul-de-sacs to your left and right, and all of these alleys house centuries-old ruined buildings, mosques, palatial residences, gates, entrances and facades. Unlike Calcutta’s haughty colonial history, it symbolises the classical elegance of the Nabobs of Bengal throughout the last chapters of Mughal dynasty. Chatty, Murshidabadians are fond of adding their own colours to their history, often unwittingly. What is interesting is that I found most of the city dwellers living a life in the glorious past while the solemn dereliction of the present stared at them.
Late March is a part of the off season for tourists (according to local guides). It was quite easy to book a room with hotel Manjusha, located barely 50 yards from the Hazarduwari vicinity over the banks of the river Bhagirathi. The river was dappled with sun light as I glanced at it from my balcony. After a quick lunch at my hotel, I decided to take a stroll by the narrow street leading towards the outstandingly built Hazarduwary palace on its left. It was around half past two in the afternoon and there I was under the sun-baked afternoon, strolling lazily, taking impatient and awe struck peeps on both sides of the street. Under the glaring sun, the street was empty except for some stray dogs resting lazily. I gently held the railings of the palace boundary and spotted a group of westerners trailed by local photographers for some snaps. Surrounded by history, it’s natural to go back in time, and in Murshidabad the date in history that barrages the mind is 1757.
Here I was, standing while my country was celebrating its 41st independence anniversary, mulling over the events that led to our defeat of the British.
Hazarduwari Palace (Palace of a thousand doors)
The palace was constructed in 1837 following the designs of General Duncan McLeod of Bengal Engineers’ at the request of then the Nawab of Murshidabad, Najim Humayun Jah.
The 3-storied rectangular structure stands amidst a garden stretched over 41 acres and is a model of architecture following the Italian-style. There are 114 rooms with colonnaded facades, galleries, ornate and high windows, and a domed tower, as well as many more characteristics that glorify the Nawab’s durbar. The ground floor and first floor of this museum has a collection of several artefacts including horse driven carriages at the entrance; Phaeton cars; 17th, 18th and 19th century weaponries; oil paintings; teak and ivory furnishings; marble statues; chandeliers; stuffed animals; fossils and other items recalling generations of the Nawabs. The museum collection is spread out through the entrance hall, rooms, galleries, passages, corridors, staircases, etc.
An encounter with a self-proclaimed Nawab
My incessant desire for the unexpected and unseen materialised that very evening when, by a sheer twist of fate, I met Syed Reza Ali Mirza - alias Chote Nawab of Murshidabad - at the very doorstep of Jafarganj Palace. He is a grandson of Syed Wasif Ali Mirza, the late Nawab and also a direct descendent of Mir Zafar.
He descends from a blood line that is neither forgiven nor forgotten. I was briefed in advance about his hospitable manners in a superlative degree by the owner of my hotel, but an appointment could not be fixed. He stood about five feet in height with slender features, a bright mid-eastern complexion, a pair of piercing eyes and a head full of brown hair. Wearing a half sleeve-shirt and a pair of trousers with flip-flops, his age could be anywhere between 50 and 65. The Chote Nawab spoke in a mix of English and Hindi, and lived with his family in the northern wing of the expanded roof of the Jafarganj palace; this may sound exotic but most of the palace is either deserted or in ruins. The staircase to his quarters ascends from the frontage of the Ghantaghar, a dome like structure housing a huge bell. It was once used for declarations of occasions and events.
The Nawabs of Murshidabad represent the former ruling house of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. They ceased exercising any effective authority when Lord Clive secured the Diwani (Lease and Control) of these provinces for the British East India Company from the Mughal emperor Shah Alam the second in 1765. Thereafter the Nawab nazims enjoyed their titles, privileges, stipend and allowances by the grace of the British. They had little or no say in the collection of revenues or their expenditure and ceased to control any administrative, legal or military forces.
Summing up the city
This is a city where history is ubiquitous. Here, the air smells thin and at times rusty from ages gone by. Its people are delectably polite in their manners. It is a half awake and half sleepy city like a silhouette of a massive tapestry. A tapestry weaved from pulsating threads of palace politics, treason, intrigue, foreign invaders, glorified facades, thespian characters and ruins with profundity.
If you are a Bengali and want to look through your past and seek out knowledge then this is your city. In Calcutta, I felt history walking up to me while I strolled through its streets, but here history took me on a stroll.