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Murshidabad- A forgotten Capital with crumbling Monuments (Part 1)

I've been meaning to write about Murshidabad since Nov '19, the time when I visited this historical place.

While lethargy and procrastination dictate most of my delays, this had one other reason - the thought that what could I possibly write about Murshidabad that's not already written.... Nevertheless, here is another addition to the vast internet repository about Murshidabad. I'll be posting the stories in parts. So here comes Part 1 - about Murshidabad, Murshid Quli Khan, his daughter Azim-un-nisa, and his banker Manik Chand (Jagat Seth) in brief.

 
Background

Bengal in the 17th - 18th Century

Of the provinces which had been subject to the house of Tamerlane, the wealthiest was Bengal. No part of India possessed such natural advantages, both for agriculture and for commerce. The Ganges, rushing through a hundred channels to the sea, has formed a vast plain of rich mould which, even under the tropical sky, rivals the verdure of an English April. The rice fields yield an increase such as is elsewhere unknown. Spices, sugar, vegetable oils, are produced with marvellous exuberance. The rivers afford an inexhaustible supply of fish. The desolate islands along the seacoast, overgrown by noxious vegetation, and swarming with deer and tigers, supply the cultivated districts with abundance of salt. The great stream which fertilises the soil is, at the same time, the chief highway of Eastern commerce. On its banks, and on those of its tributary waters, are the wealthiest marts, the most splendid capitals, and the most sacred shrines of India. The tyranny of man had for ages struggled in vain against the overflowing bounty of nature. In spite of the Mussulman despot, and of the Mahratta freebooter, Bengal was known through the East as the garden of Eden, as the rich kingdom. Its population multiplied exceedingly. Distant provinces were nourished from the overflowing of its granaries; and the noble ladies of London and Paris were clothed in the delicate produce of its looms. -- Thomas Babington Macaulay, Edinburgh Review, 1840.
  • Nearly 60% of the British imports from Asia consisted of goods from Bengal.

Bengal was the wealthiest region in the Indian subcontinent, and its proto-industrial economy showed signs of driving an Industrial revolution. Bengal Subah has been variously described the "Paradise of Nations" and the "Golden Age of Bengal", due to its inhabitants' living standards and real wages, which were among the highest in the world.-- https://www.hmoob.in/wiki/Mughal_Bengal

This vast affluence of Bengal was the reason for greed and subsequent annexation of Bengal in 1757 in the Battle of Plassey by the East India Company (initially a trading company that turned conqueror), which became the first kingdom to be occupied by the British in India and allowed them in making easy inroads into the Indian Territory.


The Bengal (of the 16th to 18th century) also known as the Bengal Subah or Mughal Bengal, that we are talking about here, included the present-day states of Bangladesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

Murshidabad (originally called Makhsudabad) was the capital of this Bengal Subah from 1717 to 1790.


What happened in Bengal and at its then capital Murshidabad in the 17th & 18th centuries turned the fate of Indian history. For the first half of the 18th century, Mursidabad’s history was that of progress of the Mughal government in Bengal, while the latter half depicts the decline of the Mughal empire and the rise of the British reign through Bengal.

Photo source: Wikipedia

First, the East India Company, then nature's fury and now unplanned urbanization - all have taken a heavy toll on Murshidabad leaving rarely any of the city's priceless architectural heritage unscathed. The Bhagirathi river flowing on the western side of the city is capricious and has washed away many important landmarks including Siraj-ud-Daula's Palace and Jagat Seth's original house as it changed course numerous times over the past two centuries. In addition to this, the earthquake of 1897 has been devastating for Murshidabad as it destroyed many historical monuments like the Katra Masjid.

Moreover, very little effort is being taken to preserve the monuments and document their history. Even the bricks of the monuments are dismantled by the locals to build their own establishments, such is the apathy of the local administration. Yet these monumental ruins persuasively remind us that it was indeed the most cherished city with a rich cultural heritage, dynamism, centre of trade, and was socio-politically active.

 

A morning stroll along the banks of Bhagirathi - An old world charm

Murshid Quli Khan and Katra Masjid

Nawab Nazim Murshid Quli Khan (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki)

It was Murshid Quli Khan, the first independent nawab of Bengal, who changed the name of Makhsudabad to Murshidabad.

According to the famous historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar, Murshid Quli Khan was born a Hindu but was sold to a Persian Official at the age of ten, whence he was converted to Islam and renamed Mohammad Hadi. Mohammad Hadi went to Persia with his mentor and master and returned to India as a young man to work under a Diwan (revenue administrator) in Central India. His diligence and performance caught the notice of then Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who transferred Mohammad Hadi to Dhaka as the Diwan of Bengal subah in 1701 under the title Kartalab Khan (the seeker of challenges). Though he entered a vicious conflict with the then Bengal subahdar (Governor) and Aurangzeb's grandson Azim-us-Shan, he was honest and extremely faithful to the emperor. Hence, Aurangzeb allowed Mohammad Hadi alias Kartalab Khan to shift his dewani daftar (office) to Makhsudabad from Dhaka in 1704. By honest endeavour, Kartalab Khan managed to increase the imperial revenues. The pleased emperor thus conferred upon him valuable khilluts (literal meaning 'dress of honour'; however, it can also mean gifts viz. arms, jewels, horses, elephants, etc.) and the title of Murshid Quli Khan (the desirable one). Till Aurangzeb's death in 1707, Murshid Quli exercised the powers of Diwan, the executive functions of a district magistrate and also criminal judge over much of Bengal province.

However, he was transferred to the Deccan Plateau by Azim-us-Shan's father the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah I, after Aurangzeb's death in 1707 only to be brought back again as the Diwan of Bengal in 1710. When Farrukhsiyar (the second son of Bahadur Shah I) became the tenth Mughal emperor in 1713, Murshid Quli was appointed as the Deputy subahdar of Bengal. In 1717, Farrukhsiyar formalized the appointment of Kartalab Khan—now the nawab Murshid Quli Khan—as governor (Nazim) of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa.

Murshid Quli quickly made his mark by changing the name from Makhsudabad to Murshidabad and shifting the capital from Dhaka to Murshidabad, which would soon become the place of palaces and rapid prosperity. Murshid Quli patronized a family of Marwari Jain Oswal financiers, whom the Mughal emperor (Muhammad Shah) had awarded the title the Jagat Seths in 1722 as a hereditary distinction, who moved from far west (Nagaur in Rajasthan) to east in Bengal and settled there. Murshid Quli Khan along with his banker Manik Chand enhanced the administration for revenue in Bengal making Bengal one of the richest provinces of the Mughal Empire.


Murad Farash Khan erected Katra Masjid (also known as Jami Masjid) at Murshidabad between 1723 and 1724 under the patronage of Nawab Murshid Quli Khan. The Nawab was buried beneath the main steps leading to the upper level of Katra mosque, as per his request after his death on 30 June 1727.

Present-day Entrance to Katra Masjid. The original entrance of the mosque is, however, now on the rear side.
The left side view and back side of a part Katra Masjid that shows a destroyed minar
A painting of Katra from the Illustrated London News, 1858 AD

Built between 1723 and 1724, it is the largest Mughal mosque in Bengal and was a major centre of Islamic learning. It is now being managed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Government of West Bengal.


The whole mosque is made of bricks and has no pillars and rests on a high square platform. The four corners of the square are decorated with four octagonal minars which taper towards the top. The mosque was however destroyed in the 1897 earthquake and only two minars (at the corners of the present front entrance) stand now.


The main mosque is surrounded by double-storied domed cells for Quran readers and could accommodate 700 Quran readers within those cells. These double-storied cells form a cloister to a courtyard and the centrally located mosque within the courtyard.

The double-storied domed cells


The double-storied domed cells on the right and front and the mosque on the left

The main mosque had five domes out of which three were destroyed in the 1897 earthquake. The mosque has five entrance doors. Above the middle/main entrance door, a persion inscription is there on a basalt slab which translates as "Muhammad, the Arabian, the glory of both worlds. Dust be on the head of him who is not the dust of his portal".

The main mosque with two existing domes
The inscription above the central door of the mosque

The mosque interior is adorned with mihrabs on the opposite wall of the entrance.

Mihrab is a semi-circular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla, the direction of the Kabba in Mecca and hence the direction that Muslims should face when praying. Katra has 5 triple Mihrabs. -- https://agnijsur.wordpress.com/
The interior of the mosque with three destroyed domes and triple mihrabs on the walls of each dome
A ventilation window on one side of the mosque

There is an Arabic inscription above the central mihrab of the central dome which reads La-l-la-ha illallah… Muhammad ur-Rasool-Allah” which means “There is no god except Allah and Muhammad is his prophet”.

The Arabic inscription above the central mihrab

The mosque opens out to a courtyard which can accommodate 2000 namaz readers at a time. For this purpose, the courtyard floor has been so designed that there are designated 2000 square mats made of bricks.

The courtyard
The square brick floor mats (white outline done by the author)
The actual entrance to the mosque (white colour) which is now at the rear side..

To repent for his transgressions and to seek redemption, Murshid Quli Khan wished to be buried under the stairs so that the dust from the feet of noblemen who climbed those stairs would fall on him.

The tomb of Murshid Quli Khan which resides below the entrance stairs
The actual entrance to the mosque and the stairs under which resides the mortal remains of Murshid Quli Khan

Some lores claim that Katra Masjid was constructed with materials obtained from the destruction of various temples. However, the uniformity of the materials found in the mosque contradicts that claim. Some tales also claim that Murshid Quli Khan was a patron of local temples. A Shiva temple stands beside the mosque which supports that claim.


Tomb of Azim-un-nisa Begum

The tomb of Azimunissa Begum

Azim-un-nisa Begum or Zinat-un-nisa Begum was the daughter of Murshid Quli Khan and wife of the second Nawab of Bengal Shuja-ud-din Muhammad Khan.

The tomb site was actually a mosque which has been completely destroyed by an earthquake. There exists a controversy as to who ordered the construction of the mosque. However, the most prevalent view is that the mosque was built on Azim-un-nisa's orders. Her tomb resides under the stairs leading to the mosque (just like her father).

Lore has it that once when Begum Azim-un-nisa had fallen ill, the Hekim (Doctor) had prescribed her to take a medicine prepared from the liver of a child. The medicine was supplied to her secretly for her recovery. However, despite having recovered completely she couldn't stop taking the medicine as it had become an addiction for her. So, a lot of children were killed secretly to maintain the supply of the said medicine for Azim-un-nisa. Hence she was given the name of 'Kaleja Khaki' Begum (liver eater).

However, this brutal crime was unacceptable to her husband, Nawab Shuja-ud-din, who, in order to put a stop to the brutality of children murders, buried her alive in the said tomb.


The entrance to the mosque

The remains of the mosque
The well-maintained lawns and gardens in the mosque compound

House of Jagat Seth

Jagat Seth mansion (on the right) with the Jain Temple (on the left)

As I had mentioned earlier that Murshid Quli Khan patronized a family of bankers, the Seths and had been the one to send annual revenues to Delhi without fail. When Murshid Quli moved to Makhsudabad, Manik Chand moved with his patron. Manik Chand was effectively the chancellor of the exchequer, and supervised the collection of revenue. He presided over a banking empire with branches across Bengal in Calcutta, Dhaka, and Hugli, and in other parts of eastern India in Assam and Patna.

As the country started to grow anarchic with the changes in regime, Murshid Quli Khan used the credit networks of Manik Chand, the first Jagat Seth of the Seth family, to send the revenues to Delhi, rather than through unsafe roads.

Controlling the minting, collection and transfer of the revenues of the empire’s richest province, from their magnificent Murshidabad palace the Jagat Seths exercised influence and power that were second only to the Governor himself, and they soon came to achieve a reputation akin to that of the Rothschilds in nineteenth-century Europe. -- William Dalrymple. The Anarchy-The relentless rise of the East India Company
The Jagat Seths could make or break anyone in Bengal, including the ruler, and their political instincts were usually as sharp as their financial ones. -- William Dalrymple. The Anarchy-The relentless rise of the East India Company

The Jagat Seths were the prominent money lenders to the East India Company. It was the planning of Jagat Seths that placed Aliverdi Khan as the Nawab of Bengal in 1740. Again it was the conspiracy of the Jagat Seths that brought about the death of Siraj-ud-Daula and rise of power of the East India Company in Bengal.

The house of the Jagat Seths, complete with a secret tunnel as well as an underground chamber, where illegal trade plans were hatched, has been converted into museum. The museum houses the personal possessions of the Jagat Seths - rare plates and goblets, expensive clothes, coins of the bygone era, artifacts made out of ivory, muslin, Banarasi Sarees embroidered with gold and silver threads, and other antiques.

The temple of a Jain Tirthankara besides the main mansion provides evidence of their Jain background.


References

Disclaimer: Bri and SK (as copyrighted in the photographs) are one and the same person.



4 comentarios


Kaushal Pandey
Kaushal Pandey
04 ago 2022

Although most of the historical buildings are mark of an era which cared for the whims of one at the expense of the lives of the rest yet I'm always in awe of the architecture of the bygone times and the efforts it must have taken to build such huge monuments.


It is so painful to imagine that people these days steal bricks from these cherished historical buildings.


Very nicely written article.

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Brishti
Brishti
04 ago 2022
Contestando a

Thank you dear

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Vinita Tiwari
Vinita Tiwari
24 jul 2022

Although i am not much in to historical learnings but really nice to know all these facts.

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Brishti
Brishti
24 jul 2022
Contestando a

Ha ha..yes...Thank you for reading ♥️

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