Murshidabad is rich in history. It was founded by Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, who reigned over Subha Bengal (today’s Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha). Though there is uncertainity about his origins, one version has it that he was born in a poor Brahmin family in the Deccan, was sold as a slave and converted to Islam. He rose to become Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, a title bestowed on him by Emperor Aurangazeb whom he helped financially. In 1717 he shifted his capital from Dacca (present-day Dhaka in Bangladesh) to a place on the eastern bank of the River Bhagirathi and named it Murshidabad.
This historic city was the capital of undivided Bengal until Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah was defeated by the British at Plassey, 30 miles south of Murshidabad, in 1757. An able administrator, he built the famous Katra Masjid. The mosque was located near a huge market or katra, hence the name. The mosque has imposing domes that resemble the ones in the famous mosque at Kabah. The mosque has two impressive minarets, each having 67 steps. Under the staircase leading into the mosque lies the tomb of the nawab, he believed that each visitor’s footsteps would give his soul some succor. At a stone’s throw, lies the famous Jahankosa (destroyer of the world) cannon. The 7,600 kg iron monster was brought by Murshid Quli Khan from Dhaka. It needed 17 kg gunpowder for a single shot. It is awe one feels when looking at the cold ruthless steel that has been standing within the top khana (armoury) for ages. Next, in the list of historical places comes a less publicised structure called the Footi Masjid, built in a single night by Nawab Sarfaraz Khan, the grandson of Murshid Quli Khan. Sarfaraz was dethroned by Nawab Alivardi Khan, a descendant of Nadir Shah of Iran and founder of the Afshar dynasty. Alivardi had no sons, so he married his three daughters to his three nephews. the eldest Ghaseti Begum was married to Nawazish Mohammad Khan, who was the main administrator. They had no children. The son of Alivardi’s youngest daughter, Siraj, was the apple of his eye. Consequently, he declared him to be his successor. This enraged Ghaseti who conspired to get rid of Siraj. She was instrumental in the demise of Siraj ud-Daulah and indirectly handed over the reins of power of the last free region in India to the British. The conspiracy was hatched in her palace at Moti Jheel, a horseshoe-shaped lake excavated by Nawazish. Though the historical palace, where Robert Clive celebrated his victory and which later was home to Warren Hastings, doesn’t exist today, the tombs of Nawazish and his foster son Ekram ud-Daula, in an adjacent mosque, called Kalla Masjid,can be seen.
Siraj, to mark his ascent to the throne of Subha Bengal, built a mosque, a replica of Hazarat Mohammad’s tomb at Madina. It is said that to fulfill his mother Amina’s wish, he went to Madina to bring back its holy soil for this mosque. He also built a wooden imambara, which was gutted in 1846. Ferdun Jah, the last nawab of Bengal rebuilt it in 1847 at the same place by spending Rs. 7 lakh. At one side of Madina Masjid, stands the imambara while opposite it stands the magnificent Hazarduari Palace, or palace of a thousand doors, which was built by Nawab Nazim Humayun Jah in 1837. In front of the masjid, one can take a look at the Bachhawali tope – an 18 ft cannon forged by Janardan Karmakar in 1687 weighing slightly less than 7,700 kg.
The last remains of Siraj, his wife Lutfunnisa and his grandfather Nawab Alivardi Khan are buried in Khoshbagh on the opposite bank of the river Bhagirati. Presently this place is in a dilapidated state. The tour will remain incomplete without a visit to Hazarduari Palace, the three-storied building is an example of Indo-European architecture, and contains galleries exhibiting 2,600 arms, exquisite portraits and paintings, priceless manuscripts and vintage cars. Nawab Nazim Humayun Jah laid the foundation stone of this palace in 1829 in the presence of then Governor- General William Bentinck. He spent close to Rs 18 lakhs to build this mansion, which was completed in 1837. The Royal library containing rare collections is not accessible to the public unless special permission is obtained. Abul Fazal’s Ain i Akbari and Haroon al Rashid’s Quran can be seen over here. More than 2,000 different arms of yesteryear are on display over here. Those used by the nawabs or used in the battle of Plassey can be seen. The one with which Siraj was murdered lies as a testimony of betrayal in a casket. The art gallery on the first and second floor is also worth a mention, here one can see oil paintings of the nawabs and the British generals by European artists.
The Hazarduari Museum is open on all days except Friday and on the second Wednesday of the month. There are numerous other places of interest like Wasef Manzil, Kathgola, the palace of Raja Laxmipat Singh Dugar and the Pareshnath temple. The town is also famous for ivory and wood craft industry which dates back to the time when the Nawabs had their court at Murshidabad. The shola crafts of Murshidabad are famous. Decorative headdresses of gods and goddesses, exquisite figurines, elephant- howdahs, peacock-boats and palanquins are some of the products made here. Bell-metal and brass utensils are manufactured in large quantities at Khagra, Berhampore, Kandi, Baranagar and Jangipur.
Where to stay
Hotel Manjusha sits on the banks of the Bhagirathi, behind the Great Imambara (Tariff 200- 400); Tel: 03482- 270321
In Berhampur, try the White House (Tariff 300-625); Tel: 03482-255443
Murshidabad lies on the banks of the Bhagirathi, 14 km from Berhampur and 225 km from Kolkata. By rail: The nearest railway station is Berhampur Court. By road: It’s a straight five hours drive from Kolkata down NH 34.
About the author
Manavi Kapur loves lazy holidays, a good read and lots and lots of food. You can contact her at @manavikapur.