For those fascinated by a slice of early Indo-British history, Murshidabad, a district of West Bengal, provides an ideal backdrop to savour the glorious days of the past and witness a rich treasure trove.
It was said that the British Empire in India became vulnerable to succumb every 100 years. One such moment started at the Battle of Plassey on 23 June, 1757. The British East India Company, under Colonel Robert Clive, marched with a 3,000-strong troop to Palashi on the banks of the Bhagirathi River, to be met by Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal’s army of 18,000 soldiers. Legend has it that, unknown to the Nawab, the British had forged a secret alliance with Mir Jafar, the Nawab’s Army Chief, to remain inactive during battle. Realizing the conspiracy at the battlefield, the Nawab fled and Mir Jafar was installed on the throne of Bengal as the ‘puppet’ king and the end of his rule marked the start of the British dominion over Bengal and, progressively, over almost all of South Asia.
Tales Of Yore
In Murshidabad, crossing the Bhagirathi River and meandering your way through tiny rural settlements scattered across vast paddy fields, one comes to Khushbagh, the final resting place of the last independent Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah. Known as the Garden of Happiness, it was built by the Nawab’s grandfather, Ali Vardi Khan, who is also interred here.
The serene garden cemetery is home to as many as 108 varieties of roses, which were tended by the Nawab’s wife, Lutf-un-Nisa Begum, who is also buried here. On entering, a local guide will engross you in animated tales about the Nawab and his family. He will mention that Siraj was betrayed by the local fakir at Khushbagh, who for `1,001 (a very big amount during those times), informed his whereabouts to the British and though fully masked, recognised and identified him through his royal slippers.
Towards the outer periphery of the gardencemetery, a splendid silhouette of a Masjid is visible, built by Ali Vardi Khan on the lines of Delhi’s Jama Masjid. Unfortunately, it is bolted and the guide had little idea of who had the keys!
Across the river, the Jafarganj Cemetery hosts the graves of Mir Jafar and his progeny. The small complex consists of 1,100 graves of his family members and, as a rule, no one else but the family of the erstwhile Nawab of Bengal can be buried here. Again, one is transported back in time with fascinating tales from the keepers of the graveyard who believe that Mir Jafar was not a traitor. Stopping at the grave of Munni Begum, one of the wives of Mir Jafar, our guide indicated that the local Nawab Bahadur’s School still runs on the interest of the `90 lakh given by her to the British, on the condition that education at the school should be imparted free of cost. Till this day, the school lives up to her wishes. She also built the Chowk Masjid nearby, said to be made in the bazaar where gold and silver was sold on the streets!
The architecture of the many graves with small tombstones, domes and epitaphs is fascinating, even though they may be crumbling to oblivion. At this cemetery, conflicting views on Mir Jafar and his deeds are rife. Was he a hero? Or a traitor? The true answer perhaps lies buried in those graves. The British East India Company was firmly cementing its roots in India. They were now not only a formidable trading company but were also building an army as a strategic fortification to commence their rule in the country. Siraj-ud-Daulah had been killed through conspiracy and it took them a week to loot his Hirajheel Palace on the other side of the Bhagirathi River. Under the looming shadow of the British, the puppet king now needed a court to hold their Durbar. The famous architect, Duncan McLeod of the Bengal Corps of Engineers started drawing the plans of the Hazarduari Palace, whose foundation stone was laid by Nawab Nazim Jah of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa on August 9, 1829.
At the site of the Kila Nizamat, an erstwhile fort of Murshidabad, one is now greeted by the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Hazarduari Palace that stands out on account of its sheer architectural brilliance. The two lions at the base of the sweeping staircase leading to the Palace openly reveal the British supremacy of the age as one climbs perhaps India’s longest horizontal sweep that each slab of the staircase is. The guide will point out the strategy where the Nawabs would climb diagonally to not get tired while ascending. As the name ‘hazarduari’ suggests, the Palace has 1,000 doors, out of which 900 are dummy doors. The Nawabs, having been tricked into treachery earlier, were now leaving no stone unturned to thwart a potential attack. The logic for having 1,000 doors was that a wrongdoer rushing out of the Palace would get confused and might hit a wall thinking it to be a door. In addition to this protection, many of the plates and bowls used in the premises were made of such material that they would instantly crack if any poison was detected in the food. Yet another highlight of the Palace, which has now been converted into a sprawling multi-tier museum, is the strategic placement of mirrors kept on the opposite corners of the throne. The uniqueness of these mirrors is that one cannot see their own reflection in the mirrors, however much they try but others can, thereby enhancing preparedness to capture an assailant.
Interestingly, the palace-museum is home to a collection of such mesmerising artifacts that only go on to reinforce the belief of how modern the olden times were!
In all, there are twenty galleries in the museum which house precious British, Indian and even Dutch relics, including furniture, weapons, crockery, paintings, antiques and manuscripts, among others. Among the treasures of the Palace include the dagger with which Siraj-ud-Daulah was killed, the Mir Madan Cannon, which was gifted by the Dutch to Nawab Ali Vardi Khan and the ivory palanquin belonging to Zebunissa, daughter of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, gifted to the Nawab. Among the most famous manuscripts, firmans and letters is the Ain-i-Akbari written by Abul Fazal. At the Durbar Hall, you have to look up first to gape at the magnificent chandelier that was gifted by Queen Victoria to the Nawab. Widely considered to be the second-largest in the world after the one in Buckingham Palace, the chandelier was lit by 1,001 candles during the reign of the Nawab. Equally impressive is the silver throne of the Nawab and his prized hookah,surrounded on either side by exquisitely carved marble candle stands.
On the opposite side of the Palace stands the Nizamat Imambara, a congregation hall where prayers are offered during the Islamic month of Muharram; which was built by Siraj-ud-Daulah and later re-built by Nawab Nazim Feradun Jah in the middle of the 19th century. Between the Palace and the Imambara stands the Big Ben of Murshidabad, or the Clock Tower, which had clocks facing all four sides! Another interesting artifact on the premises is the huge Bachhawali Tope, which was used only once. Why? The sound it produced on firing covered a radius of about 10 miles. The huge cannon, weighing around 8 tons required 20 kg of gunpowder for a single shelling!
Written By: Adnan Hamid