Volume 65 Number 2, December 2013
Murshidabad: Forgotten Capital of Bengal
|Specifications:||136 pages, 132 illustrations|
|Dimensions:||305 x 241 mm|
Very little has been published on Murshidabad, the last independent capital of Bengal, while the British capital of Calcutta has been the subject of numerous books. Murshidabad was a place of great importance in the first half of the 18th century. The wealth of its nawabs was fabled and the region produced luxury goods which first attracted European trading companies. Murshidabad at its peak was extravagantly compared to London for its bustling trade, fine buildings and numbers of merchants. Its position, on the Baigarathi river made it an ideal trading post, when the majority of goods moved by water.
Although by the mid-18th century political power had left Murshidabad, this did not slow down the building of even more extravagant palaces, the most recent of which is the ‘New Palace’ of 1904. The old palaces were not demolished, they were simply vacated. Descendants of the Nawabs still live here, although in reduced circumstances.
This book presents a lively account of Murshidabad’s fluctuating fortunes, the lives of its residents – the nawabs and the British, the Jain merchants and bankers – down to the present day, and brings to light the region’s manifold splendours, from architecture to painting, textiles and crafts. It is hoped this publication will draw more travellers to explore its varied attractions.
Neeta Das has a PhD on 18th and 19th century architecture in India, is a visiting faculty member at CEPT, Ahmedabad. Based in Kolkata, she is involved in conservation practice, research and writing. She has written several books and articles on architectural history, theory, and structural conservation (www.neetadas.com).
Rosie Llewellyn-Jones has a PhD on the nawabi architecture of Lucknow. She has written extensively on the city and her major biography of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah is forthcoming. She is a guest lecturer in India for Martin Randall Travel.
Murshidabad Maps: District and City
Introduction: "The City" on the Bhagirathi
The Nawabs and Their Changing Fortunes
From Merchant-Banking to Zamindari – Jains in 18th- and 19th-century Murshidabad
Murshidabad’s Palaces, Rajbaris and Mansions
Religious Buildings of Murshidabad
Arts and Crafts
Textiles of Murshidabad
Murshidabad Painting 1750–1820
The Mystery of Tulsiram’s Durga and Ivory-Carving of Murshidabad
Conclusion: Murshidabad Today
Captain James Eardley Gastrell, a trained surveyor working for the British government in the mid-19th century India, described Murshidabad as “… a name given to an indiscriminate mass of temples, mosques, handsome pucca houses, gardens, walled enclosures, huts, hovels and tangled jungle containing the ruins of many edifices that have sprung up and decayed, around the residences of the former and present Nawab of Murshidabad.” Today Murshidabad district is now a large area in West Bengal with a population of over 7 million, has its headquarters at Berhampur. There is no shortage of tourists, nor religious festivals, which bring in the crowds for ceremonies including Muharram and Eid for Muslims and Durga Puja for Hindus. Ultimately the people of Murshidabad have to decide what they want for their city. A sensitively restored palace could become a heritage hotel. More could be made of the river. Local crafts could be revived and properly marketed. A detailed street map showing historic sites would help to bring the city back into focus.
The man who gave his name to Murshidabad, Murshid Quli Khan, was not born a Muslim, but was said to be the son of a poor brahmin. What does seem likely is that his family fell on hard times, and the young boy was sold to a Persian nobleman who converted him to Islam, and gave him the name of Muhammad Hadi. But Murshidabad became a backwater, slipping in less than half a century from its pre-eminent position as capital of Bengal, to just a provincial town. By the 1880s, the tenth nawab of the Najafi dynasty, Mansur Ali Khan (Feradun Jah), was forced to renounce even his title after running up substantial debts. The British government agreed to liquidate the debts, and granted him a pension, on condition that there were to be no more nawabs of Bengal. His son, and subsequent descendants were known simply as the nawabs of Murshidabad. Nawab Wasif Ali Mirza Khan Bahadur (1875–1959) was educated in England and represented Bengal at the coronation of Edward VII but was forced to give up the administration of his estates to the government of India in 1931, after also incurring large debts. He was succeeded by his son, the last nawab, Waris Ali Mirza Khan (1901–69). It is a sad story of decline, but the numerous descendants of the House of Murshidabad today put a brave face on, and many carry with them, even now, a reminder of the dignity and grace of former times.
Jains were prominent actors in the settlement of Murshidabad and have remained significant in the economic, political, social and cultural life of the area ever since. Between 1700 and 1765 the dominant Jain actors were the Jagat Seths, a line of merchant-bankers who had come from Marwar. The period after 1765 saw the rise of Rajput Jains claiming descent from warrior castes that migrated to Murshidabad and initially set up as bankers or financiers, but, quickly became zamindars. They formed the sheherwali (urban) Jain community of Murshidabad which in the 19th century replaced the Jagat Seth family as icons of wealth and pomp. There are significant differences between the history of the Jagat Seths and that of the sheherwali Jains, which reflect clearly their vastly varying roles in Murshidabad. These differences reflect the broader forces at work in Indian society and polity during the 18th and 19th centuries.
By the 19th century, Murshidabad boasted of diverse religions and cultures coexisting and mingling, ready to give rise to a new age. This is reflected in the harmonious presence of varied religious structures that form part of city’s rich architectural heritage. The skyline of present-day Murshidabad is dotted with pinnacles of Jain temples, as illustrated in Rajib Doogar’s article. Besides there are numerous Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu (Krishna), and Durga, and maths and akharas of Hindu renunciates. There are several mosques as well as Muslim tombs and monuments. Unlike the Mughals, the nawabs were not Sunnis but Shi’as, a difference they concretized by the construction of a large imambara, a structure peculiar to Shi’as. The Armenians, following an old sect of Christianity, have left behind a church in Murshidabad, and there are Christian cemeteries. Most of these structures date to the 18th and 19th centuries. Construction materials and techniques being the same, it is interesting to study their differences from each other and from similar buildings elsewhere and of different eras.
By the 19th century Murshidabad boasted of diverse religions and cultures coexisting and mingling, ready to give rise to a new age. This is reflected in the harmonious presence of varied religious structures that form part of Murshidabad’s rich architectural heritage. The skyline of present-day Murshidabad is dotted with pinnacles of Jain temples. Besides there are numerous Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu (Krishna), and Durga, and maths and akharas of Hindu renunciates. There are several mosques as well as Muslim tombs, mosques, and imambaras. The Armenians have left behind a church, and there are several Christian cemeteries. Most of these structures date to the 18th and 19th centuries with similar construction materials and techniques, yet are culturally and architecturally different which forms the subject of this article.
Bengal has been known for its fine textiles from time immemorial. Cotton grown here in Bengal and many legends are associated with the skill of spinning and weaving. The English East India Company concentrated its efforts around Murshidabad – hub of the trade in silk yarn and woven silks, when it was given a charter to trade. As many as 15,000 silk-weavers resided in Murshidabad district and, according to the census of 1891 the number of persons employed in the silk trade was 55,000. It exported silk yarn to other regions, as well as woven pieces of the finest silk. There were many expert naksha-makers and weavers in the area as the range of patterns and design variations is vast. The introduction of intricate baluchari weaving might be linked to the establishment of Murshidabad as the new capital of Bengal, in the early 18th century. Murshidabad continues to weave mulberry-silk, matka and kora and there is an excellent market for fine quality silk yardage, dhotis and saris, especially the auspicious red-bordered silk saris, which are offered to the goddess and are also worn by brides. Murshidabad might also have been the original producer of chikkan embroidery.
This essay explores the development of painting in Murshidabad and associated centres from 1750 to 1820. For the first time the whole of the period is examined that links the traditional late Mughal style to the transformed style developed for East India Company patrons. It begins with the patronage of the Nawabs of Bengal, for whom artists developed a dry, very masculine style derived from the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah’s artists in the 1730s. The latest developments in imperial Mughal painting were brought to Bengal by artists fleeing Delhi in 1758–59 such as Hunhar II, initiating a richer style. The collapse of Nawabi patronage after 1765 ensured that traditional artists worked for other patrons particularly for enlightened British patrons such as Elijah Impey. The growing power of the East India Company caused a major shift in style and technique as Bengal artists refashioned them to reflect the interests of new British patrons, culminating in the work of the extraordinary artist Sita Ram early in the 19th century.
Tulsiram was a pre-eminent name among the ivory-carvers of Murshidabad and Berhampur in the 19th century. Also referred to as Tulsi Karigar, he was known as the master-carver whose fame had spread during his lifetime widely enough for him to be invited to the Jaipur court. Upon his return after 17 years, he was only suitably rewarded with a house in the Mahajantuli area in the city and also paid back a considerable salary that accumulated during his long absence. Durga was a popular subject with the ivory-carvers of Murshidabad and neighbouring Berhampur. Tulsiram’s creation of the Durga tableau clearly establishes that he was at his peak in 1836 to have received a royal commission. No less intriguing is the fact that a Muslim nawab of Bengal did not find it strange to send a tableau of a Hindu goddess as a gift to a Christian monarch in distant England.
Today as one wanders around Murshidabad; it presents a strange mix of rural and urban characteristics which is not surprising since the census indicates that nearly 87 per cent of the population is rural. The district has five subdivisions, with Berhampur being the centre. The nawabi development and the Qila Nizamat, loosely called Murshidabad in this book, falls within the Lal Bagh subdivision. During the 18th and 19th centuries Murshidabad was very cosmopolitan, but today its population is Muslim-dominated, a few Hindus and barely 0.2 per cent Christians. Almost no Europeans have stayed back; their presence can only be felt in the architecture and cemeteries they left behind. Currently, the descendants of the nawabs live in and around the Qila Nizamat in their ancestral homes. The landscape is serene and idyllic. But the younger generation is not happy with this slow pace of life. If Murshidabad has to grow and prosper, it will have to not only conserve its arts, crafts and buildings but also the community of craftsmen who have produced them.