The British Empire Library

Murshidabad: Forgotten Capital of Bengal

by Neeta Das

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
If you ask almost any foreign traveller who has just arrived by jet in Delhi or Mumbai if a visit to Murshidabad is part of their itinerary, a look of bewilderment crosses their face. Indeed, just a few even venture east of the holy city of Benares on a whistle stop tour of Calcutta and perhaps to the World Heritage site of Konarak before returning to the beaches of Goa and the comforts of Rajasthan. Only the most intrepid venture into Bengal itself to visit the once glorious capital of Murshidabad. In contrast, many Indians visit the city but most are either day-trippers from Calcutta on the briefest of visits or pilgrims for the various religious festivals and they usually stay across the river in Azimganj or further south in Berhampore. Part of the reason for this neglect must lie with the paucity of material written about this historic place. One can only hope that this splendid book, published by Marg, will encourage its readers to spend time in this still beautiful, if decaying, city situated on the banks of the Bhagirathi river. Even more important, one hopes that an interest by travellers and others will lead to the careful conservation of some of the fine palaces, rajbaris, and other buildings, as a legacy for posterity. Such would hopefully motivate local craftsmen to relearn and develop their ancient skills - for without them a great part of Bengal's heritage will be lost.

As we have now come to expect from Marg, this book is exceptionally well presented - carefully laid out with clear typescript and a wealth of excellent illustrations - both of historic and contemporary images. It is divided into three sections with carefully researched essays on the people of Murshidabad, the buildings - both religious and secular - and finally three chapters on the historic arts and crafts of the city and its environs. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, in her two chapters, gives an intriguing and informative account of the rise and fall of the Muslim rulers of the City and separately the buildings that were inspired by their patronage and their successors. One learns fascinating details. Who would have expected that the true founder of Murshidabad - Murshid Quli Khan - was born a Hindu? He was then sold as a boy to a Persian nobleman who converted him to Islam, and subsequently he ascended in the service of the Mughals to become Diwan of Bengal - a remarkable meteoric rise at a troubled time in India. It was he who moved the provincial government from Dacca in the east to Muxadabad, as the city was formerly known, in about 1703. Rajib Doogar's essay on the Jains in eighteenth and nineteenth century Murshidabad is an elegantly written narrative of this remarkable community. Manikchand, a Jain from Marwar, was not only an immensely powerful and trusted banker (he was granted the title Jagat Seth - 'Banker to the World' - by the Emperor Farrukh Siyar for his services) but also, as deputy diwan, supervised the revenue collection for Murshid Quli Khan and established a Mint in the city. It was from the profits of the latter that much of his wealth derived. His successors, through their influence and money, were the 'kingmakers' in the city, facilitating the rise of Alivardi Khan and perhaps more importantly the defeat of Siraj-ud-daula at Plassey in 1757 and his replacement by Mir Jafar. Ironically, within a few years that event brought about their own decline as the British rapidly assumed power in eastern India. The second wave of Jains - the Sherwali Jains - arrived from Rajputana (today Rajasthan) after 1765. They were initially bankers but gradually expanded their power to become influential zamindars. They left a rich legacy of late buildings in the city and across the river.

Neeta Das is an admirable architectural historian and her chapter on the religious buildings is a model of its kind - concise, accurate and informative - it hopefully will provide an impetus to restore some of the crumbling buildings she describes with such care - how long will the beautiful but deserted and overgrown Futi (Broken) Mosque survive if not conserved? When I myself visited it last year, locals did their best to dissuade me from venturing into the interior as they feared that, if falling masonry didn't crush one, a snake bite might kill one!

The final three chapters on the historic arts and crafts of Murshidabad are invaluable as a source for those interested in India's cultural heritage. At its zenith, vast areas of land outside the city were given over to mulberry cultivation for the production of silk. Tussar silk embroideries and woven silk saris from Murshidabad were famous throughout the sub-continent and rivalled some of those produced in Benares. Even today there survives within the city a few weavers producing striking dyed silk - an art that needs to be encouraged and nurtured. Jerry Losty's impressive survey of Murshidabad painting looks first at the sumptuous Mughal inspired paintings of the great eighteenth century nawabs and then the gradual transformation of the style to cater for European taste, following the ascendancy of the British. To me, the Mughal-inspired paintings of the period up to 1765 are superior to any other provincial Mughal School paintings done elsewhere in India in that period. Murshidabad also was home to perhaps the greatest of all the Company School landscape painters - Sita Ram. He worked for the Governor General, Lord Hastings for a few years after 1814. His watercolours, with their vigorous colours, animated figures and clever atmospheric effects, recalls the work of arguably the greatest European landscape painter to visit Bengal - William Hodges. He painted at least one oil of the Katra Musjid on his visit to the city in 1781.

The last chapter, by Pratapaditya Pal, looks at a subject that today is highly contentious - ivory carving. It is uncertain when the craft was introduced into Murshidabad and to nearby Cossimbazar and Berhampore . It seems probable that it was revived by Murshid. Quli Khan . Certainly by the second half of the eighteenth century, the ivory furniture produced there is the finest that was made anywhere in the world and much still survives - chiefly the superb suites of chairs and settees sent by Mani Begum to Warren Hastings. The tradition of high quality ivory carving continued long into the nineteenth century with the production of both religious objects for Indians and carvings and chess sets done for Muslims and Europeans. Perhaps one of the more surprising facts is that most of the ivory is African - back then elephants were in abundance! This is a craft that should and can never be revived now that elephants are such an endangered species but the formidable carving skills could be turned to wood or even stone. This book is real a joy to read and to look at. Both Marg and the editors must be congratulated for this groundbreaking survey of an almost forgotten , but captivating city.

British Empire Book
Neeta Das
First Published
Marg Publications
Review Originally Published
Spring 2014 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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