Murshidabad, known for the Nawabs of Bengal, had a Mughal background. It was also the place, which witnessed the famous Battle of Plassey (about 47kms. from Murshidabad). British victory, Robert Clive, changed the role of the British at Plessey in Bengal. This battle played a crucial turning point in the history of India. It was the foundation stone on which the British built their 190-year rule over India. Here’s the first part of the two-day trip of Anumita, with her family. She tells us about Hazar Duyari, riding the Tuktuk, the enigmatic folklore of the Jahan Kosha Cannon, Futo Masjid, Moti Jheel, among other things. Here’s the enchanting details, in the fortnightly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
During my visits to India, I often take my children to visit their ancestors’ history. My children were born in America, and as they grew up with the history of their birthplace. I want them to know their parents’ land too.
As they were learning about the Mughals in India, I thought it would be nice to visit a place, which had a Mughal background. Taking a cue from that, I decided to visit Murshidabad, the dwelling place of the Bengal Nawabs. It was also the place, which witnessed the famous Battle of Plassey (about 47kms. from Murshidabad). British victory, Robert Clive, changed the role of the British at Plessey in Bengal. This battle played a crucial turning point in the history of India.
It was the foundation stone on which the British built their 190-year rule over India. My parents live in Kolkata (former Calcutta). We hired a SUV for the trip and started our journey on an early December morning. A distance of 203kms was to be completed in about six hours. Ultimately it took us seven and half hours. The roads were bad in some stretches, reducing our speed of the journey. We stopped in between to eat at a local eatery and my children got the first taste of eating in the open with so much people around.
Tourists travelling on the NH12 (Nation Highway 12), which traversed all the way towards the north of Bengal, stopped for either lunch or dinner at this particular eatery.
Once fed, we resumed our journey and reached Murshidabad around evening. During the months of December the days are very short, so it was getting dark fast. We checked into the hotel. Over tea we discussed the itinerary of our visit. Our hotel was walking distance from the biggest attraction of Murshidabad, the Hazar Duyari (Thousand Roomed Palace).
After few cups of coffee, we trudged down the narrow roadway to a temple near the banks of the tributary of Ganga. The temple was built on a high citadel with few steep stairs winding up to the main dalan (portico). A narrow passageway wrapped around the shrine with few corroded sculptures. Said to be almost a hundred year old temple, it stood as an evidence of time. Across the narrow road was the step way to the banks of the Ganga. We walked a few more lanes and reached the Hazar Duyari. Admittance inside the palace was only during day time, but after sun down they light up the whole palace and it is a spectacular sight.
Travelling made all of us very hungry. We went back to our rooms and ordered room service, settled down for the night.
Early morning after breakfast, our transport arrived, it was called Tuktuk (electric auto-rickshaw) in local language, mimicking the sound it made. It was a motorised rickshaw that could accommodate five people. It did not have doors or windows, only a roof over the head and hand rails to hold on to. My boys were very excited about this mode of transport. Our driver was Ratan Dutta, he was a local who studied till 10 th grade and owned this transport business.
Once aboard we started our tour through the town and village. Fields of yellow flowers of mustard stretch on both sides, then huge mango orchards welcomed us with their shades. Mud and partial brick houses with cattle flanked the narrow road.
An unusual sight made us giggle. We saw many goats and their kids were wearing shirts. It was a way to keep them warm. My boys got the Tuktuk driver to stop the vehicle to take picture of the ‘clothed goats’. The cool December breeze kept us in good spirit. We passed houses with lines of “dung sheesh kawabs” lined against their fence. That was the name coined by my kids. They joked about it even when we were back home. These were a mixture of cow dung, bits of straw and dried leaves stuck to long dry bamboo sticks. The villagers used these as fuel for cooking. They stuck these sticks into the clay oven and lighted fire. These were a form of clean bio-fuel, which was easily available at home for most of these villagers. Some tangas (horse carriages) with their adorned horses trotted past us. The little bells around the horses’ collars jingled with every trot of theirs. My children kept pointing out to different things which they had not seen before, and the driver of the Tuktuk explained it in his best English. I translated few of the Bengali he could not translate.
Jahan Kosha Cannon
The first stop was at Jahan Kosha Cannon, also known as The Destroyer of the World. Janardan Karmakar was the blacksmith, who made this cannon, in 1637 AD. It is made of eight metals silver, gold, lead, copper, zinc, tin, iron and mercury. Weighing about seven tons and with a length of 17 and half feet this cannon has many stories surrounding it.
During one of the flood this cannon got dislodged from its base wheels and floated away in the Ganga. It was later recovered at the base of a Peepal tree, where the roots cradled it and lifted it up. The fable says that the cannon can devour anyone who does not believe in it. The locals call it “khuni top” (murderous cannon). The believers worship it, and there were vermilion marking on it. They even say it has a mysterious measurement. The Tuktuk driver said that it measures 10 arm length one way and 11 the other. My elder son, a math fanatic, got interested and decided to measure it. He and his brother started measuring, and they did not find any anomaly. They debunked it as a publicity stunt. They both posed for few funny pictures and we walked our way to the Tuktuk.
On the side of the road, there were few people gathered and we heard a man talking aloud. Out of curiosity I walked over. There was a fish vendor selling his live fish from a big metal haari (pot). He had a scale and he would pull out the fish from the water filled haari and weigh it for the customer. He was arguing about the price of a particular large fish. This scene was so common in the villages, but my children kept looking fascinated. They talked among themselves about how lucky these people are that a fish vendor would bring in live fish to their doorstep. I smiled.
Once aboard our windy vehicle, we were on the way to our second destination. Ratan informed us that we need to divide the whole trip into two days. As there are some sights which would be completed the next day. We had plans for staying one more night anyway.
The Tuktuk sputtered through many more mango groves and past neat mud houses. The journey filled us with peace as huge fields of mustard flowers passed along both sides of the road till we came to a small village. The driver stopped near a huge peepal tree. There were various dark and polished stones placed in thoughtful positions. There was a small trishul (trident) and vermilion smeared one some of the stones. Getting off the vehicle I shot a few pictures of this array, I watched my mother do pranaam (show her respects) as she passed by. The dust of the road was everywhere, but surprisingly those stones gleamed. I knew this was what faith was, and is, all about.
Ratan was commenting about the masjid that we were going to, and why it was name Futo Masjid (literal translation: Masjid with a hole). Among the Nawabs of Murshidabad, the passion for building structures was very common. One Nawab had a dream about a masjid being built in a day’s time and he ordered his chief architect to accomplish it. The dimensions of the structure were mentioned to him and he got to work. The next morning just before sunrise the Nawab came in to inspect. He found one dome was missing its spire, causing a hole in the structure. The Nawab abandoned the masjid.
We encountered a little boy (Prasanjit Biswas),who lived in the house on the adjacent property, and he guided us through it. As there has been no maintenance and no care taken the whole masjid is in ruins and the wilderness had encroach in. We scrambled our way into the first level and the inside was full of shrubs and weeds.
The little guide mentioned that the architect was shot in his head for not being able to finish his commitment. There is no historical evidence as such, but this could well be plausible. The staircase to the next floor was broken and was deemed not safe to go. The floor above and the other domes had come crashing during the last major earthquake. The engineering marvel of the structure was so great that without a single day of maintenance the outer walls still stood tall. If this immense structure was taken care of it would have been a historical marvel for generations.
My stomach reminded me that it was lunch time. There is something about fresh air and the good food of the pristine places that improves the rate of digestion. With some suggestion from locals and Ratan, we ate at a local eatery. As my children are not used to eating outdoors on the roadside, they sat in the Tuktuk and ate. Then we moved to the next site.
Moti Jheel’s literally means Peal Lake. It is a horseshoe shaped, man-made lake built by Nawazish Mohamadh Khan. He was the son-in- law of the then Nawab Ali Wardi Khan. Nawazish had built a huge palace at the bend of the lake for his beloved wife, Ghasiti Begum. It is said that this is where Nawazish died and Ghasiti Begum lived there till Nawab Siraj-ud- Duala took over the property. This palace has housed Warren Hastings, Robert Clive and other English officials. It was also known as the Company Bagh by the English. Not much remains of the palace. The palace was built around 1470 (according to etymology) and had pillars of black basalt, giving it the name ‘Sang-i- Dalan’ (Stone Palace). The palace consisted of a huge room with no door or windows and was thought to be the treasury of the Begum. There are few interesting fables about this room. It was said that when some workers were employed to break in and excavate, they all died vomiting blood. Condoning it as cursed, the room was never touched.
There is a huge doorway to the entrance of the property, called the ‘Shahamath Jang’ and then the ‘Kala Masjid’ (Black Masjid). Located near the lake, this masjid is constructed on a rectangular platform and with three domes at the top. The domes have a lotus and kalash (pot) finials. The shafts and the arches have decorated motifs. The structure is bordered on four sides with octagonal minarets. It houses the handwritten Quran by Nawazish Mohamadh Khan. East of this structure are groups of tombs in neat enclosures. The wall of the enclosures has crumbled but the tombstones still remain. Nawazish and his adopted son, Eram-ud- daula, have marble tombs. Eram’s nurse and tutor were buried in the same vicinity. A sandstone tomb of Shamsheeree Ali Khan, the general of Nawazish, is present along his master. Moti Jheel hosts the tomb of Mr. Keating’s son. Mr Keating was the superintendent of Murshidabad and later became the judge.
The lake had long lost its luster, but with all the history it has witnessed, I am sure if it could speak we might have many tales to write.
With the evening sun setting, we decided to call it a day. The temperature had plummeted. We arrived at the hotel and ordered some hot meal. Settling in for the night, I thought of the next day and about part of history, we would be getting to know…
©Anumita Chatterjee Roy
Pix by author.