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Murshidabad as we know was the old capital of Bengal, Bihar and Orrissa. We also know that the governor of Bengal Murshid Kuli Khan transferred his capital from Dakha to Murshidabad. Later the capital was shifted from Murshidabad to Calcutta by the East India Company. When we visit the old historical places around Murshidabad we grow nostalgic, and wonder how this place was in the time of the Nawabs. Not just history but we try to imagine the general picture of Murshidabad in the 18thand 19th century, the view of the country, the ecological environment and the lifestyle of the people.  The travelers who visited Murshidabad in those times have left us with invaluable records through which we can know what kind of place this was.

The country was wooded with mango groves, bamboo clumps, banyan, papal, jack, bet, tamarind and babul trees, says LSS O Malley of the Indian Civil Service, this would be around the early part of the twentieth century.  Fifty years back, O Malley says, during the time of Sepoy Mutiny, roughly around 1850’s the fast cultivation of land was driving away the wild animals in search of a new home. In his time leopards were found in the Jalangi sub-division,     also in other places around Murshidabad, being driven out from their home they took refuge in decaying buildings and ruins. In Kandi he says wolves are found occasionally and they often take away sheeps and goats. Apart from these wild boars, jackals were rampant and the latter sometimes took off sleeping babies and only in the morning their bones could be discovered at a distance.

Birds were plentiful, there were, wild duck, quail, partridge, teal, geese, and often there were shot at by the hunting parties. The members from the reptile family were quite active too; snakes were abundant especially in the rainy season when many people fall prey to their fangs. Crocodiles were found in the river also in the swamps and tanks in the Jangipur sub-division. Fishes O Malley says were caught in the rainy season in Padma and Ganges. Among all the fishes caught, Ruhi, Katla, Mrigal were the most valuable. The ponds and large tanks at Bishtupur, Chaltia, served good fisheries.

One of the most fascinating and invaluable export of Murshidabad was silk, the famous Murshidabad silk. The silk of Murshidabad attracted the English in the early part of the 17thcentury they deputed their agents from Agra to purchase a sample of the Murshidabad silk, it is recorded that the sample was purchased paying 500 Rupees at that time. After that in the middle of the 16th century the English set up a factory in Cossimbazar, where they made quite a lot of investment. The chief of the Cossimbazar factory during 1680-1686 was Job Charnock who had poor relations with the Governor of Bengal. A little later the French, the Dutch and the Armenians arrived in Murshidabad to establish their factories here.

The political situation in Bengal was not simple though, in 1697 Aurangzeb deputed his grandson Prince Azim-ush-Shan as the Governor of Bengal province comprising of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. In those time the Mughal Governance followed the dual administration, there were two high rankings officials deputed to run the country. The Nazim was the head of military and was responsible for the defence of the province whereas the Diwan was the Finance Minister he was entrusted with the duty to collect taxes and send it to the Emperor. The Diwan was also required to pay the Nazim and according to the Emperor’s decree the two were to consult each other and run the province.

In 1701 the Emperor appointed Murshid-Kuli Khan as the Diwan of Bengal province, but sadly Murshid Kuli did not have good relations with Prince Azim-ush-Shan. Seeing the pity state of affairs especially in matters of finance, Murshid Kuli soon started reforms, he appointed his own collectors to collect revenue from the Zamindars (landlords). Prince Azim-ush-Shan was enraged over the new reforms made by Murshid Kuli as he considered all these reforms as interference in his affairs. He was also jealous of Murshid Kuli since the latter enjoyed high favours from the Emperor.

The tension and jealousy reached so high that Prince Azim-ush-Shan decided to put an end to Murshid Kuli and appointed assassins to take his life. However by fate and personal bravery Murshid Kuli was able to survive the attack and the matter was reported to the Emperor. This also made Murshid Kuli wary of his security in Dhaka and after consulting his friend and comrades he decided to bring the whole finance ministry in Murshidabad. Murshidabad had great advantage it was only thriving and prosperous place in whole Bengal that time so the decision to move the public offices to Murshidabad was nevertheless a wise move. When the news of the attack on Murshid Quli reached the ears of Emperor he asked his grandson Prince Azim-ush-Shan to move to Patna from Dhaka. In 1703-04 Murshid Kuli visited Delhi and meet the Emperor who was quite happy with his reforms and progress, the mighty Mughal conferred upon him the title of Nawab Nazim, thus this way Murshid Kuli attained dual powers.

One of the first things that Murshid Kuli did after founding the new capital was to change the name of Maukshusabad to Murshidabad, the way we know it now. This way the city of Murshidabad was fromed, and was of the principal city in Bengal, Calcutta would take birth much later. I will not go on long discussing the history of Murshidabad this is not the objective this article. But simply show you some paintings painted by European artist who came to Murshidabad.


‘Chawnie Choke in the City of Moorshedabad & View of the Nabob’s Mosque
(c) British Library Board

Take a look at this painting painted around 1795 by an anonymous artist. In the painting the painter puts the tile in black ink, “’Chawnie Choke in the City of Moorshedabad & View of the Nabob’s Mosque.’ Note the English spelling of Murshidabad it is Moorshedabad. In some paintings we will also find the name Muxadabad. The “Chawnie Choke” is actually Chandi Chock a sort of bazaar or market.  This Masjid bearing the name is “Chock Masjid” is still in good shape and was commissioned in 1767 by Munni Begam wife of Meer Jaffer. Munni Begam was a virtuous lady, and some of the magnificent buildings in Murshidabad was commissioned by her. The Chowk Masjid one of her commissioned work is located south east of the Nawab Bahadur’s Palace.[i]


A View of the Cuttera built by Jaffier Cawn at Muxadavad
(c) British Library Board

 This is a view of Katra Mosque built by Murshid Kuli Khan in 1724. Interestingly Murshid Kuli Khan is buried inside in a chamber below the stairs leading to the Mosque. The Mosque has impressive looks the great Masjid is flanked by octagonal minarets at the sides and domes in the middle. William Hodges painted this in 1787 on his visit to Murshidabad. William Hodges was a widely travelled painter he even accompanied Captain Cook in his travel. This painting is taken from William Hodges book, “Select Views in India.”[ii]


Present view of Katra Masjid

This how Katra Mosue looks now, although I must say the Mosque was in a very pitiful situation before the ASI took it under their periphery. Since then spacious garden was built, and many restorations were done in damaged areas.


Bazaar at Murshidabad, West Bengal.
Etching by James Moffat. (c) British Library Board

  If you might be interested in the look of the city here is a painting by James Moffat, it shows a bazaar in Murshidabad, I am not sure of the exact location though. James Moffat was a Scotsman who lived in India from the age of fourteen and this painting was done in 1809. A mosque is visible on the other side of the river, with boats floating on the river and traders busy to sell their products. This shows a good picture of the city of Murshidabad. [iii]


The Nizamat Kila or Palace of Murshidabad, seen from the
opposite bank of the Bhagirathi river with the Nawab’s barge in the foreground

(c) British Library Board

This is a wonderful painting of the Hazarduari or the Palace with Thousand Doors from the other side of the river. This is a watercolor painting by William Prinsep in 1840; you can see how the surroundings have changed. Whatever might be the condition now, in those times it was pretty open, that doesn’t mean that general public could come and go around the Palace premises in their own sweet will, I simply mean that it was much open and the bazaar that has mushroomed on the side of the river was not there.


Angular view of Hazarduari


Hazarduari was designed by Colonel Duncan Mcleod of the Bengal Engineers, in classical style. The foundation stone was laid in 1829 and was completed in 1837. Hazarduari is also called Killa, and the premise on which it stands is called Killa Nizamat.[iv]The palace is entered by through lofty gates, three in number, Tripolia Gate, Dakshin Darwaza and the Chowck Gate. These are lofty gates to enable entry to elephants; there are spaces at the top for musicians playing a variety of musical instruments, trumpets, kettle drums, dhol and many others. They played elegant and graceful music at certain occasions and when the royals came in and out of the Nizamat Killa. I guess it would have created a wonderful scene and musical environment. Imagine the Nawab entering through the gates riding on an elephant accompanied by a regiment of musketeers, cavalry men and royal insignia carriers.


Haraduari in night


In this painting what we see apart from the Hazarduari is the Medina built by the mother of Siraj-ud-Dowla, and another mosque built by Alivardi’s wife. To the rear in the background we can see the vast spread of Killa Nizamat, there is a bell tower as well at the south. Wealthy merchants, nobles often enjoyed the evening on a fancy boat like this. What a wonderful scene it must have been.

But there is a twist in the tale. Before the construction of Hazarduari there was a small palace for the Nawab, it was built by Major Fleming. This is a very rare painting by Robert Smith in 1814 which shows the old palace at the bank of the river. [v]I haven’t got any record of this as of now but I am in search for it, will let you know more about this soon!


The city of Murshidabad (Bengal) with the banqueting
hall of the Nawab’s old palace seen from the river. (c) British Library Board

 The Muharram festival in Murshidabad was celebrated with grandeur with richly decorated tazias accompanied by elephants, foot soldiers, mourners and common people. The tazias were made of bamboo and paper it was taken out in the street where thousands of Muslims joined in the hol procession. Here in this painting you can see the mourner beating their chests, the tazias atop the elephants and the huge procession. This painting was done by an anonymous painter around 1795.[vi]


Muharram Festival

(c) British Library Board

Have to say something about this painting. This is unique and quite different if you compare the style with other paintings that I have shown. This style of painting is called “Murshidabad style” since it emerged in Murshidabad. After the death of Shah Jahan and the ascension of Aurangzeb who was not much in favour of dance and music, the artists and musicians moved out of Delhi in search of patronage and livelihood. Some of them came to Murshidabad and received the royal patronage here. Apart from painting the palace walls they also took interest in common life and natural scenery of Murshidabad, a lot of that painting survives till today.

Let’s talk about the handicrafts of Murshidabad now. During the early part of the 18thcentury the ivory craftsmen of Murshidabad were perhaps the best in the whole world. The ivory artists received full patronage under the Nawabs until the capital was shifted to Calcutta. The best ivory workers in Murshidabad were in Khagra area of Berhampore, with the rise of the latter as a military cantonment, Berhampore was able to support the ivory workers for a while. Even during the closing years of the 18th century the reputation was coming to an end.

The ivory workers here used mainly the ivories from Assam and the north eastern region. One of the reasons for their great fame was because of their mastery in ivory crafting using very few tools. The fine finish, minute details, and gorgeous shape earned great reputation in home and abroad. Sometimes a masterpiece was made by commission; this chair of ivory was gifted to Warren Hastings by Munni Begum. It is a fine example of the artistic talent and royal patronage of the ivory craftsmen in Murshidabad.


Ivory chair, carved and painted, India, about 1785, Museum no. 1075-1882
source-Victoria and Albert Museum


Baluchar Sari was another reason why Murshidabad’s weavers were known all over India. There was an area named Baluchar in Murshidabad (and still there) where weavers made these gorgeous Saris. Baluchar sari are essentially made of silk with brocaded designs and rich colors like purple, violet, red, blue green, yellow etc. They were imported by many European nations and finds place in the best Art Museums of Europe.


Baluchar Sari
source- Mursidabad.nic.in

So this is little bit about Murshidabad next time I will get another topic into discussion, what say!

Image Acknowledgements:







and of course from Subhajit Dasgupta’s travel in Murshidabad.