Murshidabad can teach the rest of India how to restore heritage and market the past

A few families have got together to revive the region’s glory through restoration, conservation and tourism.

In the eighteenth century, it accounted for 5% of the world’s gross domestic product. Legendary for its opulence and Nawabi culture, it was once renowned for fine muslin, ivory carvings, silk, trade and banking opportunities, and rich agricultural produce. A city on the banks of the Bhagirathi River, Murshidabad was also the capital of Bengal province (which included Bihar and Orissa) in 1704.

This is just some of the history that the Resurgence Festival 2017 – which was held on December 6-7 – aims to share, as part of an ongoing and sustained effort by the Murshidabad Heritage Development Society to restore the rich, diverse heritage and culture of Murshidabad, which was also known as Gour in ancient times.

A rich and chequered past

The city’s great wealth attracted bankers and merchants from India and beyond as it was the one of the richest of the Mughal subahs. The community of Oswal Jains from Rajasthan was especially prominent for the great fortunes they accumulated as bankers. Also known as Sheherwali Jains, they lived in magnificent homes in the twin-towns of Azimganj and Jiaganj, upriver from Murshidabad. Perhaps the most well-known from this community is the Jagat Seth family, considered among the wealthiest in northern India. They were bankers and financiers to the administrators, merchants and traders, the nawabs and nobility as well as to the British, French, Armenian and Dutch. They financed Murshid Quli Khan, the first nawab of Bengal, and the successive nawabs as well as the English East India Company. In fact, Jagat Seth was considered a co-conspirator of Major General Robert Clive, commander-in-chief of British India, in his successful plan to defeat Nawab Siraj ud Daula, the last independent nawab of Bengal.

A Shiva temple in Murshidabad.
A Shiva temple in Murshidabad.

The Seth family had accumulated their vast fortune through controlling the mint and through their moneylending activities. When the East India Company was victorious in the Battle of Plassey, the Seths emerged as the major power in the region. Mir Jafar, who also conspired with Clive, was made the ruler of Bengal with the support of East India Company support. And unfortunately, several members of the Jagat Seth family were beheaded in 1763. While the family continued to stay in their palatial mansion on the river bank in Mahimapur, a century later, the entire house was devoured by the changing course of the river. Only a few rooms of the house and a temple have survived.

The Murshidabad Heritage Society, composed of a group with their roots in the region, is dedicated to reviving the region’s past glory through restoration, conservation and educational outreach to promote heritage and spiritual tourism. It engages with conservation partners around the world to learn how best to maintain the architectural heritage, and since 2010, has been holding a two-day festival each winter to showcase heritage sites and conduct heritage seminars.

The interior of the Nowlakha haveli.
The interior of the Nowlakha haveli.

Several of the homes in the Jain area of Azimganj are being restored, and one of these is what remains of the Nowlakha Bhavan, a house owned by the Heritage Society member Sandip Nowlakha. Some other homes, such as the Bari Kothi, belonging to Sudip and Darshan Dudhoria, were opened to visitors wishing to explore the area. Several festival events were held at their residence.

The Azimganj Rajbati, with a wonderful river view and retaining its authenticity, was probably the most beautiful of the stately Sheherwali homes. It is a private residence maintained by Sidharth and Sangeeta Dudhoria, and while it is open to their personal guests, it is closed to the public.

Sidharth Dudhoria.
Sidharth Dudhoria.

Azimganj and Jiaganj are also home to some 14 Jain temples, including the Chintamani Parshwanath temple and Neminath temple. And there still remain a few well-maintained lime stone and mortar and terracotta temples that were built by Rani Bhabani from the royal family of Natore. The Panchanan Shiva temple, also called the Bhavianisvar temple, is still in good condition, and you can still see a unique black stone lingam in the inner sanctum that has five heads of Shiva carved into it. The Char Bangla temple complex is in good condition, too. Here, four temples, three of terracotta tiles, enclose a small courtyard. Each of them is richly decorated and draws on themes from Hindu epics and the Puranas. Both were built in the 1750s or 1760s.

Witnesses to history

Murshidabad is home to the well-known and much-visited Hazarduari palace and museum. It took 12 years to build and was completed by 1838 during the reign of Nawab Nazim Humayun Jah. Of the 1,000 doors, 100 are fake and were built to confuse potential enemies. The palace was primarily used to stage durbars and to conduct official work between the British and the Nawabs, and it also housed senior British officers. Within the palace is a museum with an impressive array of items – antiques, paintings, documents and furniture belonging to the family of the Nawab of Murshidabad.

The Kathgola palace, which belongs to the Doogar family, another notable Sheherwali family, is opened for tours and the temple, expansive grounds, house and furnishings have been restored. It is a popular attraction.

The drawing room of the Kathgola palace.
The drawing room of the Kathgola palace.

On the same side of the river is the Raj Bari at Cossimbazaar. The Roy zamindari family has restored much of their sprawling and stately palace and opened a guesthouse for visitors and a museum with furniture, documents and artifacts belonging to their family. During this festival, they welcomed guests to the palace after 60 years. School children from the community performed songs and dances, a tour of the restored bari was conducted and a wonderful Bengali lunch was organised on their grounds.

A cosmopolitan city

Though not included in this heritage tour, the Armenian Church and the Dutch cemetery both recall the cosmopolitan past of Murshidabad. There were several important Armenian traders in Cossimbazar and a royal order passed in 1655 by Aurangzeb granted them land. The church, built in 1758 by Khojah Petrus Arathoon, was made in memory of his parents. The last service was conducted in 1860 and then it was closed for almost a century. Surrounded by high walls and a sprawling compound, the church has been wonderfully restored by the Church Committee of the Armenian Church of Holy Nazareth of Calcutta. It built a new bell tower in 2006, the 1455th year of the Armenian era.

The Armenian Church spire.
The Armenian Church spire.

The Dutch factory, located in Kalakpur, was established in 1666 and employed 700 to 800 men. While there are no remains of the factory, the cemetery has 43 graves dating from 1721-1792.

The Katra Masjid, which is also the tomb of Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, built in 1723, is impressive even in ruins. The 1897 earthquake destroyed some of the impressive domes that covered the mosque. The main hall is now open to the sky, like an open courtyard. Cells that housed the Koran readers surround the mosque. Two of the imposing minars remaining on the corners of the masjid complex still stand 70 feet high and 25 feet in diameter.

Katra Masjid.
Katra Masjid.

All images by Jael Silliman.

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