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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Passage to India: a visit to Murshidabad, West Bengal 

In the 70th year of the country's independence, we delve into a not-quite-forgotten corner which helped mint the Raj

The Katra Mosque in Murshidabad was badly damaged in an 1897 earthquake. Amar Grover
The Katra Mosque in Murshidabad was badly damaged in an 1897 earthquake. Amar Grover

This year is the 70th anniversary of India’s independence from Britain. Such are the countries’ ties that it has also been designated UK-India Year of Culture by the British government – a programme of cultural events “celebrating the vibrant cultural history” of both countries.

Somewhat less cosily, it is also the 160th anniversary of the Indian Mutiny (or, from a more Indian perspective, the First War of Independence). And casting an even longer but far-less-distinct shadow is the 260th anniversary of the little-remembered Battle of Plassey.

Standing on the platform at Plassey (Palashi) railway station in rural West Bengal, it is immediately clear to me that, at least in these parts, the battle is far from forgotten. A wall mosaic outside its waiting room depicts the confrontation: turbaned warriors fighting red-coated sepoys. A framed hand-painted sign in Bengali, Hindi and English explains its background and spikily concludes: “Thus by promoting treason and forgery the English force established their supremacy and the gruesome days of British rule began.”

Outside, I hail a tonga (a horse-drawn light carriage) and we canter to the unsigned Plassey Monument. About four kilometres later, in pretty countryside green with sugar-cane and mango groves, we stop before a simple whitewashed obelisk enclosed by a circular wall.

More skirmish than battle, it was here that, aided by bribes and a fortuitous torrential downpour, the outnumbered Robert Clive (“Clive of India”) defeated West Bengal’s young and last independent nawab. Older and more pliant, Mir Jafar was installed as his replacement. Britain’s East India Company had secured its initial foothold in Bengal from which flowed its eventual domination of India.

For most of the year, Plassey sees just a trickle of visitors. On some anniversaries, crowds gather to hear local politicians make fiery speeches. There have been sporadic calls for the British-erected obelisk (which was renovated in 1998) to be demolished, but the more considered view is for it to remain. Historical events can be interpreted, but should never be airbrushed.

I stroll to the nearby River Hooghly, where villagers load hefty bundles of jute from their heads onto a wooden skiff. A distributary of the Ganges, the muddy-brown Hooghly flows south from here to Kolkata. Fifty kilometres upstream lies my main destination – Murshidabad, Bengal’s erstwhile capital.

Workers at the Hooghly river in West Bengal. Amar Grover
Workers at the Hooghly river in West Bengal. Amar Grover

By the early 1700s, Murshidabad had become the capital of Bengal’s ruling nawabs. As Mughal power ebbed away in Delhi, these nawabs increasingly flexed their autonomy. Mir Jafar’s installation following Plassey changed everything; even today in Bengali and Urdu, his name has evolved into a pejorative term akin to a quisling, or traitorous collaborator.

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For the “puppet nawabs”, company rule was hardly gruesome, although it extracted vast sums from their revenues. The process was oiled by much mutual backslapping, the bestowal of grand-sounding titles, exchanges of extravagant gifts and self-aggrandising portraits. And the single most visible remnant of that age is Murshidabad’s Hazarduari, the “palace of a thousand doors”.

Standing yards from the Hooghly on the site of a medieval fort, its vast facade resembles something approaching Buckingham Palace-meets-the-British Museum. Here, in small-town, low-rise Murshidabad, its sheer size and alien design – the portico with Doric columns and a classical pediment – are striking. There was an unsettling omen when Nawab Humayun Jah fainted during the laying of its foundation stone, but eight years later, in 1837, the palace was complete. Of its reputed thousand doors, many, if not most, are false – a design ploy aimed at thwarting intruders or assassins.

Today, it is a well-run Archaeological Survey of India museum evoking the life and luxury of the nawabs and their era. About 20 galleries house thousands of exhibits, from fearsome daggers and swords to furniture and elaborate crockery; miniature paintings to Persian manuscripts and ancient Qurans.

Pausing by the entrance at the head of its imposing flight of steps, I note the almost wonderstruck expressions of many visitors. Many seem to have come from profoundly rural areas. Even the lobby’s four-metre-long stuffed crocodile makes quite an impact.

Inside, there is almost too much to take in – unless you’re a history boffin, a couple of hours should suffice. Several exhibits catch my eye: a huge Dutch cannon used in the Battle of Plassey; an ivory palanquin that belonged to Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal); and jade-coloured, poison-tasting plates used to determine whether food was laced. There are paintings galore, from seemingly random pastoral scenes of Europe to a huge one of Hazarduari’s British architect presenting the palace’s plans to Humayun Jah.

Hazarduari, which is also known as the ‘palace of a thousand doors’, with its ‘cannon that causes childbirth’. Courtesy Amar Grover
Hazarduari, which is also known as the ‘palace of a thousand doors’, with its ‘cannon that causes childbirth’. Courtesy Amar Grover

The massive edifice is centred round Gallery 11, a lofty circular Durbar Hall designed for ceremonial meetings and affairs of state. Local guides insist the 96-bulb crystal chandelier suspended from its dome and gifted by Queen Victoria is the world’s second-largest. When the electricity failed, servants presumably dashed for ladders to light the giant three-and-a-half-metre-tall candlesticks. Below the chandelier, screened by protective glass panels, stands a silver throne embellished with lion-like paws; thoughtfully lined up behind hangs a nawab’s portrait.

Across the manicured gardens fronting Hazarduari stands the Nizamat Imambara, a huge, stately looking congregation hall (reputedly India’s biggest). Built in 1847 to replace an earlier wooden structure destroyed by fire, its foundation contains specially imported soil from Makkah for added sanctity.

The gardens themselves have a quaint clock tower and hefty 14th-century cannon known as Bachhawali Tope, or the “cannon that causes childbirth”. The 7,000-kilogram monster’s curious name derives from its one and only firing. The noise was so loud (and far-reaching – up to 16 kilometres, it is claimed) that it supposedly induced labour in local mothers.

Hailing a rickshaw, I soon discover the town’s sleepy hinterland holds other surprises. Murshid Quli Khan, its eponymous founder and Bengal’s first nawab, shifted the capital from present-day Bangladesh in 1704. His tomb lies immediately beneath the entrance stairs of the Katra Mosque, the constant tread of pilgrims overhead symbolising his atonement for past misdeeds. The once-grand mosque, with its towering minarets and large courtyard, was badly damaged in an 1897 earthquake, yet remains firmly on Murshidabad’s tourist circuit.

I head on to visit other imposing properties built by the town’s grandees. Top of the list is Kathgola Garden, a pleasure retreat owned by Lakshmipat Singh Dugar, one of 19th-century Bengal’s wealthiest landlords and bankers. Its 18-hectare gardens are utterly dominated by a rather beautiful golden-yellow mansion, fronted by Corinthian columns and framed by palm trees.

Kathgola Garden is a pleasure retreat once owned by one of 19th-century Bengal’s wealthiest landlords and bankers. Courtesy Amar Grover
Kathgola Garden is a pleasure retreat once owned by one of 19th-century Bengal’s wealthiest landlords and bankers. Courtesy Amar Grover

Dugar needed to receive and entertain both the Nawab’s courtiers and their British overlords; Kathgola is the result and it is claimed that the mansion was furnished in the 1870s with almost the entire contents of F&C Osler’s Kolkata showroom for the equivalent of more than US$20 million (Dh73.5m) in today’s money. Strolling among its pleasing though hardly sumptuous high-ceilinged drawing, dining and billiard rooms, that wildly extravagant claim seems hard to credit.

Nearby, Nashipur Palace boasts a similar pedigree with another well-connected family thriving under the East India Company, this time through tax collection. The so-called “palace” – it is more like a mansion – was built in 1865 and has fared less well than Kathgola. Today, its strikingly melancholic decay is complemented by an eerie rear courtyard lined with idol-filled niches and a family shrine.

Nashipur Palace in Murshidabad, India. Amar Grover
Nashipur Palace in Murshidabad, India. Amar Grover

But it is the House of Jagat Seth, or rather their story, that most resembles a cautionary tale. “Jagat Seth” means “banker of the world” (an honorific title) and the extraordinary rise in the early 1700s of a humble-born family from Rajasthan to fabulously wealthy state bankers for Bengal, Bihar and Orissa was mostly down to acumen – and a little luck.

Yet collaboration with Clive of India at Plassey crystallised their gradual downfall. As the British gradually muscled across eastern India, the family’s financial prowess slipped away. Today’s modest museum barely hints at the family’s former prestige and influence. The higher you fly, the harder you fall.

if you go

The flights 

Etihad and Emirates fly direct to Kolkata from Dh1,504 and Dh1,450 return including taxes, respectively. The flight takes four hours 30 minutes outbound and 5 hours 30 minute returning. 

The trains

Numerous trains link Kolkata and Murshidabad but the daily early morning Hazarduari Express (3’ 52”) is the fastest and most convenient; this service also stops in Plassey. The return train departs Murshidabad late afternoon. Though just about feasible as a day trip, staying overnight is recommended.

The hotels

Mursidabad’s hotels are less than modest but Berhampore, 11km south, offers more accommodation and facilities (and the Hazarduari Express also pauses here). Try Hotel The Fame, with an array of rooms from doubles at Rs1,596/Dh90 to a ‘grand presidential suite’ at Rs7,854/Dh443.