If Ruins Tourism is your thing, you cannot miss Murshidabad, the erstwhile capital of Bengal during Mughal times, and the center of commerce and administration during British times.
Murshidabad is dotted with ruins of its glorious past in every nook and corner which is heart breaking to say the least. You cannot help but wonder why the present government is not doing enough to restore and maintain the ruins and promote heritage tourism? The answer is perhaps blowing in the wind. Which of its glorious past would we be proud of, when our hearts are filled with hatred for both Islam and British rulers? Our history is a bloody wound that we keep scratching, we never forget, we never forgive, we take one step forward and ten step backwards.
Murshidabad is at a distance of 215 kms from Kolkata and is best reached by train. There is a station named Murshidabad but you should get down one stop before, at the Berhampur Court Station. This is because the major tourist spots are closer to this station, although the main attraction of Murshidabad, the Hazarduari Palace is closer to Murshidabad station. The two stations are at a distance of 15 mins by train, 25 mins by road.
Outside Berhampur Court Railway station you would not find autos, taxis or buses. You would find Tanga or horse carriages. I am not sure if this legacy is maintained deliberately for tourism purpose or because the streets of Murshidabad are too narrow for any other vehicle to move properly. In absence of a lot of traffic Murshidabad wears a very quiet haunting feel when you move around the town.
The historic town is divided in equal halves by the river Bhagirathi and the historical legacy lies on both side of the river. It would take at least two-three days, for a regular tourist, to visit all the historic spots in Murshidabad most of which are now lying in ruins. For an explorer, academic researcher it would take about 15 days. Unfortunately, I made merely a day long trip, and have seen only some of the spots on just one side of Bhagirathi. I wish to return to Murshidabad soon to spend more time.
For a solo female traveler it seemed like a safe space as long as it is day time and you are not trying to actually explore the ruins. My guess is, the quiet and seclusion of the town, would turn the nights a bit risky for solo women. The major buildings have an administration, which is probably getting government funds for maintenance and is supposed to take care of the buildings. But sadly, they are not doing their duties, so the buildings are in ruins and the whole place gets a creepy feel.
Creepy feel because of ghosts and spirits is actually rather interesting, its the human that we need to be afraid of when we travel alone. The men, plenty of them presumably recruited by government, wander around the place staring at tourists, probably judging them or fantasizing about them, instead of doing their job. I was very disappointed to see the lot and didn’t get a good feel at all. None of them looked like good people happy to help tourists at all. They looked like people you cannot trust in the dark lonely alleys and ruins of Murshidabad.
I hired a tanga to take me around the town at just about Rs.200/- for the whole day. Although its oral history dates as far back as the 16th century during the rule of Sher Shah Suri, the Murshidabad whose ruins we now see was established by Murshid Kuli Khan in 1704 who moved the capital of Bengal from Dhaka to Murshidabad under the orders of Aurangzeb. The town was the center of commerce, administration, education and cultural development through the Mughal rule. It started losing its glory after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 when Nawab Siraj Ud-Daulah lost the reign to British forces. It continued to be a significant municipality even during the British time. So many Nawabs, traders, and high net worth individuals have been resident of this place, you can spot a palatial building every now and then as you move around in the tanga.
Hazarduari Palace, situated on the banks of river Bhagirathi, with an area of 41 acres surrounding it, is the biggest attraction of the town. Built under the reign of Nawab Nazim Humayun Jah of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa by Italian architect Duncan Macleod from 1829 to 1837, the building has over hazaar duar (thousand doors), thus deriving its name hazaarduari, of which only around hundred are real doors others are just fake structures meant to confuse intruders. Wikipedia page is rather sketchy in giving the history of the place, but outside the Palace you can buy one of those thin booklets, printed in cheap paper, written by un-celebrated writers who have actually kept the history and legacy alive, for Rs.10 or 20.
The three floors of the massive structure is now turned into a museum that has artifacts from various parts of the world, as all museum has, but nothing really that fancy. Opposite to the Palace there is the Imambada, on the side of it there is a market place where you can buy local handicrafts items, enjoy local food. There is an interesting story around the large canon kept at the compound called ‘Bacchawali Tope’. The story goes that the canon have been used only once, that one time it created such a loud sound that it caused miscarriage of all pregnant women within a range of 10 miles. Since then its name is bacchawali (of infants) and have been banned due to its deadly effect.
The Nashirpur Rajbari was built by tax collector Devi Singha who came from Panipat and soon got infamous for his severe punishments for failure to pay taxes. He built his house as a replica of Hazarduari Palace, it had marble statues, fountains, European furniture etc. Local oral narratives informed me that he was quite a hated person and it is only because of his misdeeds that in spite of having two wives he never had an offspring.
The Kathgola Bagan, a huge garden built to mainly grow kath golap (White Plumeria) flowers, is situated within the premises of the Nashipur Rajbari. The local guide say the garden was only an eye wash, behind the plantations and decorations the king used to do illegal trades with Dutch traders. Inside the garden there is Pareshnath Temple with a very unique cross cultural architecture.
House of Jagat Seth
Jagat Seth was the Banker of Murshidabad. I didn’t get a lot of information about the family from visiting the palatial house but looked him up on Wikipedia, and its quite a profile. The Jagat Seths are known to be the most powerful bankers of India during the first half of 18th century. Roben Orme (official historian of East India Company) described Jagat Seths as the greatest shroff (money changer) and banker in the known world. Portrait of an European lady on a ruined wall, a frail old lady sitting on a charpai running her fingers through her thin hair, a vintage car – are some of the haunting images that would forever remain in my memory. I cannot even be sure if the old lady I saw was for real, I was alone, so I can’t tell if anybody else saw her.
The Jafarganj Cemetery, built by Mir Jafar, the most hated person in the history of Bengal is the most haunting eerie place in the whole of Murshidabad. Mir Jafar lies there with his family and several other Nawabs. I don’t know if it is because of his treachery, or some other reason, but nobody visits the grave and I was the only one there when I visited. There I was walking around the ruined grave of the man who almost single handedly brought down the Mughal empire in Bengal (It is believed that it was his betrayal that led to Siraj Ud Dullah’s loss at the Battle of Plassey and the end of Mughal rule in Bengal). I cannot explain in words what I felt, perhaps the photos can.
But there is history, then there is my history which is always challenging the truth everybody think they know. If lawyers in modern India can go to Court claiming Taj Mahal was a Hindu temple, why can’t somebody write a book which claims Mir Jafar was not a traitor. So somebody did. A book, ‘Bichitra Murshidabad’ written by Dr. Reza Ali Khan, apparently after researching 18 other history books is at sale at the entrance of Jafarganj Cemetery for Rs.20/-
Visit Murshidabad for its glorious ruins and forgotten history scattered in plenty all over. And if you keep your eyes open enough and ears tuned enough you might hear the Nawabs and Nawabis voice echo from the ruins. Perhaps the screams of Jagat Seth and his family being beheaded…