A long but smooth journey from Kolkata airport takes me to the banks of River Bhagirathi. Even in the ides of summer the river appears full as it makes its languid journey across the fertile plains of West Bengal. A ferry – planks of wood sturdily tied with jute ropes, placed over two boats – takes me to the private jetty of Bari Kothi, a home turned boutique hotel in Azimganj.
Bari Kothi was the home of the Dudhoria family, Jain merchants from Rajasthan who migrated to Azimganj and its twin town Jiaganj in the late 18th century. The choice was strategic- the towns were close to Murshidabad, the last capital of the undivided Bengal province and a pre-eminent trading centre for silk, ivory and agricultural produce. In the glory days, Murshidabad saw trade that “rivaled” that of London, the aristocratic Nawabs were known for their extravagance and style and Murshidabad’s wealth attracted Armenians, Danes, Dutch, Afghans and the British among others. Murshidabad for me can be viewed as a cusp: of Mughal to British rule, tradition to modernity, from ruler to prisoner, from a nerve centre of international trade to a provincial town.
When the British moved the capital to Kolkata(or Calcutta as it was then known) and then Delhi, prominent families moved to Kolkata and beyond, travellers rarely ventured to this northern district and Murshidabad and its environs, though rich in stories, history, architecture, cuisine and more faded from popular memory and several buildings fell to dust and ruin.
In 2010 a group of families with origins in Azimganj got together and formed the Murshidabad Heritage Development Society to revive and restore the area. Bari Kothi is one of the results of this endeavor. With its charm and authentic flavour it is an ideal base from which to explore this area.
On the first evening, I began with a walk around the small town of Azimganj. We first stopped at a Jain temple. Stylistically Jain temples appear similar – mostly white marble, a simple sanctum sanctorum and intricately carved pillars all reflecting the level of patronage. The priest warmly receives us and administers a blessing.
The Jains with their razor sharp business acumen soon came to be, not just bankers and financiers to the Nawabs, but also Zamindars, the landowners. There are around nine Jain temples in tiny Azimganj reflecting the stature and influence of the community. We, next, walk towards the local railway station. My house guide tells me that this was in fact created when one of the Jain families wanted to bring an idol to the town and needed a railway stop here.
En route to the station we cross a busy vegetable market, a clutch of shops with the red and white communist flag fluttering above and a wayside tea stall. The stall is tiny and most of the patrons are on the street sipping the dark, sweet tea. We cross a post office located in a heritage building, rickshaws jostle past us in the narrow lanes, we stop a while at the Nowlakha home, another Jain home where a few rooms are open to visit with some memorabilia. We end with a visit to a charming old mosque, white jasmine creepers growing across the red brick dome. Its cow-dust time and we join the cows on their walk home.
Today I began at Katra Mosque and tomb of Murshid Quli Khan, the first Nawab of Bengal. The brick mosque, constructed in 1724 by a follower of the Nawab, reflects the elegant architectural style of the period – a large courtyard, with tapering octagonal minars at the corners, double storied dome cells – as it was also a seminary – and arched doorways. Murshid Quli Khan is buried under the main flight of stairs, and it is claimed that this was indeed the Nawab’s desire, as atonement for his misdeeds.
A short drive takes me to Hazarduari Palace, or the Palace of a 1000 doors. The building spread over a kilometer initially takes you aback, coming as a bit of a surprise for its scale and style. But it is of course a pleasant surprise. Built between 1829 and 1837 and described by one visitor as “British Museum meets Buckingham Palace” the three storey grand building, with over 120 rooms, is today a museum with paintings, furniture, household items, armory galleries and howdahs. (The books and manuscripts section can be accessed only with special permission.)
Opposite the palace is the Nizamat Imambara. This has one of the largest congregation halls and is opened only during Muharram. In the centre of the gardens sits a huge cannon, amusingly called “Bachhawala tope” meaning the “cannon that caused childbirth”. Apparently it was fired just once and the resulting noise induced labour among expectant mothers in the viscinity!
Next is a stop at the tomb of Azimunnisa Begum, daughter of Murshid Quli Khan. As local lore goes, she was known as Kaliji-khaki or liver-eating begum and was said to have been buried alive here. The calm beauty of riverside tomb and the small gardens that surround it however belies the gory story that surrounds it. The final visit is at the curiously named Footi mosque, an unfinished mosque that lies unprotected at the edge of a village, partly covered with overgrowth and slowly crumbling, its beauty still evident in the soaring arches and graceful lines.
It is back to Bari Kothi for lunch.
Late afternoon Bari Kothi has arranged for an evening cruise to Baranagar. Picnic basket in tow we head back to the jetty. A cool breeze had set in as we boarded the boat. We glide past small villages and mango orchards, before disembarking at Baranagar. A short walk takes us to the four, exquisite late medieval Charbangla temples. Made by Rani Bhabani, wife of the Zamindar of Natore, they are one of the finest examples of Bengal’s unique terracotta temples. Decorative terracotta plaques are placed on the walls with each panel or composition telling a mythological story interspersed with rich motifs. The engaging local guide then took us on a walk through his village – homes with cattle and small granaries, little patches of rice cultivation. Cow dung, which is used as fuel in cooking, was made into patties or skewered like kebabs and dried, an English language class for local children was underway. Amidst all this, battery-operated electric tuk-tuks ply the locals. Late evening we are back on the boat and enjoy cold lemon juice with sandwiches, biscuits and savory snacks as we head back.
This morning we crossed the Bhagirathi and visited the clutch of houses of the weaving community at Tantipara. In the 18th century Murshidabad was a major centre for raw silk and textile production. The tradition still survives – the homes serve as both weaving centres and outlets for the handloom cotton saris. In the lanes outside, yarn is being dyed and stretched out. Further on in Islampur, we visit a cooperative where silk yarn is produced.
The lifestyle of the Bengali landowning elites, the Zamindars, as they were known, have been probably best captured in the films of Satyajit Ray. In their heyday they enjoyed wealth and tremendous influence within the colonial system, created palatial homes called Rajbaris and often vied with one another in lavish spending. Their extravagant lifestyle ill prepared them for the entrepreneurial drive needed in modernising India. We visit some of the Rajbaris in Nashipur and Cassimbazzar, a shadow of the their glorious past.
We also visit Kathgola Palace a mash of Greek, Bengali, Rajasthani, Mughal and Italian elements. It was built as a garden home by the Dugar family to entertain European and Muslim guests during trade visits. The home is now being restored and is open to the public. What is interesting is the revival of a rose garden for which the area was once known.
The next visit is to the home of Jain merchant Jagat Sheth once considered one of the richest men in the world. Looking at the modest home today it sounds fanciful, but locals say that its just karma catching up. The family had a vice like grip on the economy of Bengal, which included Bihar and Orissa, as revenue collectors for the Nawabs, they had seigniorage rights and minted coins for both the state as well as foreign traders. The family however played a treacherous role in defeating the last Nawab, Siraj ud Daula, at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. A series of unlucky events that dogged the family ever since lead to rapidly diminishing wealth and influence.
We end the day with a visit to the tombs of two of the main players at the Battle of Plassey: the cemetery of Mir Jafar, who secretly plotted with the British to establish colonial rule. Siraj ud Daula is interred at Khushbagh or the ‘Garden of Happiness’. A young visitor from Kolkata sits by the last Nawab’s tomb lights a candle and places a bouquet of bright red roses. She is not quite able to say what brings her here, but just that it gives her a lot of happiness…