Kolkata - Murshidabad
Named after Murshid Quli Khan, Murshidabad was the capital of Bengal before Kolkata was made its capital. It was an aggressive act by the British East India Company that deprived the local Nawab the powers to collect taxes. Murshid Quli khan had brought the capital to Murshidabadl from Dhaka where it had been taken by Bangla Sultanate. The region was very affluent and the local Nawab used to provide handsome tributes to the Mughal court in Delhi.
That it was very rich and prosperous was also found by the Anglophile scholar Nirad Choudhury. In his heavily researched book “Clive of India” he had occasion to record that Robert Clive, when he saw Murshidabad, thought that the place was far more prosperous than his (Clive’s) native London. This can be rejected as a misjudgment due to ethnic pride but a similar conclusion arrived at by William Dalrymple in his book “Anarchy” cannot be discarded for any reason.
The place was crawling with European traders and their representatives. The East India Company of England had set their shop there with the French, Dutch and Danish East India Companies who too had parked themselves there for slices of what seems to have been the slices of the huge cake. The Armenians were already there as were the Jagat Seths, the famous money lenders. Murshidabad used to produce a lot of silk and that along with the famed Bengali muslin were favourite items of trade. Murshidabadi silk was a very coveted thing. My mother used to have a Murshidabadi silk sari which was her prized possession.
Murshidabad was the capital of Bengal Subah that had Bihar and Odisha within its control. It was a very rich province with Murshidabad having the privilege of providing the seat of provincial treasury, revenue office and judiciary. The Murshidabadi prosperity attracted several merchant families from various parts of India and Europe who decided to drop anchor there. The place became a cultural centre as well with development of a native gharana of music and Murshidabad style of painting that looked like Mughal miniatures.
The affluence gave rise to some significant constructions and a few structures have been left behind that can be seen even today. The Katra Masjid, Niyamat Imambada and, later, the Hazaarduari Palace were built. The palace is reputed to have more than 900 doors and was built for running offices and for accommodating the Nawab’s and the English Company’s officials.
As was quite evident, the British East India Company gradually acquired enormous powers and the nawabs succeeding Murshid Quli Khan were unable play the games that the Company had come to master. Slowly, while power slipped away from the Nawabs it accreted in the hands of the Company. The nawabs came to survive with the grace of the Company which had acquired all the power through crookedness ad chicanery.
The second Plassey war completely changed the equations with the English coming out victorious. They became more self-willed and deprived the nawabs of the maintenance from the revenues. Slowly taxes came to be collected by the Company. Affairs of the state were increasingly being decided by Company officials in Kolkata. A situation was gradually created in which the capital had to be shifted to Kolkata. When that happened it sounded the death knell of Murshidabad.
The English East India Company had already started nibbling at the Bengali territory. The second Plassey war made the local hereditary nawabs subservient to the Company. The Crown was also very indulgent in giving the Company sweeping powers to wage war to acquire territory. The Company, thus, grabbed by fair means and foul considerable amount of real estate within a short span of time. But that is another long story.
On our way back from Murshidabad we stopped at Berhampur where my cousin used to live. He had already organized a lavish meal with Bengal’s favourite fish Hilsa in mustard sauce. Not many can really tackle a piece of Hilsa as it has too many bones. We somehow managed it very well, more so because what was awaiting us was far more delectable. Chhena bara is a kind of jalebi of bigger sizes made of cottage cheese and as you sink your teeth in them sweet fragrant syrup oozes out and fills your mouth. They are fried till they are dark brown like kala jamuns and then immersed in the fragrant syrup. It is just heavenly. We took leave of our lovable Dada after heaping on him our thanks for the wonderful meal. That was the last we saw of him as he passed away within a couple of years’ time.
We also visited the village of my father in-law close to the district headquarters at Malda. It was an affluent village with all the houses built of bricks and mortar. As I entered the village post office I found wads of currency notes in the hands of people who had come to deposit them. Obviously, the soil was rich and the farmers were diligent that produced the wads of currency. In times of the nawabs it was gold and jewellery, these days it is wads of Rs. 100/- notes