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 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 revenues 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 be the slices of the huge cake. The Armenians were already there. 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 having the provincial treasury, revenue office and judiciary. The 18th Century unveiled the prosperity of Murshidabad attracting several merchant families from various parts of India and Europe who decided to drop anchor there. The armenians Armenians and Jagat Seths, the famous money lenders were already there. The place became cultural centre as well with development of a native gharana of music and Murshidabad style of painting that look 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 about 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 English 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 were surviving with the grace of the Company and the latter had all the power. 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 a situation was being created under which the capital would be shifted to Kolkata. That sounded the death knell of Murshidabad.
The English had already started nibbling at Indian territory. The second Plassey war made the local hereditary nawabs subservient to the Company. With the approval of the Crown to wage war the Company acquired considerable amount of real estate within a short span of time . But that is another long story.
On our way back we stopped at Berhampur where my cousin used to live. He had already organized a lavis 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 gulab jamuns and then immersed in the fragrant syrup. It is just heavenly. We took leave of Dada after heaping on him our thanks for the wonderful meal.