Murshidabad: The Versailles of Bengal

We took a right into a winding road, wide enough for one car. Brightly painted buildings on both side. We asked the nearest people, “English Cemetery?” No one knew.

As we were driving we came across a building, nearly as long as a football field. Red brick on one side. It looked like a palace, crumbling. Perhaps the cemetery was on the other side?

It was a mansion. It was huge. Painted a faint yellow and blue on the front, bleached from the sun. Two lions over the gate. We stopped and got out, and asked the people standing in front of it what it was. A palace they confirmed. People were living inside it they said. Something its size should have been in lonely planet or tripadvisor—but it wasn’t.

This Sunday we took a day trip to Murshidabad, the former capital of Bengal. We had driven since 4:30 am and arrived, after lunch at a dysfunctional restaurant, at 3:00pm. The road (National Highway 3) was more cratered pothole than road.

Then we came across the English and Dutch Cemeteries. Only 1 review in tripadvisor each. Then a tomb, small. Not in tripadvisor. Then another palace, owned by the Roy family. Not in tripadivsor. Then the Armenian lake, surrounded by walls and with a garden inside. Not in tripadivsor.

I’m amazed that Murshidabad does have the international tourist attention it should have. Its mention in lonely planet is a stub, but it’s much more to see than the Sunderbon, for instance.

When the Mughal Empire started crumbling in the 18th century, power devolved into a number of fractious princely states, ruled by Nawabs. These states still held loyalty to the Empire but it was without effect, and they ruled independently.

Bengal was one of these states. The Nawabs of Bengal ruled over the provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa (now modern day states in India). The Nawabs granted a number of trading contracts to different European East India Companies: the Dutch, French, Danish and British, and if I’m not mistaken, the Portuguese as well, though they had faded into history. Murshidabad was once a center of culture of learning, attracting communities from world wide, like the Armenians

In 1756, the Nawab, seeing the success of the most powerful of the Companies, the British, grew fearful and decided to invade. He sacked British trading “factories” and marched on Calcutta. The British fled, but came back the next year with a small, though professional army.

They retook Calcutta, advanced North to Murshidabad, and only thirty or so kilometers south of the Nawab’s capital, the two sides met in battle. With some deception—including that the British general had bribed some of the Nawab’s lieutenants, the British scored a tremendous victory, and forced the Nawab to give up all his territory. It was a momentous moment for the British Empire—and it was the most major step in the creation of British Raj, and the British dominance of India.

Murshidabad contains hidden and crumbling architecture everywhere. Tombs dot the streets, there are fantastic British and Dutch cemeteries from the European settlements at Cassimbazar (Kasimbazar). It has a beautiful riverside, clean by Indian standards. Between the river and buildings overlooking it are an endless stretch of football fields. Along the river itself are a few ghats—steps down to the water—and a lovely stretch of road with chai and ice cream stands. But it’s not crowded like I expected. There’s room to walk.

Most fantastic is the Hazar Duari—the palace of 1000 doors. Opposite it is the also impressive imambari (imam’s house). There’s also a very impressive mosque and a number of smaller palaces in different states of disrepair.

What Murshidabad lacks is development. Most of what we found was unmarked or driving on random streets. With money and time it has the right to be the tourist destination it should be.