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Murshidabad


Murshidabad is a district of the Indian state of West Bengal and also the name of its headquarters. The city of Murshidabad, on the Bhagirathi, was once famous as the metropolis of the Subah Bangala, the eastern Mughal province, and the usual residence of the nawabs of Bengal in the eighteenth century. The city was reduced by the end of the 18th century almost to its present size when first the treasury and then the administrative headquarters of Bengal were transferred to Calcutta.

One of the main characteristics of the pre-modern Bengal city was its instability. The towns flourished on the banks of the Bhagirathi, which frequently changed course. Moreover, owing to the non-availability of limes and stone in the region permanent buildings of brick and stone were rare. The houses were therefore generally made of bamboo, thatch and mud. As in most large cities of the subcontinent the ordinary houses in Murshidabad were made of mud and stone and the streets were narrow. Those of the nobility and rich people were, of course, made of brick. Among public buildings mosques and pagodas were prominent, but they were not well designed, and even the nawab's palace was not a magnificent one.

In 1814 the city judge and Magistrate of Murshidabad reported that it was composed of numerous villages crowded together and extending nearly ten miles along the banks of the Bhagirathi, and the greater part of it was interspersed with thick heavy jungle. Captain JE Gastrell noted the steady decline of the city in 1860. According to him there were no well-defined limits to it as a city nor was there any part known specially by that name. The name was given to an indiscriminate mass of temples, mosques, handsome pucca houses, gardens, walled enclosures, huts, hovels and tangled jungle containing the ruins of many edifices that had sprung up and decayed around the residences of the nawabs of Murshidabad.

murshid quli khan, the Diwan of Bengal removed the seat of diwani administration from Dhaka to Murshidabad in 1702. He became nawab of Bengal in 1716 and shifted the seat of the nizamat to the city in 1717 and it thus acquired the prestige of being the capital of subah Bangala. It remained the capital of the province for about seventy years, though all these years were not a period of undisturbed peace and tranquility for the city's development. The history of the city of Murshidabad begins from the early 18th century when Murshid Quli Khan moved from Dhaka to Murshidabad; but its origin is uncertain.

According to Ghulam Hussain, author of the riyaz-us-salatin, a merchant named Makhsus Khan first improved the present site of Murshidabad. A Makhsus Khan had been mentioned in the ain-i-akbari as a nobleman who served in Bengal and Bihar during the last decades of the sixteenth century. He was probably the brother of Said Khan governor of Bengal during the reign of akbar. He built a rest house and surrounded it with shops and the place was called after him Makhsudabad. There is also mention of this place as 'Morasudabad' founded by a Yavana (Muslim) in the Bhramanda section of the Bhavisya Purana, which was probably composed in the late sixteenth century. In Valentyn's map (1658-64) 'Moxudabath' is shown on an island formed by the two branches of the Ganges.

During the 17th century this place became well known for silk and silk textiles. As early as 1621 English agents reported that huge quantities of silk could be obtained there. It continued to grow in importance during the second half of the century and eventually became a Mughal administrative station. During the 1660's Murshidabad became a pargana headquarters and its officers had jurisdiction over the European factories at kasimbazar. The English agents Streynsham Master and William hedges mention it as the seat of a local officer who administered the area.

Murshid Quli Khan's decision to move from Dhaka was taken after the governor of Bengal, Prince Azimuddin (azim-us-shan) had made an unsuccessful attempt to kill him. Apart from personal reasons there were also administrative, political and commercial considerations. Dhaka had lost its strategic importance as a base of operations against the Mughs and portuguese, and the military activities of the European traders may also have influenced Murshid Quli Khan's decision. He therefore moved from Dhaka with all his revenue officials and some of the wealthy merchants and bankers. After his arrival at Makhsudabad he improved the town, raised public offices and other government establishments and changed its name to Murshidabad. The city flourished during his time and became the centre of political, economic and cultural life under the nawabs of Bengal for more than half a century.

The presence of the court, the army, artisans and merchants, both European and Asian, greatly increased the wealth of Murshidabad and owing to its administrative and commercial activities financial houses established their head offices there. The Murshidabad mint soon became the largest in Bengal and the duties collected amounted to three lakhs of rupees at two percent upon the value of the money coined. The administrative requirements and the extension of government activities and commerce naturally led to the expansion of the city.

Murshid Quli Khan not only secured peace, he also left efficient administrative machinery and an established capital for his successor.

Murshid Quli raised the palace of forty pillars (Chihil Sutun), built a mosque and a Katra (a hostel for travelling merchants). A large number of readers of the Quran were maintained in the mosque. Hedges has described the Katra as a seminary of Muslim learning; close to it was the Tope Khana, the arsenal of the nawab, forming the eastern gateway of the city. His successor shujauddin muhammad khan, a great builder, considered the buildings constructed by his predecessor inadequate for state purposes and raised some magnificent buildings in the city - a palace, an arsenal, a high gateway, a Diwan Khana (revenue court), a public audience Hall, a private chamber and a court of the exchequer (khalsa). He also completed a mosque, beautifully decorated in an extensive compound with a large reservoir of water, running canals, artificial springs, flowerbeds and fruit trees and named it Farrahbagh (the Garden of Joy).

The city of Murshidabad had a number of magnificent buildings including the palace of the nawab situated on the riverbank and in the centre of the city. It is a large and imposing building and along with other structures constructed within the same campus was known as Nizamat Qillah (fort). The palace itself was well known as the Bara Kuthi or Hajar Duari, meaning the house with a thousand doors. Within the same enclosure was the imambara. During the muharram the palace was tastefully illuminated - the Quran was recited in the building day and night and in the other months of the year. The main entrances of the Nizamat Qillah had Naubat Khanas (musicians' gallery) over them and they were imposing and high enough for an elephant to walk through them with a rider on its back.

motijheel (the lake of pearls) was situated about two miles south of Murshidabad. Nawab sirajuddaula built a palace there with materials brought from the ruins of gaur. Some English residents and governors also lived at this palace till 1773 when the treasury was removed to Calcutta. Khoshbag (the garden of happiness) situated opposite the Motijheel on the other side of the Bhagirathi, was the old burial ground of the nawabs. The Mosque built by munni begum at the centre of the city known as Mobarak Manjil was famous for its liberal pattern of worship as the Sunnis and the Shias performed their prayer side by side. An idea of the extent of the city may be obtained from the accounts of the travellers who visited the city in the 18th century. Most contemporary accounts suggest that the city extended five miles in length and two and a half miles in breadth on both sides of the river.

A report on the jurisdiction of the city prepared by the city magistrate in the 1780's includes the area from Mahinagar to Berhampur, including the foreign settlements. Taking this as the length of the city it seems clear that during the years of its highest prosperity the city occupied an area about ten miles in length and three miles in breadth, while the suburbs covered a much larger area. No doubt a sizeable portion of the city and suburbs was occupied by a large number of gardens, ponds and lakes, but the central part and the commercial sites including Kasimbazar and Kalkapur remained congested. It was perhaps because of the large area of the city and the congestion caused by large numbers of people in narrow streets and lanes that the foreign travellers compared its greatness with that of London: 'The city of Murshidabad is as extensive, populous and rich as the city of London with this difference, that there are individuals in the first possessing infinitely greater property than in the last city'.

There are no detailed population figures for the eighteenth century. The earliest reference is dated 1815 and travellers who visited Murshidabad in the middle of the eighteenth century refer to its population in a vague way. Considering the provincial establishment, local residents, servicemen and large number of immigrants who crowded the city for trade and jobs during the middle of the eighteenth century, regarded as the most glorious period of Murshidabad, the city population may be estimated at six to seven lakhs in the 1750s. The famine of 1769-70 reduced the population by almost half. The removal of the capital to Calcutta in 1773 inflicted a further blow. Since there is no evidence of any increase in the population it must be assumed that by the end of the century, when the process of decline of the city was already complete, the number must have been reduced to about two lakhs. No accurate population statistics are available before 1829 when the city magistrate reported the population of the city to be 1,46,176. According to Adam's report the figure in 1837 stood at 1,24,804 - this shows a decrease of about fifteen percent in eight years. According to the census of 1872 the number was only 46,172.

Apart from government departments the landed and commercial interests made one of the most important contributions to the growth of the city. The zamindars used to maintain in the capital an establishment of naibs, wakils, messengers, peons and other servants; so did the big merchants and traders. All the foreign companies had separate factories and besides their own officials and servants, hundreds were employed as agents, brokers and workers.

The city served as a manufacturing centre, a marketplace and an entry point. It received goods from the interior and forwarded them to various places both in and outside Bengal. The average annual customs duties collected at Murshidabad on raw silk and textiles from 1749 to 1769 amounted to over two and a half lakhs. This includes only the trade of those Indian merchants who paid duties. As long as it was the capital, a large number of merchants and bankers along with their numerous agents settled in the city.

As the city covered a wide range of administrative, industrial and trading activities the great bulk of the city population were occupied in crafts and service industries and most of them lived in separate quarters. Some of these quarters are known to us, for example, Jahurtali (Jewellers' ward), kathgola (timber market), Chinitola (the sugar ward), Lakriganj (firewood market), Garowantola (area for the oxcarts and pushcarts) and Bakrigali (kaffle lane), being called after the names of the commodities which were traded. The main bazar known as the Chauk occupied a central area of the city. There were several ganjes in and around the city besides places where daily markets were held.

Murshidabad rose from a small market town to the position of the headquarters of the province and by the mid-eighteenth century it was the most prosperous and populous city in Bengal. However, in the second half of the century it lost its glory and importance more rapidly than it had acquired them. There were several reasons for this decline.

After the battle of palashi and still more after the acquisition of the Diwani by the east india company in 1765, apart from the company's policy, the most important cause of the city's decline was the effect of the Great Famine of 1769-70. A most destructive calamity over the greater part of north Bengal, the famine took its greatest toll on the population of Murshidabad and its manufactures. Those who survived were incapable of industry for a considerable time. From government inquiries it could be seen that the silk manufacture of Murshidabad declined after the famine as the weavers, industrial artisans and labourers died in large numbers. Even two years after the famine Murshidabad gave the impression of a deserted city and had no proper defence against its consequences. This did not escape the notice of the members of the Committee of Circuit who visited Murshidabad in the middle of 1772 and it greatly influenced their decision for a move of the Khalsa (treasury) to Calcutta.

The transfer of the diwani and the khalsa to Calcutta in 1773 was a blow to the position of Murshidabad as the chief city of the province. Not only the khalsa but also the two supreme courts of civil and criminal justice were eventually transferred to Calcutta. Only the office of the Qazi, the Kotwal, the Qanungo and the Muhtasibs remained in the city for some time. By these arrangements the whole power and government of the province was shifted to Calcutta and it became, for all intents and purposes, the capital of Bengal.

Murshidabad continued to be the residence of the nawab and the seat of the company's factory, a customhouse, an English resident and of Nizamat and Faujdari Adalats. But the shifting of the revenue establishment with all its branches and staff dealt a blow not only to the dignity but also to the economic life of the city.

The trade of Murshidabad had begun to be affected by the rise of Calcutta as a new administrative and commercial centre. With the reduction of the powers and functions of the nawab and the impoverishment of the nobles, Murshidabad declined as a centre of consumption and trade. It ceased to be a lucrative market for a large number of officials, clerks, servants, bankers and merchants and gradually assumed the appearance of a district town. [KM Mohsin]

Bibliography WW Hunter, A Statistical Account of Bengal, IX, London, 1876; Major JHT Walsh, A History of Murshidabad District, London, 1902; LSS O'Malley, Bengal District Gazetteers, (Murshidabad), Calcutta, 1914; KM Mohsin, A Bengal District in Transition: Murshidabad 1765-93, Dhaka, 1973; K Ballhatehet and J Harrison (ed.), The City in South Asia (Pre-Modern and Modern), London, 1980.