It’s dawn and Jainpatti of Azimganj in Murshidabad district is already awake. The white spires of the Rambagh temple looms over the silhouettes of the palm trees that line the horizon. A few yards away, the Bhagirathi flows peacefully. At the temple, the pujari has finished the morning rituals and left, as is evident from the little clusters of hibiscus and jasmine gathered around the idols. Shakuntala Devi, 74, who has been taking care of the temple garden for more than two decades, is sweeping the fallen leaves off the lawn. She leads us in and returns to her chores.
The Rambagh temple was built in 1870. Inside, the Italian-tiled enclosures, Belgian glass chandeliers and marble tirthankara idols tell their own stories. “There is a marriage of styles in most Jain temples here. Murshidabad was a cosmopolitan urban sprawl even before Kolkata came into being in 1690. There were the Jains from western India, of course. But there were also British, Dutch, Armenian, Portuguese and French settlements here. What you see in the architecture of the place is a composite mix of styles,” says Sandeep Naulakha, a member of the Murshidabad Heritage Development Society.
Naulakha, 52, who belongs to one of the most respected Shaherwali Jain families of Azimganj, is our guide for the day. He is also a man with a purpose: he wants to put Murshidabad back on the tourist map of India. But it’s an uphill task, and Naulakha would be the first one to admit that. The narrow lanes of Azimganj are dotted with beautiful havelis in varying degrees of decay. “Three years ago, we set up this society to help restore the numerous large temples, mansions, palaces and gardens designed by world renowned European architects. We have already worked on three Jain temples and are renovating a few others. We have tried to mobilise the owners of havelis of the area. Most of them were only too happy to sell their properties and leave.We have also organised an annual Murshidabad festival to promote tourism. The truth is, there are many unexplored gems in this part of the country,” says Naulakha. Sitting in his spacious haveli at the Jainpatti area of Azimganj (which houses an armoury amongst other things), he tells us about the origin of the epithet Shaherwali. In the 17th century, Murshidabad was the capital of Bengal and a bustling, cosmopolitan city. Kolkata was still a collection of villages. “So, when Jains from the area visited Kolkata, they were called shaherwalis or city folks,” says Naulakha.
For almost 1,200 years, this West Bengal town has been sacred to the Jains. “We can trace back Jain settlement in the area to the 9th century. It was a silk hub then and since they were a trading community, many settled here. They built several temples here and over the years, it became a Jain pilgrimage centre,” says Sangita Chakraborty, who is in charge of the Hazarduari Museum in Murshidabad. However, the Nizamat at Murshidabad became involved in debts under the British rule in the 19th century. The title of “Nawab of Bengal” was abolished in 1880. From then on, Murshidabad slowly turned into a backwater town. A place everyone had heard of, but no one bothered visiting.
On the opposite bank of the Bhagirathi, at Jiaganj, stands the Bimalnath temple. Built in the late 19th century, it is one of the largest Jain temples of the area. Lalu Das, 64, who has been the temple caretaker for the past 50 years, mentions the steady slide in the number of pilgrims over the last few decades. “We had 10,000 Jains in the area at that time. Now, there are hardly 80 left,” he says. The Jiaganj-Azimganj area of Murshidabad alone has around 14 Jain temples, each boasting of something unique. If the Kasauti statues of Kiratbagh Jain temple have replicas in the British Museum London, the Panchyati temple has a striking tiled enclosure depicting the English countryside. The Kathgola palace temple has sprawling gardens with fountains and pathways.
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The trade and commerce of the area was also dominated by the Jains, especially the dynasty of Jagat Seths, who accumulated vast wealth as the Nawab’s bankers (the title Jagat Seth means Banker to the World). Since Bengal was perhaps the richest subah of the Mughal Empire, this should not be too surprising. “The palace of Jagat Seth is a perfect example of the fusion of colonial and Islamic architecture. It is not protected by the Archeological Survey of India and that’s why I had requested the district authorities of Murshidabad to convert it into a museum. But that didn’t happen. There are many such structures. We are working with the Murshidabad Heritage Development Society to work out a plan to save them,” says PK Mishra, regional director, east, Archeological Survey of India.
The history of the area is more colourful and cosmopolitan than is commonly perceived. Rani Bhavani of Natore (now in Bangladesh), who was one of the first woman zamindars in India and was known for her philanthropic ways, shifted to Azimganj in mid-1700s due to political upheaval in her province. “It is said that one day Rani Bhavani’s daughter Tarasundari, who was famed for her beauty, was standing by the Bhagirathi and the son of Siraj ud-Daulah, the last nawab of Bengal, spotted her and was enamoured by her beauty. He tried to abduct her but the locals put up a firm stand and he had to return shamefaced. Pleased by their gesture, Rani Bhavani built a collection of terracotta temples in the area,” says Ramaprasad Bhaskar, local historian and archivist. The temples in question are exquisite samples of Bengal’s famed terracotta art. The Char Bangla temples, which date back to mid 1700s, is a complex of four temples. They are built on 1.5 feet high foundations and are dochala (two roofed) hut shaped, which is typical of the Bengal school of architecture. Scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana are depicted on their walls.
Murshidabad’s cosmopolitanism in the 16th-17th century also attracted the attentions of foreign traders. There were French, Portuguese, English, Dutch and Portuguese colonies in the city, but none of their remnants have been preserved, except two quaint Dutch and English cemeteries in the Cassim Bazar area. The Dutch cemetery, which is in the middle of a densely populated residential neighbourhood, has some mausoleums, but a lot of the graves are now derelict.
If Murshidabad is to realise its full potential as a tourist hub of Bengal, much needs to be done. “The infrastructure of the city is quite inadequate. We still have a narrow gauge rail line which means the distance of 196 km between Kolkata and Murshidabad takes four-and-a-half hours by train when it really shouldn’t take more than three hours. There are hardly any resorts in the area and the number of decent eateries and cafes are limited. Though Murshidabad has a rich Mughal culinary history, no effort has been made to promote or popularise it. We need to put everything in place before inviting people to come experience this historic city,” says Basak.