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 continued…