Sunday, 8 July 2018

Sarfaraz Khan: Murshidabad's Forgotten Nawab

Since Murshid Quli Khan moved the capital of Bengal from Dhaka to Murshidabad around 1704, there have been only 4 Nawabs of Bengal from two dynasties to have succeeded him, before the East India Company’s takeover. The Nasiri Dynasty to which Murshid Quli Khan belonged, was unseated by the Afshar Dynasty, led by Alivardi Khan. The Afshar Dynasty’s rule came to an end with the Battle of Plassey, on the 23rd of June, 1757. The next to take their place on the Musnad of Murshidabad, was the Najafi Dynasty, beginning with the much-maligned Mir Jafar. But while the war that brought the Afshar Dynasty to an end is much discussed, and how its last scion, the hapless Siraj-ud-Daulah met his end has been memorialised in plays, the end of the Nasiri Dynasty has been almost completely forgotten. We know where every Nawab of Bengal is buried, except the last Nasiri Nawab, Sarfaraz Khan. For years, books have pointed to the rough area where he was buried, but no one has given the actual location, nor printed a photograph of the tomb. Has the tomb of a Nawab actually been lost? And how did it come to this?

Interiors of the incomplete Fauti Masjid. Construction was started by Sarfaraz Khan and ceased upon his death



AN INAUSPICIOUS BEGINNING

On the 30th of June, 1727, at the age of 67, Murshid Quli Khan, the Nawab of Bengal, died. Starting out as a Hindu Brahmin who was sold into slavery in the Deccan, through the dint of his hard work, he had risen through the ranks to become a favourite of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Under him for the first time, the separate offices of the Diwan of Bengal, responsible for revenue and the Nazim of Bengal, responsible for civil administration, were united creating the post of the Nawab. He had been popular and widely respected. It is unclear what happened to his only son, Yahya Khan. According to some sources, he joined the service of the Nawab of the Carnatic, but according to others, his father had him executed for causing grievous physical injury to a Brahmin man in Murshidabad. His elder daughter Azim-un-Nisa (aka Zainab-un-Nisa) was married to a noble from Burhanpur, Shuja-ud-Din Muhammad Khan, whom the courtiers called Mirza Dakhani because of his southern origin. She died at a young age, of some mysterious disease and without bearing children. Her tomb, in courtyard of the Azimnagar Mosque of which only one wall remains standing, is now one of the major tourist attractions of Murshidabad. On her death, Shuja married Murshid Quli Khan’s younger daughter, Zinat-un-Nisa (aka Azmat-un-Nisa). Shuja was a vastly different man from his father-in-law and did not get along with him. To create a distance between the two, Murshid Quli Khan promoted him to the post of deputy governor of Orissa and sent him off to Cuttack. But the hard-drinking, womanizing Shuja had a falling out with his second wife as well, and Zinat-un-Nisa returned to Murshidabad with her infant son Sarfaraz. Sarfaraz was raised by his grandfather and eventually made the Diwan of Bengal.

On his deathbed, Murshid Quli Khan named Sarfaraz Khan as his successor. Laying his grandfather’s body to rest under the stairs of the Katra Masjid as was his wish, Sarfaraz prepared to mount the throne. But Shuja would not continue as the Nazim of Orissa and serve as a subordinate to his own son from an estranged wife. He was able to use his influence at the imperial court in Delhi, to get documents issued naming him as successor, instead of his son. Leaving Mohammed Taqi Khan, a son from another wife, in charge of Cuttack, Shuja marched on Murshidabad with a large army and was already in Midnapore when the documents reached him. When news of Shuja’s approach reached Sarfaraz, the enraged young man prepared to face off with him in Katwa (in modern day East Burdwan district). But Murshid Quli Khan’s widow, Nasiri Banu Begum dissuaded her grandson. “To fight against one’s own father, is cause of loss both in this world and the next, as well as of ignominy”, she told him. “Your father is old; after him, the Subahdari as well as the country with its treasures would devolve on you”. Sarfaraz, then perhaps in his early 20’s, could not refuse his grandmother and welcomed his father and escorted him to Murshidabad. In August 1727, Mu'tamad ul-Mulk, Shuja ud-Daula, Nawab Muhammad Shuja Khan Bahadur, Asad Jang became the Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Sarfaraz had spent barely a month at the helm.

Murshid Quli Khan's tomb under the steps of the Katra Masjid

THE ENEMY WITHIN

While Shuja was serving as the deputy governor of Orissa, a man by the name of Mirza Mohammed appeared in court. Mirza Mohammed had been in the service of the Mughal Emperor Azam Shah, but had been reduced to penury since the death of the emperor. Both Shuja and Mirza Mohammed’s wife were of the Afshar tribe of western Turkey and the deputy governor was happy to help a fellow tribesman. Mirza Mohammed’s two sons, Haji Ahmed and Mohammed Ali entered the service of Shuja Khan. Haji Ahmed had a brilliant political mind but it was the younger brother Mohammed Ali, who outshone all members of the family, with his genius both in administration and as a soldier. Shuja, pleased with him, had him awarded the title by which he is known to this day in Bengal – Mohammed Ali Vardi Khan. When Shuja’s machinations placed him on the throne of Bengal, Alivardi and his brother followed their master to Murshidabad. Shuja needed a new governor for Bihar and wanted to send Sarfaraz, but Zinat-un-Nisa would not move out of Murshidabad and would not be parted with her son, who in any case was acting as the Diwan of Bengal. The unanimous choice among Shuja’s courtiers was Alivardi. When Zinat-un-Nisa was informed, she summoned Alivardi to the gate of her apartments, and herself conferred upon him the deputy governorship of Bihar and awarded him a “khilat”.

Alivardi did well for himself, suppressing rebelling zamindars with the help of Rohilla Afghans and bringing tribes like the Chakwar to heel. Sometime during his tenure as deputy governor, Alivardi opened negotiations with the imperial court in Delhi and had himself awarded the title of Mahabat Jung Bahadur. While Shuja had no misgivings about this, Sarfaraz viewed this with suspicion, and a coolness set in. Was it at this juncture that Alivardi began plotting to unseat the ruling dynasty of Bengal? Or had he never intended to remain a humble deputy governor? It is impossible to say with any degree of certainty, but immediately after this, we see him trying to create fissures in the ruling family. Alivardi’s first attempt was to create such misunderstandings between Sarfaraz and Taqi Khan, that the two half-brothers would have started a full-fledged war, had it not been for the intervention of Shuja himself. He reprimanded Taqi Khan and sent him back to Orissa, but on his arrival in Cuttack around 1734, he mysteriously died.

And then on the 20th of March, 1739, Nader Shah of Persia entered the city of Delhi after defeating the Mughal army of Muhammad Shah. Riots broke out in the city the following night and some 3000 of the Shah’s troops were murdered by Delhi’s residents. An enraged Nader Shah appeared at Chandni Chowk the morning after and ordered a general slaughter of Delhi’s population. It is estimated that some 30,000 men, women and children were butchered in the course of 6 hours. By this time, Shuja was old and bedridden. When Alivardi had moved to Patna, his elder brother Haji Ahmed stayed back in Murshidabad and together with Rai Rayan Alam Chand and the banker Jagat Seth Fateh Chand, formed a triumvirate of advisers upon whom Shuja became absolutely dependant. On the 26th August 1739, Shuja died and was succeeded by Sarfaraz Khan. On the triumvirate’s advice, Sarfaraz had coins struck in Nadir Shah’s name and ordered his Khutba to read at all mosques (i.e., his name to be included in Friday prayers). While he was persuaded that this would secure Bengal’s safety from the wrath of the invader, minting coins in Nader Shah’s name amounted to accepting his legitimacy as the ruler. As soon as Nader Shah had withdrawn from Delhi, Alivardi, through his agents in Delhi, carried these stories to the Mughal Emperor, where this was presented as evidence that Sarfaraz Khan was a traitor. The court issued a patent granting the Nizamat of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa to Alivardi Khan, and ordering the execution of Sarfaraz Khan.

Shuja Khan's tomb in Roshi Bagh


THE BATTLE OF GIRIA

In Murshidabad, Sarfaraz was completely unaware of how his enemies were closing in on him. The  triumvirate now began moving things in Alivardi’s favour. It began with them  convincing Sarfaraz of the need to reduce the size of his army for purposes of economy. In reality, whoever the Nawab fired was hired right back by Alivardi in Patna. Nearly half of Sarfaraz’s army thus ended up under Alivardi’s command. Around March 1740, Alivardi gave out that he was leading his troops to subdue the rebellion of the Zamindar of Bhojpur. Meanwhile, all roads leading to Murshidabad were blocked and all communication to and emanating from the capital was intercepted. Haji Ahmed kept up a constant stream of correspondence to his younger brother, sending him every detail of what was happening in court. Alivardi had concealed the real reasons for his mission from even his own commanders and revealed it to them only after he had made them swear an oath of personal loyalty. By the time Sarfaraz Khan realised what was going on, Alivardi’s army had already crossed the Rajmahal hills and was on the borders of Bengal. With an army commanded by loyal veterans such as Ghaus Khan and the Rajput Baji Singh, Sarfaraz marched to confront Alivardi, camping some 40km to the northeast of Murshidabad, in the little village of Giria.

On the 26th of April, 1740, at an hour his astrologers had selected as auspicious, Sarfaraz Khan mounted his attack on Alivardi Khan. The initial attack was extremely successful, scattering Alivardi’s defences and causing his men to flee. Had Sarfaraz pressed home his advantage, Alivardi’s game would have been up. But at this criticial juncture, Ray Rayan Alam Chand, chose to intervene. Fearing that the tables would be turned, Alam Chand urged the Nawab to cease hostilities for the moment. It was noon and Bengal’s infamous summer sun was beating down on the battlefield. Continuing the fight in such weather would exhaust the men and the horses, he argued. That Sarfaraz chose to listen to his council and pulled back his men, demonstrates his one defining characteristic – extreme gullibility. Even when he had known that Haji Ahmed was plotting against him, he failed to take any action against him until the very last minute. He even failed to remove from his post Shahriar Khan, a relative of the Haji and commander of the artillery. Upon reaching the battlefield, it was discovered that a considerable part of the artillery had been sabotaged – “brickbats instead of shells were discovered in the arsenal, and rubbish was found inside guns”. It is interesting to note that once Shahriar was fired, his place was taken by a certain “Pancho Firangee”, son of “Antony, the Portuguese”.

At this point, Alivardi sent to Sarfaraz a message saying that he was coming only to pay his respects to the Nawab and that this whole thing was a huge misunderstanding. Sarfaraz sent to Alivardi’s camp his closest confidants, Shuja Quli Khan and Khwaja Basant, and in front of them Alivardi swore with one hand on the Quran, that he meant no harm. Shuja Quli Khan and Khwaja Basant came back reassured, and informed the Nawab. But had they bothered to remove the coloured cloth from the package that Alivardi had placed his hand on, they would have discovered that inside was a brick, not the Quran. Assured of his safety, Sarfaraz let down his guard and ordered his cooks to prepare a grand feast. Soldiers from Alivardi’s camp, meanwhile, had begun coming over to this camp, and the two groups were intermingling, drinking wine and making merry. No one realised, that this too, was a part of Alivardi’s plan. As Sarfaraz’s camp partied into the night, Alivardi split his army in two. One had his elephant and his standard, to confuse the enemy into thinking that’s where he was. But what he had actually done was lead a small group of men and artillery in a different direction. This group, in the dead of night, had gone around Sarfaraz’s camp and positioned themselves in a semi-circle behind it. At the first light of day, Alivardi’s soldiers, who had infiltrated the camp, rose and began slaughtering Sarfaraz’s men. The artillery began lobbing cannonballs right into the Nawab’s camp. Those of Sarfaraz’s men who had survived the slaughter now deserted him. Only a single column of his most trusted men remained and the Nawab jumped on his elephant after hastily finishing his morning prayers. No sooner had he rushed on to the battlefield, however, that he was hit in the forehead by a musket ball fired by a traitor in his own army. It was a fatal shot.

So sudden had been Sarfaraz Khan’s death, that even his own officers were confused. Elements of the Nawab’s army, unaware of his death, continued to attack Alivardi for quite some time after his death, some choosing to die rather than surrender. But ultimately of course, once news of the Nawab’s death spread, his troops either surrendered or deserted. But in the midst of all the confusion, no one had noticed that Sarfaraz’s faithful mahout had escaped with the lifeless body of his master still in the litter on which he had charged into battle only a few hours ago. He rode through the day, bringing the Nawab’s body back to his palace in Murshidabad by evening. There, Sarfaraz’s son Hafizullah and his son-in-law Yasin Khan hurriedly buried him within the palace grounds and prepared to defend the city. But news of the Nawab’s death had spread, and the troops that Sarfaraz had left behind to guard the city, began to desert. Meanwhile, to avoid the plunder of the city he himself would have to rule, Alivardi stayed camped at Giria for two days. It was only after Haji Ahmed had entered the city and proclaimed peace, that he entered the capital in a victorious procession. His first port of call was the residence of Nafisa Begum, Sarfaraz Khan’s sister. When she refused to grant him an audience, he made a speech from the gateway, expressing his regret for his death. From here, the procession moved to the Chehel Setun, the 40-pillared-hall, where on the 29th of April, 1740, Ali Vardi Khan Mahabat Jung was declared the Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

THE HUNT FOR THE LOST TOMB OF SARFARAZ KHAN

Sarfaraz’s hurried burial had left no time for the construction of an elaborate mausoleum. Over time, his palace was dismantled, new buildings came up in its place, and the only piece of information about the tomb that filtered through to the books about Murshidabad was the fact that it was in an area called Naktakhali, or Nyangtakhali, or Nagina Bagh. The name Nagina Bagh is still used for a neighbourhood adjoining the railway station, but directions to the tomb are impossible to find. When I first explored Murshidabad in April 2018, I was carrying with me Purna Chandra Majumdar’s book The Musnad of Murshidabad. While it lists almost all the antiquities of the former capital city, it was published in 1905! On that first trip, while I didn’t find the tomb, I did find in the area a very large mosque, in complete ruins, inside a bamboo grove. From Majumdar’s description, it would seem that this mosque had been built by Sarfaraz’s wife and was known as the Begum Masjid. Majumdar describes a plaque on the mosque’s central archway, which is now missing. On it, written in Persian, was a chronogram which revealed the date of construction. However, Majumdar decodes the chronogram to show the date of construction as being 1131 Al Hijra, which corresponds to 1718 CE. In 1718, Sarfaraz would have been an infant, if he had been born at all, so the mosque could not have been constructed by his wife. Since the plaque mentions only “the Begum”, it could have been Sarfaraz’s mother, Zinat, who had had it built.

Ruins of the "Begum Masjid"

On my second trip, after 2 days of fruitless searching, I finally came upon the tomb by accident. Sadhan Tarafdar, our intrepid tuctuc driver was showing me around Nagina Bagh and telling me how he vaguely remembered seeing a tomb in the area, but thought it had been levelled, when a local resident overheard us and told us that the Nawab’s tomb still existed, a small distance from where we were standing. Excited, we rushed towards the spot that he had shown us. Through narrow village paths and muddy patches, we came upon what looked like a very large bush. My friend Soham had been leading the party, and as he turned a corner, I heard him yell, “Aachhe! Aachhe!” (It’s here! It’s here!). Once the weeds had been removed, we found ourselves looking at a small pedestal on a raised platform. The edges of the platform had decayed, but there was enough there to suggest that it was once enclosed by a wall. The wall, Majumdar says, had been put up at the time he was writing his book and the bricks used in the construction appear to be of the modern kind. The pedestal itself closely resembled the photograph in Majumdar’s book and that dispelled all doubts for us – we had found the tomb of Nawab Sarfaraz Khan.

Platform around Sarfaraz Khan's tomb. The pedestal is hidden by weeds

As we were leaving the tomb, Tathagata Neogi (of HeritageWalk Calcutta), who was accompanying us, asked if there were any active construction sites in the area. As luck would have it, there was. Labourers were digging the foundations for a new house. Tathagata was a qualified archaeologist and therefore knew exactly what to look for. Jumping into a pit, he pointed out to us the layers that were visible under ground level. Several feet under the ground was an off-white layer of some substance that appeared to have hundreds of small holes in it. “Surki”, said Tathagata, meaning the lime mortar that was used for construction in Bengal before the advent of modern concrete. Under the surki, there were several layers of bricks that appeared to have been compacted together. One of the workers pulled out an entire brick for us, and sure enough, it was the slim, pre-standardisation brick. In case you didn’t know, the Indian brick was standardised to its present dimensions by Nilmani Mitra, the first qualified Bengali civil engineer, who designed Basu Bati in Bagbazar, Kolkata. Since we were in Nagina Bagh, it was clear to us what we were looking at – the floor of Sarfaraz Khan’s palace! If only the government had conducted a proper excavation here, instead of allowing rampant construction, we could have learnt so much more!

Pedestal on Sarfaraz Khan's tomb. Both modern and old bricks can be seen, suggesting modification

But it seems that ruination has been the fate of everything that Sarfaraz touched. His palace is gone, his family was destroyed and the mosque he had started constructing, had never been completed. The incomplete mosque, on the other side of the railway tracks, is known in Urdu as “Fauti Masjid”, since the Nawab became a “faut” or martyr. But the elegant Urdu has been colloquialised into “phuti masjid” meaning broken mosque, or “phuto masjid” meaning the mosque with a hole. Each nomenclature is accurate in its own way. Although listed by the state government as a heritage site, no steps have been taken to protect it and every monsoon the rains cascade into it through its five incomplete domes, making weeds grow and weakening the mortar that holds the precarious structure together. The teetering mosque is almost a symbol of Sarfaraz himself, whose memory survives only in the minds of a few scholars and local residents and will perhaps be gone when they are.

Brick layer visible during excavations at Nagina Bagh.



OZYMANDIAS

Somewhere inside the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, there lies a round “table” made of black stone. Six feet in diameter, eighteen inches in height, and with four thick pedestals, the rim of this “table” is cut into sixteen facets. On one of those facets there is an inscription in Persian, which reads “This auspicious throne was made in Munger in Bihar by the humblest of slaves, Khwaja Nazar of Bukhara, on the 27th day of Shaban, 1052 Al Hijra (20th November, 1642)”. This is the stone throne or Musnad of the Nawab Nazim of Bengal from the time of Sultan Shuja and this is what the three dynasties destroyed each other vying for. In the end, of course, no one really won.

From the battlefield of Giria, a wounded Rai Rayan Alam Chand made his escape on horseback and returned home. Filled with regret at what he had done, he killed himself by swallowing diamond dust. Sarfaraz Khan’s surviving family members were exiled to Dhaka, where one of the ladies of the house took up a job as a governess to survive. There may be descendants of Sarfaraz Khan living in Dhaka even today. But even beyond that, Alivardi’s ascension had a political domino effect that extended across the entire region. Orissa, at the time, was governed by Murshid Quli Khan II, son-in-law to Shuja. When he received news that Sarfaraz had been killed, he rebelled and Alivardi sent a huge army to Cuttack in response. Although Murshid Quli Khan II was defeated, he managed to escape with his family and appealed for help to Raghoji Bhonsle of Nagpur. The Maratha Empire sent their infamous light cavalry, the “bargeer”, who plundered Bengal for a decade, killing 400,000 Bengalis and giving rise to a lullaby about “borgi” that is popular in Bengal to this day. Perhaps their most daring raid was on Murshidabad itself, where they plundered Jagat Seth’s house. Although Alivardi managed to defeat the Marathas in the Battle of Burdwan, the raids continued and the hit and run tactics of the bargeer proved too much for the Bengal army. Orissa was ceded to the Marathas in 1751 and Alivardi agreed to pay the Maratha Empire “chauth”, or one fourth of the annual revenue of Bengal and Bihar.

After the war, Haji Ahmed moved to Patna with his son Zainuddin, who was appointed the Naib Nazim of Bihar. Like Alivardi before him, Zainuddin employed a large contingent of Afghan soldiers. On the 13th of January 1748, eight years after the Battle of Giria, during a presentation ceremony in Patna, the Afghan troops rose up in revolt. Zainuddin himself was cut in two by a swordsman, while Haji Ahmed was captured and tortured for 17 days to force him to reveal the location of his buried treasure. The Afghans ultimately found what they were looking for under a stone containing the Prophet’s footprint and death mercifully came to the Haji on the 30th of January, 1748. For three months the Afghans unleashed terror on the citizens of Patna, until Alivardi managed to crush the rebellion.

The founders of the Nasiri and Afshar dynasties of Murshidabad had more in common than one would think. Both men had a relentless work-ethic and showed little interest in the pleasures of the harem. Both were able administrators and shrewd tacticians and both survived to a ripe old age. But in the end, it was their grandsons that let both of them down. 3 days before Zinat-un-Nisa conferred upon Alivardi the deputy governorship of Bihar, his daughter Amina Begum had given birth to a son. He had named him Mohammed Ali, after himself, but when, like Sarfaraz, he succeeded his grandfather, he became Mansur-ul-Mulk Mirza Mohammed Siraj-ud-Daulah Hybut Jang. Where Sarfaraz was gullible and guileless, Siraj was imperious and arrogant, and this would cost him dearly on the 23rd of June 1757, in a mango grove outside a little village that the English called Plassey. The dynasty that Alivardi had fought so hard to establish, would outlive him by only 15 months.

Alivardi Khan's tomb, Khosh Bagh



  
- by Deepanjan Ghosh

 
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  • For their help with this article, I thank Sabir Ahmed and Hasibur Rahman.
  • Accompanying me on this trip and providing valuable inputs, were Tathagata Neogi and Chelsea McGill of Heritage Walk Calcutta, blogger Soham Chandra (http://sohamchandra.blogspot.com/) and Abhijit Das
  • None of this would have been possible without the enthusiastic support of Sadhan Tarafdar and the wonderful people of Murshidabad.


GPS LOCATIONS OF MONUMENTS

Sarfaraz Khan's Tomb - 24 10.7516, 88 16.8138
Begum Masjid - 24 10.8345, 88 16.8265
Fauti Masjid - 24 11.1632, 88 16.8296

SOURCES

Sarkar, Jadunath – Fall of the Mughal Empire Vol. I (Orient Longman, 1997)
Sarkar, Jadunath – History of Bengal Vol. II (University of Dacca, 1948)
Salim, Ghulam Hussein - Riyaz-us-Salatin (Asiatic Society, 1902)
Tabatabai, Ghulam Husain Khan – Siyar-ul-Mutakherin (John Murray, 1832)
Salimullah, Munshi – Tarikh-i-Bangla (Eng. Tr. Francis Gladwin) (Stuart & Cooper, 1788)
Majumdar, Purna Chandra – The Musnud of Murshidabad (Saroda Ray, 1905)
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