Sunday, 2 December 2018

How Guides are Destroying the Murshidabad Experience


I have visited the Murshidabad thrice in 2018. The city was the last capital of Bengal before the East India Company took over and the power centre shifted to Calcutta (now Kolkata). From 1704 to 1757, Murshidabad was the seat of the powerful Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, who ruled over the richest province of the Mughal Empire, accounting for some 50% of the Empire’s GDP. There are a large number of historic structures and ruins left over from that period which make the historic city a fascinating place to visit. Like all historic sites, tourist guides are locally available. But while these guides are supposed to enhance the experience, in Murshidabad, their effect is quite the opposite. Tourist guides, who behave like goons, harassing visitors makes a trip to Murshidabad deeply unpleasant. Through my last 3 visits, here are some experiences I have had.

 

KATRA MASJID

Katra Masjid or “Market Mosque” was commissioned by the first Nawab of Bengal, Murshid Quli Khan and completed in 1725. Unfortunately, the devastating earthquake of 1897 has felled 2 of its 4 massive minarets and 3 of its 5 domes. However, it is still a beautiful and fascinating monument to visit. Entry to the Katra Masjid is free, but when you try to get in, you run into about half a dozen guides, waiting at the entrance. The moment they see you, they approach you asking if you need a guide. Saying no has no effect. They continue saying that you need a guide, that you won’t be able to make sense of the site if you don’t have a guide, and when you try and walk away from them, they keep following you, ultimately giving up when you step inside the actual mosque.

 
If you happen to be one of the unfortunate people who take a guide from here, there are a number of stories these guides will tell you. First, that the mosque was built by Murshid Quli Khan by destroying a number of temples. As evidence, the guides will point to three spots on the mosque’s walls where tiny bits of what appear to be temple terracotta are visible. There is no evidence that Murshid Quli Khan was a temple-destroying iconoclast. The Kiriteshwari temple nearby, is also old, and has survived without molestation. Also, a giant mosque with 3 tiny temple bits indicates that it was probably bits of bricks from a temple’s ruins that have been reused. Second, that Murshid Quli Khan was so filled with regret about destroying temples, that he added the lotus, a Hindu symbol, to his mosque’s dome to compensate. This is such a ridiculous assertion that it doesn’t even deserve to be contradicted. The inverted lotus finial is a common feature of all Mughal era mosques and it had little to with temple destruction and regret.

Third, that the mosque accommodates 2000 namazis. While the mosque does have a very large courtyard, 2000 is a bit of a stretch. The floor has square patterns, each square large enough to accommodate one person. It is a simple matter to count the squares and figure out how many people can fit – try it yourself. Fourth, the guide will point to openings under the mosque’s plinth and say that these connect to a tunnel the Nawab could use to escape in case of an attack. The tunnel myth can be heard in many parts of Bengal, but in most cases, it is just a myth. Many mosques have a taikhana or basement chamber. There is nothing sinister about it. Fifth, and most entertaining, is a story the guide will tell you about how Murshid Quli Khan beheaded his own son, because he had taken a gold coin out of the revenue being sent to Emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi and given it to a beggar. He sent his son’s head and the coin to the Emperor, according to the guide. There is absolutely nothing to back up this story. Ghulam Hussain Salim in his Riyaz-us-Salatin makes a passing mention of the Nawab ordering the execution of his son because he had grievously injured a Brahmin, but there is no mention of this incident anywhere. It is pure fiction.

KHOSH BAGH

 
Built by Nawab Alivardi Khan, Khosh Bagh (also spelt Khushbagh), is a funerary garden that serves as the final resting place for the Afshar dynasty. The garden contains 32 tombs, with little to identify them. Once again, entry is free, but trying to enter the garden involves running a gauntlet of guides who keep following visitors, harassing and haranguing them with the same warning, “kichhu bujhte parben na” (you won’t be able to understand anything). If you do happen to take a guide with you, he will confidently identify all the tombs for you, which is just bizarre because any historian will tell you that the tombs, none of which contain a plaque save two, are impossible to identify.

The two tombs which are easy to identify are that of Alivardi himself, because it is the tallest and most magnificent one. Siraj-ud-Daulah’s tomb has a marble plaque on it, which identifies it, although it was clearly placed later. Outside the square enclosure, on a raised platform are several tombs, one of which is identifiable thanks to a plaque, which says that it is the tomb of Umdad-ul-Mulk Ashraf-ud-Daulah, who died in 1202 Al Hijra. The guides identify 3 graves near Siraj’s tomb, as those of his bodyguards. This is especially hilarious, because an ordinary, lowly bodyguard would never be buried inside a royal funerary garden. Anyone buried in Khosh Bagh may be assumed to be a member of the Afshar dynasty. As I strolled around, a very creepy looking staff member, in charge of keeping the place clean, suddenly walked up and introduced himself. I smiled politely and moved away. He kept following me. Finally, after a good 30 minutes of sticking to me like glue and making me deeply uncomfortable, he popped the question – “chaa khawar poesha” – he wanted tips! A man employed by the government and paid from public money, wanted “tips” from the public, for doing his job, and he was going to stalk visitors to get it. Brilliant!

ROSHNI BAGH

 
The final resting place of Nawab Shuja Khan, Roshni Bagh, on the western bank of the river, further north of Khosh Bagh, receives few visitors. Located at one corner of the funerary garden is the tomb of a Muslim saint, said to have arrived from Afghanistan. Here, it is the khadem of the dargah who is the problem. A doddering old man, he insists on accompanying visitors telling them the most far-fetched stories that have no basis in history, and then demands money for it. He refuses to take no for an answer, even when I told him that I had been there before, and had heard his tall tales before.

Among his stories, is one about how Shuja Khan fought off the Maratha “borgis”, and how their leader came to ask him for forgiveness. According to him, that is why there is a Shiva temple right outside the walls of Roshni Bagh. In reality, the borgi attacks began in 1741, 2 years after Shuja had died. The temple outside Roshni Bagh has a plaque, which says it was established by a certain Ranganath Pundit, a man from Maharashtra who served as a Munshi to the East India Company. The temple was established, according to the same plaque was consecrated in March, 1817, long after the borgi raids had stopped. The plaque is the only temple plaque I have seen in all of Bengal, which is written in Marathi, which makes it very interesting.


At almost every other location in Murshidabad, entering a site involves running a gauntlet of guides, just waiting to pounce on you. If you give them the slip, there are others who will ask you for tips, for doing nothing. When one enters a historic site, one is filled with wonder and tries to imagine things the way they were. This is especially true for someone like me, who reads a lot of history. Guides and staff members like this, leave a bad taste in the mouth. No guides can function on an ASI property without ASI’s approval. The local ASI circle knows all these guides on a first name basis. Is the director of the Archaeological Survey of India aware that guides his organisation gives licenses to, are distorting history and harassing people?

So, should you take a guide when you go to Murshidabad? NO! You don't need one. Just do a bit of reading, a bit of googling, and you will know the major attractions and sites that you must visit. Purna Chandra Mazumdar's Musnud of Murshidabad is available for free download from here, and that's a great resource for the city. Once you've decided what places you want to see, simply hire a local car or autorickshaw, and they will take you everywhere. Local drivers are used to handling tourists and know all the major sites.

When I think of guides, the first experience that comes to mind is Lucknow. It is such immense fun touring the Bada Imambara with a guide, because the Imambara guides are like performers, and they put up a great show. A historic site is good news for locals, because it provides employment. But if locals are to be employed, they have to be trained, and in this case someone has to keep watch on them to ensure that they aren’t harassing people. When I was in Bishnupur, I had an elderly guide who had been trained by a local historian. He went so far as to explain what laterite was, which is what some of the temples were made of. If guides have to be kept at a site, let them be trained, intelligent, well-informed guides. Guides like the ones Murshidabad has now, are spoiling the experience, for everyone.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

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