Monday, 29 April 2019

A Maratha Temple in Murshidabad

In a country as poorly documented as India, and where apart from the handful of major monuments, no historic site receives the attention, funding or promotion that it deserves, one would not be surprised to find mysterious, undocumented remains and curiosities even at a major tourist attraction. Murshidabad is a case in point. The city served as the capital of the Nawabs, the regional governors of Bengal under the Mughal Empire, from the time Murshid Quli Khan moved the regional capital here from Dhaka in 1702, until the Battle of Plassey in 1757 robbed the Nawabs of their authority and Calcutta rose in prominence. A Ministry of Tourism report from 2015 says that while Murshidabad does not attract nearly as many visitors as the city of Kolkata, the hill station of Darjeeling or the beaches of Purba Medinipur, it does attract a sizeable chunk of domestic tourists every year. As a result of this, hotels have been mushrooming all over the city at an alarming rate and the former capital now has the all the signs of an unregulated, unkempt tourist spot, where the government does little and locals do whatever they can to make a fast buck. Apart from the half a dozen or so monuments that are on the tourist itinerary, nothing else receives any attention, and interesting corners of the city that would give us a more complete picture of what the city was like, continue to wither away. Among them, is a curious little temple on the western bank of the Bhagirathi river.

The Shiva Temple at Roshnibagh


Roshnibagh or “Garden of Light” is a funerary garden that lies approximately 350 metres to the west of the Hazaduari Palace, on the opposite bank of the river. The garden contains the tomb of Nawab Shuja-ud-Din Muhammad Khan, son-in-law of Murshid Quli Khan, and father of the ill-fated Sarfaraz Khan. The garden, measuring some 83 metres by 56 metres has at its centre Shuja’s mausoleum. By the early 19th century, this structure was in ruins and it was reconstructed in 1863, which accounts for its somewhat strange and modern appearance. At the north-western corner of the compound is a 3-domed mosque, dated to 1743 via an inscription above its entrance. John Henry Tull Walsh, once the Civil Surgeon of Murshidabad, notes in his book that Roshnibagh also contains the tomb of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah, who was defeated in the Battle of Plassey. While this goes against all popular tradition, all available texts and Walsh has made plenty of other mistakes in his book, the mausoleum does contain one cenotaph which is strangely off-centre and in an open veranda on the southern side. Because there are no inscriptions on the tomb, identification is almost impossible.

The structure this article is about lies immediately outside the north-eastern corner of Roshnibagh. It is a simple structure with a square floor plan, approximately 8 feet on each side. Entrance is from the south, through an Islamic-influenced scalloped arch flanked by ornamental columns. Beyond the arch lies a tiny covered porch and a small, rectangular door which opens onto the sanctum sanctorum, containing at its centre a stone phallus or lingam, representing the Hindu deity Shiva. Multiple large round stones on either side of the phallus also appear to be worshipped, since they are smeared with vermillion and covered in flowers. The temple does have a dome, although it is not the conventional round dome, but rather octagonal. At each corner of the roof, there are miniature octagonal turrets. My friend archaeologist Tathagata Neogi of Heritage Walk Calcutta calls this style the “Murshidabad Pancharatna”, a mosque-influenced take on Bengal’s traditional “pancharatna” or five-jewelled style.


The inscription

Above the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, affixed in the wall is an inscription on black stone, possibly basalt. Basalt tablets are used for inscriptions in temples and mosques all over Bengal, but the big surprise in this case, is the language of the inscription – Marathi! This is perhaps the only Marathi inscription in all of West Bengal! I sent off a photograph of the inscription to my friend, historian Pushkar Sohoni, who emailed to me the following transcription –

1              śrī gaṇesāyanamaḥ
2              śrī saṇ va ta 1873
3              phāguna vadī 14 ranganā
4              theśvara mahādeva sthāpita
5              ranganātha paṇḍita mahārāṣṭra
6              munshi adhikāra sadara [xx]
7              [x] ra kampanī varhāḍa [xxx]

To this Pushkar adds – “The [va] in sanvata in the second line is added above the [ta]. If it is Vikram Samvat, then the date would approximately be March 1817”. The inscription begins with salutations to the elephant-headed Hindu deity Lord Ganesha. Ganesha worship is most closely associated with Maharashtra and the Marathi speaking people. The following two lines provide a date according to the Hindu Vikram Samvat calendar, 14th of Phaguna (or Phalguna), 1873, which Pushkar says equals March 1817. Next come the names of the temple and its founder – Ranganathesvara Mahadeva temple, established by Ranganatha Pandit of Maharashtra. The naming follows the usual Shaiviite convention that one finds even in the Hoysala temples of Karnataka. The suffix “esvara” meaning “Lord of” is added to the name of the founder or the region the temple is located in. In this case it is Ranganathesvara, Lord of Ranganatha, the founder of the temple.

Interior of the temple's dome

The inscription provides a little more information about Ranganatha Pandit. It identifies him as being a native of “Maharashtra”. While Maharashtra is the name of the modern Indian state, the name itself is fairly ancient and was used for the same region, so there’s nothing suspicious there. The next two lines provide information about what Ranganatha Pandit did – munshi adhikāra sadara, kampanī varhāḍa. A “munshi” was an Indian language scholar who functioned as secretaries and translators for European businesses and people working in India. Since the inscription mentions “kampanī”, or “company”, it is reasonable to assume that Ranganatha Pandit was employed as a Munshi by the East India Company. EIC presence in Murshidabad, even after the Battle of Plassey, would have been significant. There was a factory in Cossimbazar, only about 11km away and Murshidabad was a major centre of silk production and ivory carving.

Shiva Linga and other deities

It was also on one of the 4 major postal routes of the time. Mail from Calcutta to Patna was routed through Murshidabad. The distance of 398 miles was broken up into 48 stages, each stage being a distance of 8 to 9 miles. To each stage was appointed 3 harcaras, 1 lamp bearer to show the way at night, and 1 drummer to scare away wild beasts on the jungles through which mail “runners” often passed. Among the 48 stages, there were 4 capital stages, at Murshidabad, Rajmahal, Monghyr and Patna. Each capital stage also had in addition to the usual retinue, a munshi and two timekeepers, who kept a record of when mail arrived and left. So, Ranganatha Pandit could well have been a “daak” or postal Munshi as well. To know for sure, I would have to have a look at payrolls from the time, if they exist. But it is certainly curious how a Maharashtrian Brahmin ended up working in Bengal, when Bengalis themselves were employed in very large numbers by the EIC.


The repair plaque

An additional marble plaque to the right of the door of the sanctum sanctorum mentions that the temple has been repaired in 1414 as per the Bengali calendar, which would mean around 2007 C.E. The plaque mentions Hotel Sagnik and credits owner Ashish Kumar Rakshit with having sponsored the repairs. I contacted Mr. Rakshit asking for details and he told me a curious little story. Around 2007, he was approached by a man he could only remember as “Singhi” or “Singhji”, who was the “jailor” of the Berhampore Central Correctional Home. Rakshit was a religious man who was known for having renovated a few old Shiva temples in the area. The “jailor” was fluent in Marathi and translated the inscription for Rakshit and urged him to have the temple, which was then in very bad shape, repaired. Rakshit himself supervised the repairs and even appointed a priest to conduct “nitya puja” or daily worship at the temple. Unfortunately, he has lost touch with the jailor since then. He says that there are no descendants of Ranganatha Pandit in Murshidabad at present. The fact that plaque is in Marathi, is known to locals, many of whom have now concocted stories that Ranganatha Pandit was a “borgi”, a member of the Maratha light cavalry who had ravaged Bengal during Nawab Alivardi Khan’s time. I find this somewhat unlikely.


There are many such little mysteries all over Murshidabad. Unfortunately, Murshidabad has never been studied as a site, or mapped. The many temples scattered all over the city, along with the several hundred mosques, provide some interesting clues about the past. To the west of the Fauti Masjid, for example, there is a cluster of temples which locals say was built by Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah’s general Mohanlal, who was a Kashmiri Hindu. The presence of multiple old temples in the vicinity seems to indicate that this was once a Hindu neighbourhood. But unfortunately no studies have tried to recreate the city as it once was, and as new constructions mushroom all over the city, the past is slowly being erased in Bengal’s Nawabi capital.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


My sincere thanks to Pushkar Sohoni, Tathagata Neogi, Dhaval Roy and Madhuri Katti for their inputs


Misra, Bankey Bihari - The Central Administration of the East India Company, 1773-1834 (OUP, 1959)
Finn, Margot/Smith, Kate (Ed) - East India Company at Home, 1757-1857 (UCL Press, 2018)


riyarima said...

This mostly looks like a Mosque.

Unknown said...

Very interesting.

kapilg said...

Another excellent article. I must say that the first impression I had by reading the title of the piece was that it was a temple built by a borgi.