Monday, 27 May 2019

The Mosque that Was: Siraj-ud-Daula's Alinagar Masjid

With a population of a million Muslims, Calcutta or Kolkata has well over 500 mosques. While most of these mosques are from the 19th century, there are a few which are older. But what could have been one of the grandest and most historic mosques of the city, does not exist anymore. The mosque, established by the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, would have existed in Dalhousie Square, the city’s central business district, and would have been a marker of the biggest armed conflict in the history of the city – the 1756 Siege of Calcutta.

Alinagar Masjid as imagined by Rounak Patra


The new Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, had been displeased with the East India Company for a number of reasons, not least of which was their misuse of the trade “dastak”, which exempted them from taxes. But the final provocation was the apparent construction of new fortifications around Calcutta, which the Nawab expressly forbade. While the English were actually fortifying themselves against possible hostilities from the French in Chandannagar, their imperious and arrogant Factory Chief, Roger Drake, was unable to explain the matter sufficiently well to the Nawab. Siraj marched with an army of 50,000 on Calcutta, and reached its northernmost defences on the 16th of June, 1756. By the 20th of June it was all over and the victorious young Nawab renamed the city Alinagar, in honour of his grandfather, Alivardi Khan, the previous Nawab. A former peshkar of the Burdwan Maharaja, Manikchand, was left in charge of a city with a small garrison of horsemen.

Those who had managed to escape the fall of the city took their ships downstream to a place called Fulta, where they took refuge outside a small Dutch trading post. It would take several months before help arrived from Fort St. George in Madras. With the help of the armies sent down from the south, led by men such as Robert Clive and Eyre Coote, Calcutta would be retaken by the EIC on the 2nd of January 1757. When news reached the capital, Murshidabad, Siraj marched on Calcutta again, but was forced to come to terms when Clive attacked his camp, causing complete mayhem. Almost exactly a year after Siraj had defeated the East India Company in Calcutta, the Nawab himself was defeated in the Battle of Plassey. As the British residents of Calcutta returned they found the city ruined and looted. Many of the buildings had been severely damaged during the fighting. Many more had been looted, burnt down and dismantled during the 6 months of occupation. Calcutta’s first Anglican church, St. Anne’s had been completely gutted in the war. But to their surprise, a new mosque had come up.

Plaque on the GPO wall, placed by Curzon, marking the position of the southeast bastion of the old fort


At the heart of the British settlement was the old Fort William. Located in the space between the present day GPO and the Fairlie Place railway headquarters, the old fort was constructed between 1696 and 1706 and it housed the East India Company’s factory, the Governor’s mansion, living quarters for the employees or factors of the company, and various offices and godowns. The irregularly shaped fort had a western wall shorter than the eastern wall, and a northern wall shorter than the southern wall. It was heavily damaged in the siege and was eventually torn down and built over. One of the first things in the old fort that was torn down was a mosque which had been built by the Nawab’s army, apparently under his orders.

As he was leaving the town for Murshidabad, Siraj-ud-Daula had ordered that all Europeans quit the town (anyone caught within city limits would have his nose and ears chopped off), that the town henceforth be known as Alinagar and that a mosque be built in the fort. It seems likely that the mosque would serve a dual purpose. First, it would serve the Muslim men in Manikchand’s garrison who were to hold the town. Apart from the Basri Shah Masjid in far off Cossipore, there is no mention of any mosque anywhere in or near Calcutta at that time. Second, it would serve as a victory mosque – a grand reminder of his victory over the English. After all, in a letter to the Mughal court, the young Nawab did boast that his exploits could only be compared to those of Tamerlane. By December of 1756, a certain Dr. W Forth was writing to the EIC’s council, then at Fulta. Forth had been trying through the Armenian trader Coja Wazeed (or Wajid), to negotiate with the Nawab for returning the company’s possessions. Even if he did allow the English to return, Wazeed wrote that it was unlikely that he would budge about two things – the name of the town, Alinagar, and the mosque.

Eyewitness accounts of the mosque come from two letters. A letter written on board the ship Kent, possibly by a soldier, which was published in the London Chronicle in August, 1757, but dated 1st February, 1757, says that the garrison “had no notion of our being able to take it, as they had built an elegant mosque”. Before that, on the 8th of January, Clive was writing to the Select Committee at Fort St. George in Madras, mentioning that a portion of the fort’s east curtain wall had been demolished to make way for the mosque. Hill and Orme, the two authors who have dealt with the siege in the greatest detail, both mention that a portion of the fort’s east curtain wall had been demolished to make way for the mosque. The mosque also seems to have been made from material scavenged from the surrounding structures, especially abandoned English residential mansions, which surrounded the fort. However, Clive uses the phrase “they were erecting” when he mentions the mosque, which makes me suspect that the mosque was never completed, which would make sense. They only had about 6 months. Would that be enough time to complete a brick and mortar structure? Especially given that it was a city under siege?

Calcutta was taken back on the 2nd of January, 1757 and Admiral Watson handed over Fort William to the Bengal council the following day. On Tuesday, the 4th of January, 1757, the council had a “consultation” or general meeting. In attendance were Roger Drake, who was the President of the settlement, along with Clive, Watts, Killpatrick, Frankland, Collet and a few others. At this meeting it was ordered that the mosque be demolished. No further mention of the mosque can be found in the consultation records for the rest of the year, or even Clive’s correspondence with the Nawab.

Curzon's map (left) and the site as seen on Google Maps (right). Probable position of mosque highlighted in green.


The first proper excavation of the site of the old fort happened in 1880, under English architect Richard Roskell Bayne. Bayne worked for the railways and was responsible for several famous monuments in India, including the Hussainabad Clock Tower of Lucknow and the Fairlie Place Railway Headquarters, which still stands on the northern end of site where the old fort once stood. In 1880, the sheds to the north of the old Custom House were being demolished to lay the foundations for the new railway offices, when Bayne stumbled upon the foundations of the north curtain wall of the old fort. Curious, he conducted extensive excavations around the site, making careful measurements. His findings appeared in the Journal of the Asiatic Society. Further excavations were carried out in 1883, and in 1889. When Curzon became Viceroy of India, he had the old fort’s exact location traced, and matched against the buildings that had been built over it, creating the famous map that has been reproduced in multiple texts later. Based on that map, and certain key phrases in Orme and Hill’s writing, it is possible to make an educated guess about where the mosque would have been.

Hill produces letters which mention that the mosque was built by demolishing a part of the east curtain wall. Orme says that the mosque was inside the fort. Mosques in India face east. One walks in to face the western wall which has a niche in it, called the mehrab, which indicated the direction of the Kaaba, which a Muslim should face when praying. The entrance to the mosque, therefore would be on today’s Netaji Subhas Road, extending westwards, inside the old fort. I do not think that the east curtain wall near the south east bastion would have been demolished. Even during Curzon’s time, there was a line of freestanding arches inside the GPO, near the south eastern bastion, which were remains of the old fort. If there was considerable demolition and construction in the area, these would not have been left standing. The foundations of the barracks and the black hole prison were also found, which means that the area immediately to the south of the East Gate was also probably not the site of the mosque or these would have vanished as the foundation of the mosque were dug. Besides, breaking through both the outer wall, and the prison’s walls would have been too much work. That leaves us the part of the eastern curtain wall that is presently occupied by the Reserve Bank of India building (previously the Customs House) and the Fairlie Place railway headquarters. Bayne’s report mentions that this is the one area where he did not find any substantial remains of the east curtain wall. So the mosque, in all probability, stood where the Reserve Bank of India’s Soviet-style headquarters stand today.

Had it survived, Siraj-ud-Daula’s mosque would have been a constant reminder to the British about how a “moor” had soundly defeated them, so it is unlikely that they would have let it survive. But it would have been wonderful if modern equipment and techniques, such as ground penetrating radar could be used to get some confirmation as to its probable location. Just goes to prove that even a place as thoroughly documented as Dalhousie Square, which is regularly covered by well-researched walking tours such as those of Heritage Walk Calcutta, still has secrets.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh




The Bengal & Madras Papers Vol. II
Hill, Samuel Charles – Bengal in 1756-57 Vol. I, II, III (John Murray, 1905)
Orme, Robert – A History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan, Vol. II, III (Pharaoh & Co, 1861)
Fort William Consultations 1757 (National Archives of India, PR_000005013673)
Wilson, C.R. - Old Fort William and the Black Hole (Office of the Supt. Of Govt. Printing, 1904)
Wilson, C.R. - Old Fort William in Bengal Vol. I & II (John Murray, 1906)


kalyan said...

I wish it was left standing by tue British as the legacy of the last independent Nawab of Bengal.

Milan Madhav Das said...

NCERT ruins my taste of history. Your blog is the best alternative. Please tell me how may I arouse such taste?