Here's a thought expermient: Let us suppose decadence leads to elegantly crumbling riverside mansions against a backdrop of lush mango orchards, while progress is equated with grimy underground stations, traffic jams and concrete jungles. Where would you rather go on holiday? Progress and decadence are, after all, two sides of the same coin.
In 1757, Robert Clive won the toss at the climactic Battle of Plassey on London's behalf. It's interesting to imagine the consequences if fate had flipped in favour of Murshidabad instead. At that time, Murshidabad and London were roughly the same size as cities and had the same levels of prosperity.
If Bengal's Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah had won that battle instead, would Murshidabad have somehow transformed into a multi-racial, multi-cultural metropolis over the next 250 years? Probably not, but stranger things have happened, and Murshidabad induces strange thoughts. The melancholy this district evokes with its reminders of a past replete with unfulfilled promises is pervasive.
When the Mughal Empire fell apart, the nawabs of Bengal could well have ended up with an independent centre of power, as in places like Hyderabad and Awadh, but they didn't. Murshidabad could have become a regional trade centre due to its strategic location, but it didn't. Towns such as Siliguri and Malda became trading outposts and Murshidabad dwindled. It was as though the city was built just for one brief, glorious day, and then the fair had to pack up.
Today, it is difficult to imagine this semi-rural settlement as a great city that once matched London in size and opulence. After its brief boom, Murshidabad kept shrinking due to successive exoduses. As people moved out, nature moved back in. Creepers climbed the brickwork of the ancient mansions and weeds, choking the walks of the pleasure gardens. Even the district headquarters have moved to nearby Berhampore, where most tourists stay.
The twin towns of Berhampore and Murshidabad straddle the Bhagirathi river, and the old Pala and Gour kingdoms are within spitting distance. It is a beautiful district in terms of natural aesthetics and is handy for hiring local transport.
Travelling from Berhampore to Murshidabad takes 25 minutes, with the river on the left and rural scenery on both sides. The entire area is covered in thick woods. In the heart of the old city, there are as many trees as people, and the narrow, winding streets of the old imperial area of Lalbagh are straight out of a poster for a rural idyll.
The mango orchards in these parts are rightly famous, and the rice, jute and mustard crops are interspersed with long, serried ranks of mango and banana trees. Clumps of bamboo grow by the lakes and streams. West of the river there are mulberry groves where some of the finest silk in the country is still cultivated.
Murshid Quli Khan, the Mughal governor after whom Murshidabad is named, was a serious builder, constructing many public buildings. Most of these are within a few kilometres of each other in Lalbagh. His greatest achievement was the magnificent Katra Masjid, which was constructed on the lines of the Kaaba.
This mosque-cum-madrasa is a massive structure set inside fairly well-maintained grounds. It had cells for some 700-odd Koranic scholars as well as a large prayer hall. The arches in the main structure are cracked, and the entire structure leans because of the 1897 earthquake.
Around the corner from the Katra is the Jahan Kosha Cannon, standing in solitary splendour. This cannon was forged in 1637 by a gunsmith named Janardan Karmakar, who hailed from Dhaka. This 17-foot, 8-tonne monster must have been more or less ceremonial, and is reputed to have been fired only once. It used solid round shot with a 450mm bore.
An even more dilapidated mosque from the early 18th century is the Mosque of the Kaliji-Khaki Begum. The liver-eating begum in question was a daughter of Murshid Quli Khan, and she was married to the man who became the second nawab, Shuja Khan.
Madam Begum was reputed (if that is the right word) to greet young men every night as though they were her new husbands. In other words, she was a nymphomaniac. That in itself would have been cause for some scandal, but the story goes that she also suffered from a cardiac malfunction, so the local physicians suggested a remedy requiring ground livers of freshly slaughtered children.
According to legend, her husband eventually grew tired of being cuckolded and buried Madam Begum alive. Then he constructed a mosque in her name. It has now fallen apart due the Bhagirathi river flooding the area consistently.
The Nizamat Imambara, Hazarduari Palace and Madina Masjid are all in one complex and are newer constructions. Siraj ud-Daulah built the massive colosseum-like imambara with a huge courtyard. It's only open to visitors during Muharram. Actually, the building we see is of an 1848 vintage because the original imambara was destroyed in a fire in 1846. The Nawab Mansur Ali Khan spent several lakhs reconstructing it.
There is yet another massive cannon on these lawns which was cast in the 1640s and in the same foundry as the Jahan Kosha. It has a rather Gothic legend attached to it: Apparently it caused a massive sonic boom when it was test-fired, inducing many spontaneous miscarriages in the locality.
The Madina Masjid clock tower was also affected in the 1846 fire. It is believed that Siraj ud-Daulah's mother modelled the mosque on the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad as a token of gratitude that her son, a sickly child, survived to attain the throne. It is more likely however, that it was constructed by Siraj ud-Daulah himself. It is said to incorporate clay from the battlefield at Karbala, where the Shia's suffered a tragic defeat.
The Hazarduari Palace, the 'mansion with a thousand doors', also doubles up as Murshidabad's museum. In actuality it has perhaps 900 real doors (including the French windows), as well as a plethora of false doors. Located near the banks of the Bhagirathi, it was designed by British sapper Lieutenant-General Duncan MacLeod, and constructed in Italian marble between 1829 and 1837.
Nawab Nazeem Humayun Jha spent an unbelievable 18 lakhs on the mansion and made it his official residence. By then, Murshidabad's relevance as a centre of political power was non-existent, so the Hazarduari Palace was purely a nawabi indulgence.
Spread over three floors, the Hazarduari Palace has around 120 rooms and eight long galleries. Artefacts on display include the silver throne of the nawabs, magnificent chandeliers and antique furniture. Nawab Humayun Jha's collection of decanters and green dining plates were supposedly designed to shatter if poison was served in them—another of the charmingly weird legends floating around. The museum palace also displays a motley collection of old paintings in the style of Titian, Raphael and Anthony van Dyke. They are claimed to be authentic.
The armoury section here is superb. It features some 2,700 different items of weaponry ranging from the extremely business-like to the completely absurd.
The museum's archives are on the third floor of the palace and contain English and Persian texts. It has a catalogued collection of 10,792 books and 3,791 ancient pandulipi's, traditional texts written on bark and leaves.
Jafarganj Palace is locally known as 'Traitor's Gate': Namak Haram Deorhi. This used to be Mir Jafar's palace, apparently a fine Italianate structure, until it was dismantled and locals planted mustard fields to not let fertile land go to waste. Just across the road is the Jafar family graveyard which houses an incredible number of corpses. Some 1,100 members of the family are buried there. This cemetery is in rather shabby shape, although a family of sajida nashins (grave tenders) still lives in the complex.
The pearl lake of Motijhil lies just off the main Murshidabad-Berhampore Road. This is a large oxbow lake which was supposedly used for culturing pearls but is yet another unlikely local legend. On the bank stands a completely desolate palace which was occupied at some stage by Ghaseti Begum, grandmother of Siraj ud-Daulah. He resided at this palace until his defeat at Plassey and subsequent assassination. Lord Clive also used the palace for a while.
The Kathgola Gardens of Jagat Seth, a leading financier to the nawabs of Murshidabad in the days of Mir Jafar, are still owned by descendants of the family. This is a vast complex of orchards, pleasure gardens, pavilions, marble statues, paved walks and gazebos, complete with several ornamental bathing tanks, a secret tunnel (albeit now flooded) and a Jain temple. It was named after the wood rose which was planted here in numbers: Kathgola is a corruption of kath golaap.
Don't miss the bizarre layout of the bathing area reserved for the eunuchs who guarded the harems of the Seth brothers. Several vantage spots command a view of it so that the guards could be unobtrusively observed at their ablutions—a precaution to ensure that the guards were indeed eunuchs. The Jain temple here has some superb marble tracery.
The garden graveyards of Khushbagh, Roshnibagh and Farahbagh lie across the river on its west bank. The early nawabs were buried here. Roshnibagh, where Shuja-ud-Daula's grave lies, surrounds an 18th century mosque built by Nawab Alivardi Khan of Bengal.
The nearest airport is Kolkata's Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport, about 195km from Murshidabad. The Berhampore Court railway station is well-connected to Indian cities such as Mumbai and Chennai, as well as Kolkata's Howrah. There are plenty of state-run buses in West Bengal that ply regularly to Murshidabad from places like Kolkata, Rampurhat, Malda and Durgapur.
The Jalchhabi Hotel and Resort sits on the Bhagirathi river and is a well-regarded hotel. Hotel Sagnik, the Bari Kothi Heritage Hotel and Hotel Indrajit are also worth looking into. The food in most hotels is uniformly good and the local sweets are excellent.
The silk manufactured in this region has been a hot ticket item since the 17th century. Pick up some of Bengal's finest silk saris and fabrics at the Chandrakanta Lalitmohan Resham Khadi Samiti in Khagra. Murshidabad is also known for its sweets. Try the popular chhanabora from Ananda Sweets at Naya Sarak road. Alternatively, ask the hospitality staff for suggestions.