Set 219km north of Kolkata in the brilliant green landscape of rural Bengal and close to the commercial town of Behrampur, MURSHIDABAD represents the grand and final expression of independent Bengal before the arrival of the British. Several eighteenth-century monuments along the banks of the Hooghly stand as melancholic reminders of its days as the last independent capital of Bengal. Established early in the eighteenth century by the Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, Murshidabad was soon eclipsed when the forces of Siraj-ud-Daula were defeated by Robert Clive at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, as a result of which the British came to dominate Bengal from the new city of Calcutta. Clive described Murshidabad as equal to London, with several palaces and seven hundred mosques; today most of its past glory lies in ruins, though it is still renowned for cottage industries, especially silk weaving.
Murshidabad’s intriguing mixture of cultures is reflected in its architectural styles, which range from the Italianate Hazarduari, the nawab’s palace, designed by General Duncan Macleod of the Bengal Engineers, to the Katra Mosque, built by Murshid Quli Khan in the style of the mosque at Mecca. The palace, with its mirrored banqueting hall, circular durbar room, armoury and library of fine manuscripts, is now a museum; some of the paintings are in dire need of restoration, but the portrait collection is excellent. A large oxbow lake, the Moti Jheel or Pearl Lake, guards the desolate ruins of Begum Ghaseti’s palace, where Siraj-ud-Daula reigned before his defeat, and which was subsequently occupied for a while by Clive. To the south and across the river, Khushbagh, the Garden of Delight, holds the tombs of many of the nawabs, including Alivardi Khan and Siraj-ud-Daula.