The Bagirathi flows barely fifty metres away, hidden from view behind the Yellow Masjid along the embankment to the west of the Hazarduari Palace in Murshidabad, the erstwhile capital of undivided Bengal in the 1700s.
Hazarduari is native for Thousand Doors. Of the thousand doors built into the palace, only nine hundred are said to be real, the rest, false doors.
I’m drawn to the lone white horse grazing in the lawns near the Imambara to the north of the Hazarduari Palace. Tethered to a rope it meanders in the short grass in what is otherwise a well maintained lawn separating the Hazarduari Palace from the freshly whitewashed Imambara, a massive structure leant relief by windows painted green. Workers are busy on the Imambara façade when I walk through the gate of the historic complex one early winter morning last year. The Sun is yet to break through the clouds even though it is well past the time even for a winter morning.
In the distance, the Imambara streaks the green of the vast lawn to the melancholy melody of Bengal history, at once glorious and bloody. The white horse has wandered further. A black goat now grazes along the façade of the Imambara that runs along close to 700 feet, parallel to the Hazarduari Palace to the south.
I walk in the direction of the horse and the Imambara, passing the Madina Mosque along the way, the only remnant of Siraj-Ud-Daulah’s original Imambara that accidentally burned down during a fireworks display before the new one was built in 1847 under the supervision of Sadeq Ali Khan in the reign of the Nawab Nazim Mansoor Ali Khan Feradun Jah, the son of Nawab Nazim Humayun Jah.
It was in the reign of Humayun Jah, a descendent of Mir Jaffer, the betrayer of Siraj-Ud-Daulah at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, that Duncan McLeod designed and executed the construction of the Hazarduari Palace in 1837.
By then the British were firmly in the saddle, the Nawab Nazim subject to the pleasure of his British overlords.
Families, college students, school children in uniform, rural youth, and couples among others crowd the approach to the Hazarduari Palace, its magnificent edifice reached by a sweeping staircase said to be among the largest in India, dwarfing the gathering crowd of visitors queuing up to tour it. Eight years in the making it is now the most visible landmark in all of Murshidabad, and probably the best maintained and secured.
Past the stately clock tower (Gharighar) designed by Sagor Mistri, part of Duncan McLeod’s team that built the Palace, I leave the four masonry lions in mid-leap adorning the four corners of the roof supporting the column bearing the clock behind as I turn off the cemented approach to the Palace and onto the grounds where the old Madina Mosque and a cannon stand. The Madina Mosque is home to a replica of Hazrat Muhammed’s tomb at Madina, hence the name.
I’m curious of the cannon. Cannons displayed prominently usually have a history to them. A local youth selling Murshidabad picture post-cards and poorly printed guidebooks illustrating locations of tourist interest within Murshidabad had enthusiastically pointed me to the cannon facing the Imambara when I asked him for directions to Bacchawali Tope.
“Woh dekho, wahan hai,” he had replied, pointing to the cannon resting on a masonry platform by the old Madina. The white horse grazed in the vicinity of the ancient cannon pointing at the Imambara.
A group of four, two adults and two children not older than twelve years, lounged in the shade of the Madina, leaning against the iron enclosure while lighting up cigarettes. The two kids showed much enthusiasm lighting up while the accompanying adults condoned and indulged their enthusiasm in passing what they must believe is a necessary rite of passage into adulthood. When I looked their way the two adults moved away, smiling sheepishly.
The Bachchawali Tope got its name from the havoc it caused with pregnant women in Murshidabad on being fired, resulting in premature deliveries of babies, the blast was so great, reverberating across the settlement. It was never fired again. I wonder if its notoriety was one reason why it fell silent. Tope is native for cannon while Bachcha is native for child.
I find old cannons fascinating, and having seen a few on my travels I was nevertheless surprised to see the Bacchawali cannon fashioned from two distinct parts, the shorter portion the chamber, the larger one the barrel. The design is a departure from the cannons I had seen before, made of one single unit with the chamber and the barrel indistinguishable on the outside, with the Cascable ending prominently in a knob.
The Bachchawali cannon’s cascable does not have the distinctive knob common to most cannons. Other distinctive features are the rings on the barrel, indicating cross sections bound together to make the barrel. The chamber portion is however devoid of these rings. From the outside it appears the chamber could be separated from the barrel. The size of the chamber indicates capacity for a large charge of gunpowder, estimated to be 18 kilos for a single charge. I can well imagine the blast waves resulting from its firing.
The cannon is about sixteen feet long, possibly more, both parts included, its origins approximated to 12th - 14th century A.D.
I walk over to the muzzle face and peer into the large bore, easily over a foot wide. The opening is half filled with mud and torn entry tickets issued at the counter at the gate.
I step away from the cannon, easily among the favoured sights in the Hazarduari Palace complex. Visitors having toured the Palace now stream steadily to the cannon, fascinated as much by its size as by its import, a great piece of artillery that evokes imagery of battlefields centuries ago. There’s much to imagine when peering into the muzzle of a cannon that last fired centuries ago.
The romance of history secures cannons their immortality on the first page itself.
Meanwhile a caretaker rushes the black goat to chase it outside the gate. It had not occurred to me that the goat might have crashed the party without a ticket. The ease with which it negotiated the lawns, munching away on the grass, indicated it was no first time visitor. The caretaker was smiling away as he rushed it with little more than sharp cries.
Apparently the black goat had not walked in alone. Its partner in crime, a ginger streaked rebel and the more daring of the two was wreaking havoc among unsuspecting souls, for while the black goat grazed peacefully on grass its partner sought the easier albeit daring route, stealth-charging a family bunched together in a group near the Madina Mosque.
While they were distracted by my pointing the camera in their direction the ginger streaked rebel made its way among them before chomping away at the food they had carried along on their outing that morning. If you look closely in the picture above you will see its tail sticking out from amidst the visiting group in the vicinity of footwear on the ground.
Soon enough, surprised and startled, screams rent the air even as the black goat came rushing past, chased by the caretaker bellowing loudly. The ginger streaked goat followed suit in the commotion of women and screaming children startled at discovering its presence in their midst and the caretaker hot on the heels of the scampering black goat.
Later I found the ginger streaked rebel meandering in the lane outside the gate to the north-west of the Palace. The black goat was nowhere to be seen. Puris stacked high in a glass case in the pani puri cart in front of the Yellow Masjid on the embankment of the Bagirathi was a challenge too many for the enterprising goat as it went about seeking the next gullible victim to raid unawares. I almost felt sorry for its predicament.
I could almost sense its disappointment at being chased out the gate in so unceremonious a manner. The very indignity of it!
The Yellow Mosque was fenced off with a board on the gate announcing in English and Bangla – Non Namazies Are Not Allowed.
I would assume it to include the marauding goat as well.