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Nov 26, 2007

Origins of Jain Migration into Murshidabad

by Dr. Felix Valyi

Origins of Jain Migration into Murshidabad
[Some of the links are now outdated. Any help with links to the
history of Murshidabad in the 17th-20th centuries will be much
appreciated. RKD 12/18/98]

Murshidabad, the capital of Bengal after the demise of Mughal rule
was founded by Murshid Quli Khan, the nawab of Bengal from 1704 to
1725, in the early 18th. century (dates?). Nawabi rule attracted,
among others, bankers and merchants and foremost among them were the
Rajasthani bankers who came to Murshidabad seeking new fortunes.

The name of the Jagat Seths is known to every Indian as the one of
the most (in)famous names in the recent history of Bengal.
Originally, they came to prominence for the vast wealth they
accumulated as the Nawab's banker (the title Jagat Seth means Banker
to the World). Since Bengal was perhaps the richest subah of the
Mughal Empire, this should not be too surprising: in the early 18th.
centry, even for a decade or two after Aurangazeb's death in 1707,
the Mughal Empire was still strong, revenues were collected and writ
of the Mughal subahdar still meant something. It was only the sack of
Delhi by Nadir Shah and and the subsequent sacking of Delhi by the
Marathas that led to Mughal power being publicly and irrefutably
reduced to a cipher by 1839.

In course of events, Murshid Quli Khan was succeed to the subahdari
of Bengal by Shuja Khan (1725-1739) and then by Alivardi Khan (1740-
1756) and finally by abysmally incompetent Siraj-ud-Daulah (1756-7).
It was during the rule of the latter that matters came to a head with
the British and in the climactic showdown, the then Jagat Seth played
a pivotal and treacherous role together with Siraj's maternal uncle
Mir Jafar, Umichand and Rai Durlabh in the determining the outcome of
the battle of Plassey in 1757. At Plassey, Robert Clive, commanding a
troop of 400 riflemen of the East India Company and with half of
Siraj's army commanded by Jafar and Durlabh in his back pocket,
defeated the ill-organized forces of an utterly debauched and
degenerate young nawab whose only qualification to govern Bengal was
that he was Alivardi Khan's grandson.[1]

This event is widely accepted as the beginning of the British Indian
Empire. The British went on to defeat the Empreror Shah Alam II at
Buxar in 1764 and in 1765 the diwani of Bengal passed away to London
for the annual sum of Rs 2,600,000 to be paid to Delhi by the East
India Company. The traitor Mir Jafar was installed as the Nawab by
the British and ruled as such from 1757 to 1760, when he fell out
with the British and was taken and killed by Mir Kasim Ali, a
relative of Siraj-ud-Daulah.

Treason didn't pay off for the Jagat Seth himself either. Eventually,
he was imprisoned in Monghyr fort by Mir Kasim Ali (1760-1763) who
became Nawab after the traitorous Mir Jafar had fallen from British
grace. The last of the "Jagat" Seths came to his end when he was
rolled off the ramparts of Monghyr Fort into the river. The family of
the Jagat Seth were devout Jains and as they had prospered, they had
performed many of the traditional Jain acts of piety -- culminating
in their role as the trustees of the Jain tirtha at Pareshnath
(Shikharji tirth), which they kept up till long after Plassey (till
the early part of the 19th. century in fact). The family house and
the Jain temple the Jagat Seths built still stand in the village of
Nashipur in Murishdabad.[2]. They and their community of Jains are
known as the Johori Sath as they were orignially jewellers by trade
and had gone into banking much later.[3]

Other Jains came to Murshidabad too, drawn by the promise of trade
and banking for Murshidabad had become the economic center of Bengal -
- silk, muslin, ivory, agriculture all promised good trade and good
trade prmised good banking opportunities. Several families settled in
the twin town of Jiaganj and Azimganj and this became the nucleus of
the Murshidabad Jain community or the Murshidabad Sangh. In course of
time, banking, trade and jagirs and later, zamindaris acquired under
the Permanent Settlement enabled some of these families to become
quite prominent in various acts of Jain piety. The five "heads" of
this community were the Budh Singh Pratap Singh Dugars, the "Azimganj
Raj" Dudhorias, the Nahars, the "Meghraj Mymensingh" Kotharis and the
Nowlakhas (PKD?). At its peak, this community numbered about 100 Jain
households at most, perhaps fewer (PKD?). The Jains of the twin towns
of Jiaganj and Azimganj are known as Sheherwali or the city dwellers
and with the gradual economic devastation of Murshidabad during
British rule, they have mostly moved to Calcutta but retain very
strong connections to Jiaganj and Azimganj.[4]

Murshidabad as a Jain Tirtha Today

Between them, Jiaganj and Azimganj have several temples and the
entire area Jiaganj-Azimganj-Nashipur has come to be known as a
tirth. Pilgrims usually come by bus from Calcutta and stay at the
dharamshala at the Bimalnath Swami Temple in Jiaganj which is the
only place in the area which can accomodate any sizable group of
travellers. The usual itenarary is one day for Jiaganj and Azimganj
Temples and a half day to do the Kathgola Bagan (there is a tiny
dadabari and an Adinath Swami Temple (another picture) in the
complex) and the Nashipur Temple. There used to be some rare ratan
pratimas in the Azimganj Temple -- for security reasons they are no
longer on public display and I am told that they are taken out only
during the major occasions when most of the Sangh is present. The
bhandars of some of these temples are reported to contain quite a
collection of old texts as Murshidabad was for a while a center of
Jain manuscript collectors (all that money and nothing to spend it on
but Baluchari sarees, Jamiwar shawls, an occasional diamond or
emerald (or two), what's a man to do but collect manuscripts and
build temples?).[5].

Today, however, spending more than a couple of days in the area is
strongly inadvisable: after one has done pujas everywhere, ridden
cycle-rickshaws to Kathgola Bagan, Nashipur and to the Hazarduari
Complex (the Nawab's Palace and Mosque are here) and taken a boat
ride on the Bhagirathi to visit Rani Bhabani's lovely terracotta
temple complex, there is nothing left to do.[6]. The economic
devastation of Bengal over the past 300 years is writ large on every
graffiti'd wall, every crumbling mansion and every tottering light
pole in these once glorious towns.[7].


[1] Siraj was for many years vilified by British propoganda that he
had condemned 146 Englishmen to death in the notorious Black Hole of
Calcutta -- recent historical opinion is that this was fabricated out
of whole cloth. In light of this more sober opinion, this story is
instructive for it exemplifies how the the British were to
systematically dehumanize the "natives" who would then feel grateful
for the civilized blessings of British rule. Spin-doctoring false
propaganda and utterly shameless hypocrisy are not by any means new
phenomena. However he was a drunkard, an opium addict and a womanizer
and part of the story behind the collapse of Alivardi Khan's house is
that in his youth Siraj had alienated many of Alivardi's courtiers
with rude, arrgant and generally intemperate behavior. He was also
incompetent at organization and a lousy soldier -- rahter he seems to
have taken as his model not the soldierly gandfather he inherited his
seat from but an effete later Mughal courtier whome he resembles in
his portrait.

[2] One story is that the Jagat Seths' made their orignial fortune in
the Jade trade -- in those days green jade from Burma was highly
valued by Mughal courtiers because of the belief that it would
shatter or discolour if poisoned food was served on it. Today, the
nawab's personal dishes are on dsiplay in the Hazarduari Palace
Museum. Apparently, in one such cargo-load, the family found a large
number of shattered pieces of apparently no value -- but being
jewellers, they immediately identified the "valueless" shards as
extraodrinarily large emeralds of exquisite quality and their fortune
was made. Emeralds were highly prized by Mughal rulers and their
courtiers and this find made it quite a bit easier for the Jagat
Seths to cement their connection to the nawabs far more effectively
with appropriate nazarana from time to time.

[3] The original Jagath Seth's kothi ("strong house") was cut away by
the Bhagirathi (soon after Plassey) and legend has it that collapse
of the house revealed the existence of vats with mud coins in them.
Apparently, in order to avoid the greedy eyes of the Nawabs who were
known to be keenly sensitive to public displays of wealth by their
subjects, earlier Jagat Seths had filled these vats with gold and
silver coins and then bricked them up in the walls of their house as
insurance against the viccisitudes of fortune. The gold and silver
are said to have turned to mud as their heirs tried to salvage the
remnants of their ancestral wealth while those who were not of the
Jagat Seths' blood and could get their hands on these vats found gold
and silver in theirs. BTW, in Murshidabad at least, such legends are
common motifs in morality tales of bad (or undeserving or careless or
thoughtless) people getting their just desserts in many different
contexts. I have heard such tales about buried treasure from other
sources too in families other than the Jagat Seth's, so it is hard to
say how much of this is true -- however, the old house definitely was
washed away by the Bhagirathi -- this much is sober fact. Sometimes
white sankes or white owls are said to guard buried treasure in old
houses and to this day, in many a locked up kuthibaDi in Jiaganj and
Azimganj, snakes and owls are left alone, just in case.

[4] Most families still go back several weekends in the year to visit
the family temple(s), eat mangoes and just to sit and hear the jhNi-
jhi-poka (jhNi-jhi is bengali for whine and poka is bengali for
insect) whine away as night descends. As usual the power supply is
erratic, so at best one has a faint electric lamp to read by or else
one can sit on the roof and hear the artati bells ring and then watch
the temple lights go out. After that, the biggest blessing of having
no electricity to speak of is that there is no light pollution, one
can actually see stars -- for Calcuttans that is a rare event.
Eventually, at about 10 pm the streets are dead and one just has
silence -- pure silence that no city in the world can give. Of course
web browsing may be a somewhat more complicated enterprise!

One comes back from Jiaganj and Azimganj having had a glimpse of what
life must have been in those times: life revolved around the gaddi
(the banker's place of business) which was usually located in the
house itself, away from the public rooms as well as the ladies
quarters but close to the master bedroom, or around the mukam
(traders' office). At lunchtime, one would invite whoever was in the
gaddi to join one for lunch, followed by a short nap and then a
couple more hours of transacting business. Then it was time for the
evening puja and dinner. That essentially meant walking a couple of
hundred feet from the house which was built just far enough away from
the temple so that the shadow of the steeple never fell on one's
house. And then there was always the weekend trip to the bagicha or
garden house built in a more isolated area where one could let one's
hair down and party.

[5] There was considerable rivalry between the various families in
terms of bragging rights over acts of piety so that each tried to do
everything else the others did and then go one over. This led various
families to build and endow temples across the length and breadth of
India, to lead Sanghs (this was good for tourism, good for the Sangha
and not incidentally, good for business too -- if one was leading a
Sangh of a few hundred people, one tended to meet maharajas and other
big landlords and rich bankers etc.. so the networking used to be
pretty top flight).

[6] Of course, it is obligatory to make sure that one arranges to eat
the famous chaNaboDa -- a gulab-jamun like sweet but made with pure
cottage cheese which gives it a hard burnt exterior and a drippy
sweet but never undercooked interior -- the trick is to remember the
night one arrives in town to leave instructions that they are to be
brought fresh every morning from Berhampore, one bites ruins you for
life. If there is a sweet that ranks higher thasn chocolate, it must
be Berhampore's chaNaboDas.

[7] Honestly, unless your roots lie there, once you've seen it,
you've got wonder how on earth this place could even have been
compared to London and someone (cite?? -- P. Bothra, conversation,
Jiaganj, 1982) could report that one could walk from one end of
Jiaganj to the other across the rooftops of the great mansions that
lay in between! In addition, under a lax district administration the
laws are enforced poorly, crime is rampant and of late, smuggling
contraband across the bangladesh border seems to be the primary
occupation of choice of local youth. All in all this golden, fertile,
productive land, once the pride of Bengal (which itself was the jewel
in the crown of the Mughal Empire) has been reduced to levels of
moral and economic devastation not seen perhaps in its entire
history: it stands a a monument to the rapacity and devastation of
the East India Company's rule -- its wealth stripped, its industry
destroyed, its people ruined by systematic pillage, neglect and
indifference and in case you think this is hyperbolic exaggeration
check this site out.

1 comment: said...

Jainism was flourished in Bengal long before Parshwa Nath. According to Jain history,
1)18 Tirthamkaras spent the major portion of their life in ancient Bangadesha.
2) The 22nd Tirthamkara Lord Nemi Nath was born in a city called Mithila of Ancient Bangadesha.
3) Acharya Bhadra bahu or Bir Bahu, lead 12000 jain Monks and king Chandragupta Mourys to Sravanbelagola of Karnataka. He was the person to introduce jainism in South India. He was from present Bagura district of Bangladesh.
4) According to Sahityacharya Dinesh Chandra Sen of Bengal, the earliest religion of Bengalis were probably Jainism.
Beside the above I find there is a lot of similarities between Lord Adinath and Lord Shiva. Probably Lord Shiva was a great ascetic of high order may be equivalent to Lord Adinath, who preached a religion at a later date in Bengal. As a result we find the next major religion of Bengal as Saiva religion.

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