Swan-Song of a poet King (Wajid Ali Shah)
METIYABRUZ is a warren of single-storied houses, squalid yards, open drains and bustling bazaars. Beyond, there are scrubby fields and hyacinth-choked ponds. Dominating the scene are innumerable factory sheds ant the huge Garden Reach shipyard. its gigantic steel machinery looming against the skyline. Today this Calcutta locality has little claim to distinction.
But just a little more than a hundred years ago, when Wajid Ali Shah, the King of Oudh, decided to settle in Calcutta in 1856, after his deposition, he created in Matiaburj, known as Mochikhola then and “earthy paradise”. Lucknow was lost to the British but a second Lucknow came up here. The King set up a whole township where the people observed the same ceremonies, enjoyed the same pastimes and even spoke the same language as they did in the capital of Oudh.
The King built many sumptuous houses, each in a different setting, pleasances, formally laid out parks with quicksilver fountains, an open-air zoo stocked with rare fauna, an enclosure for snakes, an aviary, Imambaras and a market. The King’s entourage, which followed him from Lucknow, likewise built houses here and the area was encircled by a high wall.
But in 1887 the King died. The British sold his property at throwaway prices and the returns were distributed among his heirs. Everything went to rack and ruin. Industry, and in some cases nature, encroached on whatever survived.
Today, factories and rows of houses have come up where once stood Shahinshah Manzil or Tafrih Baksh; overcrowded bazaars, slushy lanes meander in place of emerald parks and noble gateways; harsh accents and the clang of machinery have replaced courtly speech and the stains of music.
Only Sibtainabad Imambara, Begum Masjid, Shahi Masjid, Baitun Nijat and Quasrul Buka have escaped destruction. Some of the houses, including the magnificent palace in which the King resided, were acquired by South Eastern Railway, but no one is sure which particular ones.
The story of these relics is history embroidered with legends and hearsay, the authenticity is impossible to determine. According to Prince Anjum Quder – grandson of Birjis Qadr, Wajid Ali Shah’s eldest son – who still lives here, says Sibtainabad Imambara stood on sprawling grounds adorned with flowering plants and fountains drawing water from the nearby Hooghly.
Here Wajid Ali used to meditate for hours during the Mohurram mourning period and take part in congregations every morning. One morning, on second day of Mohurrum, when the King returned to his palace, Sultan Khana he breathed his last. He was laid to rest here.
Prince Anjum Quder, who is President of the All-India Shia Conference and his two brothers, Dr. Kaukab Mirza and Prince Nayyer Quder, are honorary trustees of the Sibtainabad Trust.
The Imambara, built in 1864, stands sparklingly whitewashed on Garden Reach Road untouched by Bangla Bazar spread around it. Its imposing arched portal is surmounted by the naubatkhana. An electronic clock attached to it strikes the only jarring note.
The gateway emblazoned with the double mermaids, insignia of the Royal Family and Trust, gives on to a marble courtyard facing the porticoed prayer hall. Throughout the day the Imambara is alive with the chatter of children who have come to study groups, holding discourses or employees scrubbing the floor. The prayer hall resounds with incantations.
Innumerable lampshades of coloured glass hang from the ceiling of the portico. On its wall are the portraits of Hazrat Mahal and her son, Birjis Qadr. During the sepoy uprising in Lucknow, she became his regent. After Lucknow fell to the British, she fled with her infant son to Nepal where she died. Later Birjis returned to India and died of food poisoning in Metiyaburz.
Wajid Ali, his son, Birjis, and daughter-in-law, Mahtab Ara, a Moghul princess, and several other members of his family were interred here. Wajid Ali Shah’s grave is adorned with a silver zari, replica of a Muslim shrine, banner, exquisitely embroidered with gold and silver thread dusty and crumbling with age, candlebras and a priceless pair of jade vases.
A rare portrait by an unknown artist of the King in his last days can be seen here (reproduced above). The King, stern and portly, is attired in an elegant white angarkha, so unlike the overdressed beau he was in his salad days.
On a platform in this hall, Wajid Ali used to meditate. It is surrounded by an open-work railing of brass. Beside it is a silver pulpit of that period. The Imambara has two wings that enclose the courtyard. The first floor houses the quarters of its employees, the office and a library which has a fine collection of rare books and illuminated manuscripts, some embellished by the King himself.
Some ground floor rooms are crammed with the sets of Shatranj Ke Kilari, a gift from the director, and valuable mementos such as shawls, crockery (supposedly the Kings) and heavy silver alams. The alams and embroidered banners lead the Imambara’s famous Mohurrum procession. Mention must be made of Manindra Nath Ghosh’s Jao-ka Tazia, which also takes part in the procession. This tazia of wheat sprouts grown on a bamboo frame is a tradition that has come down through the years.
The King had enlisted in his service talented artists, musicians, dancers and calligraphists, as well as renowned hakims and theologians. Even today, one can meet their descendants at Metiyabruz. Manindra Nath Ghosh and Motilal Srimali for instance.
Motilal Srimali is a scion of the Shahi Paanwalas, traditional betel suppliers to the Royal Family. He claims that he can trace his line from the days of Raja Dasaratha of Ayodhya. His forefathers had mastered the art of serving paan which he has inherited. By varying the spices and ingredients he prepares paan, wrapped in gold and silver foil, that can set a man’s blood aflame or soothe strained nerves. His shop exhibits portraits of the King, his famous wrestler, Ghulam Pehlwan, and Birjis Qadr alongside pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses.
Old and wasted Manindra Ghosh whose great grandfather was a guard makes no tall claims. He has muddled recollections of a zoo and a king’s, bequest. He laments that the plot of land gifted by Wajid Ali has been usurped. His tazia he constructs on the platform ten days before the procession is taken out.
The Imambara Qasrul buka and Baitun Nijaat are in various stages of disrepair. Qasrul Buka was the first Imambara to be built in Metiyabruz. Its entrance is wedged between the remains of a distressed rampart and a factory that occupies its hallowed grounds.
As one steps into the grimy courtyard, women in burqas scurry into the dark rooms that surround it. A funeral gloom hangs inside the prayer hall pervaded by the miasma of decay and mildew. A layer of dust carpets its floor. Surprisingly beautiful lampshades still hang from the ceiling.
No effort has been made to reclaim weather-beaten Baitun Nijaat now rising from amidst a tangle of shrubs. The King’s personal Imambara stands on a huge plot, part of which is occupied by a sawmill and a workshop. It is decayed and abandoned. Yet the stucco pineapples on its parapet and moss grown scaly monsters in its garden have survived. The weeds running riot in the garden and courtyard are slowly approaching the portico, which is strewn with junk.
Wajid Ali Shah was a devout Muslim. He never missed his prayers or the Ramazan fast. Legend says that the King, before constructing the first mosque of his new settlement, made a proclamation inviting anyone who had not missed even one of the five daily namaz since he became an adult to lay its foundation. When no one claimed the distinction even after a month, the King laid the foundation himself. This is the Shahi Masjid of Iron Gate Road, near Sibtainabad Imambara.
The Mosque, overshadowed by a godown, is entered through lane lined with canna. It is small and beautifully proportioned. Stucco ornaments. on the roof trace patterns on the sky. Jalousied doors open on to what once was a row of fountains. Wrought Iron flowers bloom along this conduit of fetid water.
But even here Nature is gaining the upper hand. The mosque is surrounded by an overgrown garden. Weeds and parasite plants grown apace. The ground is thick with rotting leaves.
In contrast, Begum Masjid, adjoining Sibtainabad Imambara is well groomed. Its yard is well scrubbed. The fresh coat of white-wash disguises its age but there is telltale mildew on its doors. One of Wajid Ali Shah’s mutai wives was buried here – hence its name. Besides its dowdy neighbour this mosque has a light and feminine appearance. An elegant structure, arched doorways, and slender cupolas create this effect.
In paanwala’s shop near what was perhaps the King’s palace, there is a picture of the Hooghly of yore. Wajid Ali poses on a brown steed against a palace. The sky is canopy of turquoise. In the background a peacock boat sails on the glinting river. On the other side, the Botanical Gardens is a haze of green. Even today this view is unspoilt. But the palaces and beautiful boats have sunk without trace.
All that remains is a huge and picturesque pile of bricks on a mound rising from the river. This wild ruin has come straight out of the pages of some Arabian romance. Any moment a houri could glance through its gaping windows or the surroundings become fragrant with her attar. Gleeful urchins splash into the river and work-a-day reality trundles back again.