This neo classical building, with some distinctly oriental influences, stands on the banks of the much abused Buriganga River in Old Dhaka. Painted a rather lurid pink, it is a living testament to the lack of a traditional aristocracy in Bangladesh.
Reconstructed after 1888 by Sir Khwaja Salimullah Bahadur, the fourth ‘Nawab of Dhaka’, following a disastrous cyclone that ravaged earlier building work, it shares much of its distinctively Bengali Anglo Oriental appearance with many of the Zaminderbari of Bangladesh.
Titles such as raja, maharajah and nawab abound in the Zamindari of Bangladesh, having been awarded, honorifically, by the British, in recognition of loyalty. In most of the Indian sub continent, most rulers have long histories and heritage, claiming, in some cases to support their authority, descent from Hindu deities.
The last of the Mughal aristocrats, although actually descended from earlier Afghan invaders, was the last Nawab of Bengal who was defeated at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 by Robert Clive of the East India Company. This victory rapidly established the Company, a commercial company of merchant adventurers, as the new rulers of Bengal.
This commercial administration was carried out by the East India Company’s own version of traditional Zaminders. Under the Mughal rulers, these were more like the feudal lords of Europe, tasked with military as well as fiscal responsibilities, the former by far the most important. After 1757, the priorities were reversed. The investors in the Company required a good return on their investment, and securing that return became the responsibility of the Zaminders. Unsurprisingly, the military responsibility of ensuring the security of the territory, was held in the hands of the army of the Company, with its British and Mercenary officers and specialists.
A number of the Mughal period Zaminders had thrown in their lot with the British at the time of Plassey, or had at least remained absent from the Nawab’s forces.. an impetuous young man, with a contested claim to the role of Nawab, he was not popular.
However, whilst confirming those who remained, and explaining to them the new focus of their responsibilities, where territories were forfeit, the tax gathering rights were put up to auction. The result was a rise of anew ‘aristocracy’ who were usually business men, many of them Hindu traders.
The ancestors of the man that the British installed as Zaminder in Dhaka, the great grandfather of Sir Khwaja, Khwaja Alimullah, in 1843, was descended from Kashmiri traders in gold dust and skins. It is reasonable to suppose that he was the highest bidder when the tax gathering rights for Dhaka, at that time a small town, were auctioned.
Not unnaturally, the palace became a centre for the social and political life of Dhaka, hosting Governor Generals and Viceroys after the British Government took over the administration of British territories in India.
At Independence and partition, like other Muslim Zaminders, the Nawab’s found their position at first secured, then, when the new state of Pakistan enacted government possession of such properties, unsecured.
At the heart of Old City, the building is certainly one of the few Zaminderbaris in good repair in Bangladesh. It is, perhaps, just a pity they couldn’t have found a less lurid pink wash for the walls!Within, is a museum of social life, although, like most museums in Bangladesh, poorly curetted, but probably worth a visit.