The Genteel Mirzapur



Violence and gore make for exciting cinematic backdrops as in the case of Mirzapur, which lent its name to a recent web series. But life does not imitate art. Far from being a town ruled by gangsters and drug lords, the town of Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh is as tranquil as they come.

The devout know Mirzapur as a pilgrim centre, anthropologists flock to it for its ancient cave art and historians delight in its atmospheric past. Nestled in a bend of the Ganga at the foothills of the Vindhya mountains, Mirzapur’s fascinating history goes back to the Mesolithic age.


Mirzapur’s fascinating history goes back to the Mesolithic age

Its abundance of food and water made it an ideal place for early settlers and prehistoric rock art still dots the Vindhya and Kaimur Hills, dating from the Mesolithic to the Chalcolithic age. First discovered in 1867 by Archibald Carlleyle, a British archaeologist who assisted Alexander Cunningham, the rock paintings at Sohalighat in the Vindhyas, were popularised only later, by John Cockburn and renowned British historian Vincent A Smith.

Mesolithic Age Rock Art
Mesolithic Age Rock Art|Akshat Lal
Chalcolithic Rock Art
Chalcolithic Rock Art |Akshat Lal

For a major part of Indian history, this region was blanketed in dense forests, rich hunting grounds for the neighbouring princely states of Rewa, Shakteshgarh, Banaras and Chunar. The ancient temple of Vindhyachal and its sub-temples were the only places that had a settled human presence.

It all began to change in the 18th century, when the British East Indian Company, which was then anchoring itself all across India, spotted a huge commercial opportunity in this region. The Company developed the forests surrounding the Vindhyachal temple into a bustling city, and in 1735, a British base was established here. They called it Mirzapore.

‘Mirza’ is derived from the Persian ‘Amirzada’ (wealthy son) but local lore attributes the city’s name to ‘Meerja Devi’, one of the names of Goddess Shakti. Even today, the city is known as ‘Meerjapur’ in Hindi. Nevertheless, Mirzapore stuck.

City of Mirzapur, July 1833
City of Mirzapur, July 1833|H M Woodcock’s collection from the British Library

This city was chosen by the British as a new centre of commerce because of its strategic location. Mirzapur is where the Ganga enters the Vindhya mountain range. Here, the river meanders in a U-shaped course, enveloping the town on three sides. The city boasts some beautiful ghats built all around its perimeter. These ghats were used as ports for cargo vessels which entered India at Howrah and sailed into the heart of India, at Mirzapur.

Fleets proceeding from Mirzapur, London News, 1862
Fleets proceeding from Mirzapur, London News, 1862

Mirzapur was directly connected to Mughal Allahabad and to the well-established princely state of Rewa in Central India by the Great Deccan Road. It was one of the busiest centres of the brass industry. Not just brassware, the cotton and silk industries of Mirzapur too gained celebrated status in the early the 18th century.

With the growth of trade and commerce, various traders started settling in Mirzapur and contributed to the town’s development. In fact, almost all the monuments in the city were funded by local traders in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Cotton convoy proceeding from Rewah to Mirzapur, London News, in 1862
Cotton convoy proceeding from Rewah to Mirzapur, London News, in 1862

Bariya Ghat

The British settlement of Mirzapur and its evolution into a trading hub between Western India and North Central India was initiated by the famous officer of the British East India Company, Governor-General of Bengal, Lord Marquess Wellesley. He started building the city from the Burrier Ghat, which was a gateway and an inland port for the city of Mirzapur.

This Burrier Ghat locally became popular as ‘Bariya Ghat’ and the area surrounding it came to be known as ‘Wellesleyganj’. There is a huge Shiva temple on the ghat, which has carvings inspired by the Shiva temples of Khajuraho.

Shiva Temple, Bariya Ghat
Shiva Temple, Bariya Ghat|Akshat Lal
Shiva Temple, Burrier Ghat
Shiva Temple, Burrier Ghat
Shiva Temple in 1832
Shiva Temple in 1832|British Collection

Pakka Ghat

This is one of the most massive ghats in the city. Made of Chunar sandstone, it is known for its intricate carvings. Chunar is a town in Mirzapur district and is known for its stone work. The ghat was built in the late 18th century by a local rich trader, Sri Bhagwandas Umar. It has a pillared baradari (pavilion) and carved stairs that lead down to the river.

Pakka Ghat, side view
Pakka Ghat, side view|Akshat Lal
Pakka Ghat <i>baradari </i>
Pakka Ghat baradari |Akshat Lal
Pakka Ghat, inside
Pakka Ghat, inside|Akshat Lal
Pakka Ghat, other side
Pakka Ghat, other side|Akshat Lal
Pakka Ghat stairs
Pakka Ghat stairs|Akshat Lal

Ojhala Bridge

A white sandstone bridge connects the city of Mirzapur to the great Vindhyachal temple across the Ojhala River, which has lent its name to this bridge. The bridge boasts British architecture with some Gothic elements. It was built around 1716 by a rich cotton trader from Mirzapur, Mahant Parashuram Giri, from a single day's earnings! It once had provisions for visitors to stay. This bridge is also the site of the Ojhala Mela, a popular local fair.

Ojhala Bridge
Ojhala Bridge

Pakki Sarai

This well and caravanserai is situated in the heart of the city. Built of stone, it is an excellent example of Gothic architecture. It was built in 1851 on the orders of a rich local merchant, Pandit Sheetala Prasad Upadhyaya, the grandfather of renowned Hindi writer, Pandit Badri Narayan Chaudhary ‘Premdhan’. Sadly, the monument is in a very dilapidated state and has been a victim of all sorts of encroachment.

Pakki Sarai well
Pakki Sarai well|Akshat Lal

Town Hall Clock Tower

Built in 1891, the clock tower of Mirzapur is an excellent example of the blended version of Indo-Saracenic and Gothic architecture. The structure is built in white sandstone and richly carved. It has a 1,000-kg alloy, weight-driven clock. The Municipal Corporation of Mirzapur has its offices in the same compound.

Town Hall Clock Tower, Mirzapur
Town Hall Clock Tower, Mirzapur

District Court of Mirzapur

During British rule, Mirzapur was the largest district in Agra and Oudh Province. Present-day adjoining districts like Sonbhadra (Robertsganj), Chandauli and Bhadohi were part of Mirzapur district, and to administer this entire region efficiently, the British Crown established a Munsif, a Sub-Judge, an Additional Court and a Sessions Court in 1905. To carry out the functions of these courts, three courtrooms, a lawyers’ room and a litigation chamber were constructed in 1906. The main building of the district court has Dominican architecture and the entire compound is enveloped in a colonial air.

District Court
District Court

Mirzapur is not just a dusty town at the foothills of the Vindhya range; it has a significant part of Indian history attached to it. Mirzapur is not only a hub of the carpet industry, it was one of the most important trade centres on the inland waterways of the British East India Company. As a result, it has some amazing colonial monuments.


DID YOU KNOW?

The 82.5° E longitude, which is used as the reference longitude for Indian Standard Time, passes through Mirzapur – the Amravati Crossing in Vindhyachal is the exact spot in Mirzapur district, where the 82.5°E passes.

The Clock Tower was built on such a large scale because the IST meridian passes through the city. After India gained Independence, the Government of India shifted the Central Observatory from Chennai to Shankargarh in Allahabad district, which is very close to the exact location of the IST Meridian in Mirzapur.

The precise spot which marks the IST Longitude in Vindhyachal, Mirzapur
The precise spot which marks the IST Longitude in Vindhyachal, Mirzapur |Akshat Lal

AUTHOR

Akshat Lal, the founder of Allahabad Heritage Society, is a writer based in Allahabad and works for the conservation of the region's heritage.

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