It’s an excellent place for prayer and reflection on the banks of the Hooghly River around 70 km north of Kolkata. Step inside the monumental gateway of this magnificent religious complex and you are at once humbled by 80-foot-tall twin towers on either side. A large quadrangular courtyard stretches in front of you but your attention is drawn to the sheer size and grandeur of the colossal complex. This is the Hooghly Imambara, a Shia Muslim congregation hall and mosque whose scale and beauty will take your breath away.
The magnificence of the Hooghly Imambara is matched only by the touching story that led to its construction. This splendid religious complex is the legacy of a great Bengali merchant-philanthropist, who also played a pivotal role in helping victims of the horrific Great Bengal Famine of 1776-77.
The imambara was built with money bequeathed to a trust by Haji Muhammad Mohsin (1732-1812), considered one of Bengal’s greatest philanthropists. He was born into a wealthy Shia family of salt merchants who had migrated from Persia to Bengal, which was then ruled by Nawab Shuja-ud-Din Muhammad Khan (r. 1727-1739), son-in-law of Nawab Murshid Quli Khan.
Bengal, which fell to the British East Indian Company only later, was then the most prosperous region in India and a centre of global trade. Haji Mohsin’s grandfather, Haji Faizullah, had made a huge fortune trading in salt in Murshidabad before he settled in Hooghly. Haji Mohsin completed his higher studies in Murshidabad and then travelled extensively across the Middle East, Iran and Turkey.
Haji Mohsin was a man of many talents. He was not only a historian and a mathematician but also a skilful mechanic, a wrestler and also a swordsman. Impressed with his knowledge, Nawab Asafuddaulah of Awadh (1748-1797) invited him to his court in Lucknow, simply to meet him.
However, dark clouds were gathering and the Battle of Plassey in 1757 gave the British East India Company control over Bengal. But this staggering change in the political landscape set the stage for disaster. The Company brutally exploited farmers as well as artisans, while the businesses of Indian merchants were destroyed to wipe out competition. Changes in land policy and heavy taxation culminated in what is known as the ‘Great Bengal Famine of 1770’, which is said to have wiped out one-third of the Bengal’s population.
The famine lasted from 1769 to 1773 and is said to have killed around 10 million people in the lower Gangetic plains. The situation was so desperate that large areas were depopulated and there were reports of cannibalism. But even during this horrific calamity, the Company continued to collect taxes from the natives. A large number of Bengalis pitched in to help their compatriots in any way they could.
Haji Mohsin, who had inherited a fortune from his parents and by now himself a wealthy merchant, established many langarkhanas or gruel houses to help the famine survivors and donated huge sums to the government’s famine fund. His unstinting generosity and philanthropy for the famine-affected led to Haji Mohsin being considered a ‘saint’ among the locals.
Haji Mohsin’s fortune swelled further when his stepsister Mannujan Khanam died in 1803. She was the wealthy childless widow of Mirza Salahuddin, Deputy Military Governor of Hooghly. On her death, she bequeathed her vast wealth and zamindari to her 71-year-old stepbrother.
On 20th April 1806, Haji Mohsin executed a trust deed, bequeathing his entire fortune to charity. By a towleatnama (deed), he created a trust and directed that the proceeds of his vast estate be divided into nine equal shares, after paying government revenues. Of these nine shares, three were to be spent on religious festivals including Ashra of Moharram-al-Haram, the repair of imambara buildings and cemeteries; four shares would go towards paying the establishment and monthly pensions of the stipendiary’s; and the remaining two shares were to be distributed equally among two mutawallis (managers or trustees) of the charitable trust.
Haji Mohsin passed away in 1812 but his legacy lives on through the charitable trust and institutions supported by it. His endowment has been used to support a number of educational institutions and schools in Bengal, one of which is the Hooghly Mohsin College built in 1836. However, the grandest edifice built with the Mohsin fund is the Hooghly Imambara, whose construction began in 1845.
The imambara we see today was constructed on the site of an old, single-storey building built in 1694 CE. After the government took over the trust, Syed Keramat Ali was appointed as a mutawalli (trustee) of the imambara by Governor-General Lord Auckland, who was pleased with his services in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). Construction of the new imambara was started in 1845 and completed in 1861 at a cost of a princely sum of Rs 2,17,413.
The Hooghly Imambara is truly a grand monument, one of its most striking features being its massive gateway and soaring twin towers. Each tower contains a spiral staircase comprising 152 steps, which lead to a gallery. If you do make it up the stairs, you will be rewarded with a spectacular panorama of the countryside. A massive clock tower with a giant clock is placed between the twin towers. Manufactured by M/s Black & Hurray Co, Big Ben, London, it cost Rs 11,721.
The large quadrangular courtyard inside the imambara has a beautiful rectangular tank with a decorative fountain in the middle. It is surrounded by two-storied buildings, its east end hosting a zaridalan (main prayer hall) with a black-and-white chequered marble floor. Five elegant taziyas (translate) in the memory of Prophet Muhammad, Bibi Sayedah Fatimah, Hazrat Ali (A.S), Imam Hussain (A.S) and Imam Hasan (A.S) are kept inside the zaridalan.
On the upper external wall of the imambara facing the river Hooghly is a copy of Haji Muhammad Mohsin’s towleatnama or trust deed engraved in Persian and English. The tomb of Haji Mohsin is just behind the imambara.
There are a number of educational institutions in West Bengal and even in Bangladesh supported by the ‘Mohsin fund’. However, this merchant-philanthropist’s greatest legacy continues to be the magnificent Hooghly Imambara.
LHI Travel Guide
The nearest railhead is Bandel Junction, which is well connected with both Howrah Junction (39 km) and Sealdah (46 km) railway stations. A train journey from Howrah station to Bandel Junction via the Howrah-Bandel Local or Howrah-Burdwan Main Line Local is the best option.
From Bandel Junction, local conveyance is available to reach the Hooghly Imamabara. If you like to step off the beaten track, you can take a boat ride along the Hooghly River from the Bandel Church to the imambara.
Entry tickets to visit the imambara complex cost Rs 10 apiece, as on July 2019. Photography is not restricted at the imambara except inside the zaridalan.
Sk. Abdul Amin is a Research Scholar and a Teacher-Fellow at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He is a heritage enthusiast with an interest in history through the lens of art, culture and religion.