The city of Guwahati is the pulsating heart of North East India, a metro constantly embracing the new and blending it with a rich and vibrant cultural past. A gateway to the region for centuries, it nestles on the south bank of the mighty Brahmaputra and is set against the foothills of the Shillong Plateau. Its location has made Guwahati a crucial river port and has helped the city evolve into a major commercial hub. Guwahati is now the fastest-growing metro in the state of Assam and the largest city in the North East.
But the story about to be narrated has nothing, yet everything, to do with the modern city of Guwahati. It has as its dramatis personae two gentlemen – Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain from faraway Awadh, and Francis Jenkins, from even further away, from Great Britain.
This saga also includes an epic love story that played out on the shores of a lake called Digholi Pukhuri, which still remains the centerpiece of Guwahati.
And if it’s Assam, well, there’s got to be tea. So bring out your finest china, sip gently, and prepare to be regaled by tea, Guwahati and a love story by the lake.
It All Started…
Francis Jenkins was born in the picturesque village of St Clement, Cornwall, UK, on August 4, 1793. He sailed for India in 1810, to join the British East India Company. Starting his career as a Captain in the Army, he rose up the ranks rapidly and finally ended up as a Major-General. In 1831, the Governor-General Lord William Bentinck deputed young Captain Jenkins to undertake a survey and report on the resources of the newly annexed region of Assam including Manipur, Cachar and Jaintia Hills. Jenkins was appointed Chief Commissioner of Assam in 1833, and continued in that position till 1861. He was also the Agent to the Governor-General for the North Eastern Frontier of India.
Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain hailed from an aristocratic family in Agra, in the erstwhile Awadh principality (present-day Uttar Pradesh). He moved to Gauhati (now Guwahati) in the 1820s. In those days, the royal House of Awadh was rapidly losing its influence as the Company tightened its grip on its affairs. Uncertainty loomed and there was a growing sense of insecurity among the people.
So when he was offered an administrative post in the North East, a young Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain snapped it up. He and his family, along with an entourage of household staff, set off on a caravan journey for the fertile promise of Assam. In those days, migrating for work was usually a one-way journey.
The Long Lake…
Upon their arrival in Assam, Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain and his family settled on the banks of Digholi Pukhuri, a lake then enveloped by wilderness. The lake was also much longer than it is now. It extended from the Brahmaputra in the north and went all the way south, to the railway line that leads to present-day Guwahati Railway Station.
Digholi Pukhuri is steeped in history and rooted in mythology. According to folklore, it was originally a tank built by King Bhagadatta to meet the water needs of his daughter’s wedding. The story goes that he later ordered a canal to be dug, to link the tank to the Brahmaputra River. Due to the water from the mighty river pushing inland, the tank grew longer, giving it the name ‘Digholi Pukhuri’ or ‘Long Lake’.
The water body was so large that, in later times, it was used by various kingdoms in the region as a naoxal, or a yard to anchor their naval fleets. Legendary 17th century CE Ahom General, Lachit Borphukan had used Digholi Pukhuri to ‘hide’ his boats, which he so successfully used against the larger Mughal ships during the famous Battle of Saraighat (1671).
In the 19th century, when Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain and his family settled on the west bank of the lake. They blended well with the local population and assimilated the local customs so seamlessly that his sister Fatima Bi even acquired an Assamese nickname ‘Moni Phutuki’.
An Emerging City…
When the British East India Company’s influence and control began to grow across India, it started appointing Indians from aristocratic families to sub-divisional administrative posts. It was a practice that continued even after India became a colony directly under the British Crown in 1858.
– Around the mid-1830s, Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain was given charge of developing and managing Gauhati, when Col. Jenkins was appointed the Chief Commissioner of the Assam province.
The idea was to transform Gauhati into an administrative headquarters in Assam, and also an important river port on the Brahmaputra, which was then the lifeline of the remote North-Eastern region.
Back then Gauhati was just a large village comprising of a few hamlets on the banks of River Brahmaputra, majorly concentrating around the present-day Machkhowa and Santipur, and mostly populated by fishermen and those trading in ‘Tamul’ (Betel Nut), also called ‘Guwa’ or ‘Gaua’. As their main occupation the locals would regularly lay out a ‘Haat’, or market, on the banks of the river offering fish, betel nuts and other assorted goods, which is how the name ‘Gauhati’ came about, and buyers would take the bulk on boats to other villages. It was against this backdrop that Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain, as the Administrator of the Gauhati sub-division, oversaw the evolution of this sleepy river port into an important administrative centre. It eventually became the capital of the Assam Province and is now a bustling city in modern times.
A Love Story Etched In Time…
Francis Jenkins was considered a man of versatile abilities, apart from being a successful Army-man and great administrator, he was also a scholar. Jenkins was deeply interested in the history and antiquities of Assam. He contributed a number of articles to the pages of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and inspired others to contribute on subjects relating to Assamese history, philology, topography, mineralogy and other such topics. The first noteworthy history of Assam was compiled in 1841, by William Robinson at the instance of Maj. Gen. Jenkins to whom it was dedicated.
During the course of his interactions with the locals while stationed in Gauhati, he crossed paths with Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain’s sister Fatima Begum. It was love at first sight, as the legend goes...
– Fatima Bi, fondly nicknamed Moni Phutuki meaning ‘the one who emerges from bursting pearls’, was indeed a very beautiful woman and Jenkins was smitten by her beauty.
Even though Shekhawat Hussain would work in close coordination with Col. Jenkins and the two forged a close bond as the new city was being built, despite that he and his family members were not ready for the alliance when Col. Jenkins asked for Fatima Begum’s hand in marriage. Eventually, after several pleas by Jenkins and his promise that Fatima Bi would be allowed to maintain her cultural and religious identity, the family relented.
Neither religious nor cultural differences posed much of a barrier for the British Col. Francis Jenkins and Indian Fatima Begum when they married in the late 1830s. After her marriage, she was popularly called Phutuki Mem (short for Madame, a title associated with British officers’ wives in India) and they remained happily married until death did them apart and quite literally so…
Jenkins’s love for his beloved Phutuki Mem and his fondness for Assam led him to settle down in Guwahati after retirement, and he never returned to England.
The Tea Story…
During his travels throughout the region as the Chief Commissioner, Col. Francis Jenkins must have noticed Tea trees growing abundantly in the wild, as some of which still do on the Karbi and Dima Hasao hills, and the hills of Manipur. Even today the Singpho tribe collect wild Tea leaves for their distinctive ‘Smoked Tea’ variation. And it is also certain that during early times of East India Company, the locals were harvesting Tea leaves from the wild and selling it loose, and were also collecting it for the Company.
Col. Jenkins spotted a fantastic opportunity – an immediate action of his was to set up a committee in 1834 to explore the possibility of a tea industry in India, which would break the Chinese monopoly in the market. He soon realized that Tea could possibly be grown commercially in the region, in a better organized manner, particularly since the soil and weather of the region were so conducive for Tea. He is considered the pioneer of the Indian Tea industry.
In his book Early British Relations with Assam (1949), Dr S K Bhuyan says, “In some quarter, Maj Gen Jenkins is also credited as the discoverer of the tea plant in Assam, now known as ‘Thea Assamica’, identical with the tea of commerce then in circulation, other rivals to the honour of the discovery being Captain Charlton and Mr Charles Alexender Bruce.”
– Jenkins played a pivotal part in founding the Assam Tea Company in 1839, the first-ever tea company in India.
The first major collection center for the tea produced in Assam and the surrounding region was located in Calcutta, then the Company’s headquarters and later the imperial capital of India. It was also its main shipping port.
Hence, tea from the region was first transported down the Brahmaputra, via the Hooghly to Calcutta, from where it was shipped all the way to Great Britain, and onward to London along the Thames. It was then stocked in massive warehouses along the Thames, before it was shipped throughout Europe and rest of the world.
Footprints of history…
Maj. Gen. Francis Jenkins died after developing a fever on 28th August 1866 and was laid to rest in Gauhati, the city formed under his administration. His grave was located at the old cemetery near Guwahati Railway Station which is currently the present site of Institute of Engineers, and is just about half a kilometre away from the Shekhawat’s family graveyard along Digholi Pukhuri, where his wife Phutuki Mem (Fatima Begum) lay buried along with her brother Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain, her parents and other relatives. There were memorials to Francis Jenkins in Gauhati, like ‘Jenkins Road’ and ‘Jenkins Ghat’, which were later renamed M G Road and Sukleshwar Ghat.
Shekhawat’s family had to relocate from the west side of the Digholi Pukhuri to the east in the 1840s, to make way for the British administrative, educational, social, religious and residential establishments of the ever-expanding city.
When Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain and his family moved to the east bank, he earmarked a plot which became the family’s burial ground. It is still surrounded by homes of the family’s descendants. The graveyard, also known as the Shekhawati Kabrastan, became the final resting place of eminent personalities in the Digholi Pukhuri locality, including the extended family of freedom fighter Mohammed Tayebullah and his elder brother Mohammed Herasutullah.
– The legend of their love – a Christian, British Major-General marrying an Assamese Muslim girl – is still alive among those who live along Digholi Pukhuri, the present-day Mohammed Tayebullah Road.
Sadly, in the mid-1990s, when Jenkins’s descendants came visiting, hoping to pay their respects at the grave of their great-grandmother, they could not locate it in the untended family graveyard of the Shekhawat family. Neither did they get a chance to meet the family’s descendants.
Amongst the descendants of the Shekhawati family, two prominent figures were brothers, Qazi Tahfizur Rahman and Qazi Taufiqar Rahman. Their father Qazi Talmiur Rahman was the son of, Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain and Rahimun Nesa’s first born, Roufun Nesa, married to Azizur Rahman. While their mother Syeda Masuda belonged to a very prominent local family, whose brother Sir Syed Saadullah, was the first Prime Minister of Assam in the newly independent India and the only one from entire north-east region of India to have been conferred upon the Knighthood by the United Kingdom.
In 1929, Qazi Tahfizur Rahman became the first Indian from undivided India to be trained in the science of oil technology at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London. He was part of the core team at the Digboi Oil Field, Asia’s first oil well. He also led the engineering team that established the Noonmati oil refinery for the government, later called the Guwahati Refinery, the first oil refinery of the Indian Oil Corporation. An extremely well-travelled man, he never married and continued to pursue his passion for travel till the very end.
Qazi Taufiqar Rahman, who completed his studies from Aligarh Muslim University, was an Advocate and a progressive social figure in the locality. He emphasised education and social equality. A school for the underprivileged in Amsing, near Narengi (suburbs of present-day Guwahati) still bears his name. He also encouraged women to offer prayers in local mosques, equally with men, especially in the mosque located next to the present-day Latasil Park Police Station, which he helped establish.
The great divide and the High Society…
As the new city of Gauhati expanded, Digholi Pukhuri almost became an unspoken demarcation between the British and Indian settlements, notwithstanding the original local settlements on the further north-west along the riverside.
To the west and north-west of the lake were all the major administrative and educational establishments like Cotton College (now a university), Curzon Hall (present-day Nabin Chandra Hall and Library), the Post House, the Administrative Headquarters (present-day Deputy Commissioner’s Office), Christ Church, Baptist Church and the homes of several British families. Further away, closer to the British establishments, were the commercial areas and shops of Pan Bazaar and Fancy Bazaar. There was only a smattering of Indians living on the west side, mainly big traders and shop owners, who lived in and around the commercial areas.
To the north of Digholi Pukhuri, the imposing Gauhati High Court and homes of judges were built. The impressive High Court building and the Circuit House were constructed after major reclamation blocked the mouth of the canal that led to the lake, which again separated Digholi Pukhuri and the River Brahmaputra.
At the southern end of the lake were prominent cultural establishments like the Library and Museum, which along with the laying of railway lines further reduced the length of Digholi Pukhuri.
Only to the east of Digholi Pukhuri extending all the way along the river side towards Uzan Bazaar were residences of the Indians, and this side of the city soon became exclusively Indian and kept spreading further eastwards. This side was also blessed with the presence of the ancient Ugratara Temple and the mausoleum of a Sufi Saint, which is now within the premises of the famous Bura Masjid (the old Mosque).
Now there’s nothing like some harmless rivalry – and a wry sense of humour – to add some vigour to the great divide along the lake. At the turn of the 19th century, when the British elite deciding on a site for recreation and their exclusive Gauhati Club, they chose an empty field on the east side of Digholi Pukhuri, adjacent to the Indian settlements. They opened the clubhouse in 1894, and, of course, Indians were denied membership.
Not to be outdone, prominent Indians of Gauhati chose a spot near an open field (called Judges Field today) in the British-dominated west side of Digholi Pukhuri, for their own Gauhati Town Club. They opened their modest clubhouse in 1906, thus thumbing their nose at the colonial establishment. The club was initially funded by Indian tea planters and local traders, Indian advocates, administrative officers and eminent local social figures. These two Clubs set the tone for high society in Guwahati back then, and are status of the city’s elite even today.
A modern drama…
The two men – Maj.Gen. Francis Jenkins and Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain – brought together by a shared history, and who together shaped a city in indelible ways. Both were pioneers in founding Guwahati in colonial times, and their stories are rooted on the shores of a lake.
Digholi Pukhuri, though much smaller and now fenced, remains the centerpiece of the city of Guwahati. This lake has always attracted numerous avian guests, and has been home to a large number of ‘Raj Hans’ (also called ‘Hamsa’ or Goose). Sadly in the present times this huge bunch of geese have lost access to Digholi Pukhuri due to its fenced boundary and are relegated to the nearby smaller Jur Pukhuri (the twin ponds). Every once in a while their loud protests can be seen and heard, when they occupy the Lamb Road (the road nearby that runs parallel to Dhigholi Pukhuri) near the Ugratara Temple and quack in full throttle. It then almost seems as if they are beseeching Devi Ugratara to help them get back their favourite water-body, the Digholi Pukhuri.
Meanwhile, a portion of the Shekhawati Kabarstan got mired in litigation after a group of locals attempted to snatch the property to develop it as prime real estate. The present-day descendants of the Shekhawat family, along with other local residents, have formed the Digholi-Pukhuri Kabarstan Suraksha Committee to protect this plot in the heart of Guwahati that is so intrinsically linked to the history of the city itself. The Committee has decided that once the legal dispute is settled, they will beautify the graveyard as a public place in memory of all those who rest there. They also plan to build a memorial to Major-General Jenkins and Phutuki Mem, thereby reuniting the parted lovers in the memory of future generations.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shahnaab Alam is a film producer, born in Guwahati, raised in Delhi and based in Mumbai, who loves tea, Guwahati and history.
The details of this piece have been collated from historical research but are based mainly on oral history sessions with his maternal grandmother, Rezia Khatoon, who was the wife of Qazi Taufiqar Rahman, a great-grandson of Mir Syed Shekhawat Hussain. She passed away in 2019 at the age of 93.