If you drive down West Bengal’s State Highway 6, through the district of Birbhum towards Jharkhand, less than 1 km from the state border you will see a strange sight – an almost perfectly rectangular water body, with a ruin marooned on an island in the middle. To one side of the water body, obscured by vegetation, are ruins that loom far larger, built to resemble a palace. These forgotten structures – they’re not even protected monuments – are all part of what was once the proud principality of Rajnagar, a gateway to Bengal.
William Wilson Hunter writes in his Annals of Rural Bengal: Volume 1 (1868) that the hilly areas of Birbhum were “inhabited by savage tribes, and only in the outskirts of the country did the minor kings make their residence”. Two brothers, Bir Singh and Chaitanya Singh, arrived here (time period unknown) from the northwest provinces, subdued the tribals and established their rule over the area. It is from Bir Singh that the district acquires its name, ‘Birbhum’, or ‘Land of the Brave’. By the late 12th CE, the descendants of Bir Singh had made Rajnagar their capital.
They continued to rule the area even after the Afghan military chief Bakhtiyar Khilji had conquered large parts of Bengal around 1203 CE. By 1205 CE, Rajnagar had become important enough to justify the construction of a road linking it to Debkoti, near Gaur, then the capital of Bengal.
Rajnagar would remain intact for another 300 years. Then, in the 16th century, two Pathan brothers named Asadullah Khan and Joned Khan presented themselves to the King of Rajnagar and were accepted into his service. They proved their mettle and were raised to the ranks of commander and confidential adviser to the King. But, secretly, the brothers were plotting against their ruler. Asadullah fell in love with the Queen and convinced her to support their plans.
He eventually attacked the King, as planned, while the latter was preparing for a wrestling bout. As the two fought, the Queen double-crossed her lover and convinced Joned to push the men – Asadullah Khan and the King – into a nearby well, where they both drowned. The Queen now took the reins, with Joned Khan as her Dewan or chief adviser.
By 1600 CE, power had passed to Joned’s descendant, Bahadur Khan or Ranmast Khan and Rajnagar continued to prosper. By 1718 CE, it was ruled by a descendant named Badya Jama, who swore loyalty to the Nawab of Murshidabad. Rajnagar sided with Nawab Alivardi Khan in his battle against the Maratha Borgis, who ravaged Bengal for a decade between 1741 and 1751 CE. When Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah attacked the East India Company in Calcutta, he was accompanied by the ruler of Rajnagar, Ali Naqi Khan. The place where Ali Naqi Khan camped is still known as ‘Alipore’. But this decision to support the Nawab against the East India Company would prove to be Rajnagar’s undoing.
When Mir Jafar was installed as Nawab of Bengal by the East India Company after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 CE, the Nawab and the Company formed an alliance against Rajnagar. The Rajnagar forces were defeated, first in 1761 CE by the combined forces of Mir Jafar’s son-in-law, Nawab Mir Qasim and the East India Company, and then again in the Battle of Hetampur in 1765 CE. Although the Pathans of Rajnagar held on to their lands, they lost much of their autonomy. With the East India Company’s takeover of the administration, the local administrative headquarters were shifted to Suri, and Rajnagar, relegated to a small provincial town, fell into disrepair.
Still, Rajnagar offers a fascinating glimpse into a little-known part of Bengal’s history, through the ruins of its royal past that still stand. Chief among them is the Motichur Mosque. Since it is missing a foundation plaque, it is impossible to say who commissioned it, when it was completed or how it came to be named after a popular sweetmeat. But the care with which it was built is evident in the delicate terracotta floral and vegetal patterns still visible on its tympanums. Made from terracotta, as many mosques of Bengal were, its domes have long collapsed, but it bears the remains of decorative false doors, another common feature of the time.
At the centre of what was Rajnagar lies the large pond known as ‘Kalidaha’. This, locals believe, had been excavated by descendants of the Bir Rajas. The island in the centre of Kalidaha is now completely overgrown. It is believed that the vegetation hides a temple to Goddess Kali.
To the east of Kalidaha, within what are now the premises of Rajanagar High School, lies a hamam or bathing house, erroneously believed by locals to be the remains of a Rajbari or palace. Legend has it that the confrontation between Asadullah Khan and the then ruler of Rajnagar took place here. Adjacent to the hamam is a well into which Joned Khan is said to have cast his brother and the King.
The Pathans of Rajnagar were Shia Muslims and constructed a magnificent imambara, or congregation hall, for the ceremonies associated with Muharram. The ruins of the imambara are south of the hamam and are still used for this purpose. Although the roof of the imambara has collapsed, the three-storey structure’s colossal scalloped arches continue to inspire awe.
To the south of Kalidaha are the ruins of what was once the palace of the Kings of Rajnagar. However, not only has it almost completely collapsed, but the grounds around it are now covered in almost-impenetrable jungle. The palace’s ghat or wharf once stood here as well. Two large pillars and a series of steps are all that remain.
To the east and south of the imambara is a large open ground now used for a weekly cattle market. Still standing here is Rajnagar’s arsenal, a short, squat structure with thick walls and a narrow entrance. Look carefully and you will see, poking out from beneath the ground, the remains of other former structures across this ground. The plot is at an elevation, which suggests it had strategic importance. Sadly, like many other historic sites in West Bengal, the ruins of Rajnagar remain either buried or bereft of context.
About 2 km to the west of Kalidaha stands the Rajnagar water folly. The rectangular water body, complete with an island in the middle and a palace to one side, is a replica of Kalidaha. Locals believe it was designed as a defensive measure. Invading armies who approached through the Rajmahal mountains of Jharkhand would encounter the water folly first and probably be fooled into attacking it. This would give the defending army time to prepare.
Unlike other former capital cities, there are no grand tombs or mausoleums to commemorate the rulers of Rajnagar. The kings were laid to rest in a plot that William Wilson Hunter’s book and locals identify as the Flower Garden or Fulbagan. The graves had no permanent markers, so it is impossible to tell who is buried where. Only the three graves of Asadullah Khan, his wife and son are visible.
A descendant of the former Kings lives on in Rajnagar, though. Mohammed Shafiul Alam Khan, a local, traces his lineage all the way to those original Pathans. He even inherited a royal diadem or crown. Twice a year, on Muharram and Eid, he makes a public appearance in regal attire and on those two days, the residents still bow to him as their King.
Rajnagar gets few visitors. It does not feature on tourist maps. But all the way out here, history continues to be relived, and remembered.