METIYABRUZ is a warren of single-storied houses, squalid yards,
open drains and bustling bazaars. Beyond, there are scrubby fields
and hyacinth-choked ponds. Dominating the scene are innumerable factory
sheds ant the huge Garden Reach shipyard. its gigantic steel machinery
looming against the skyline. Today this Calcutta locality has little
claim to distinction.
But just a little more than a hundred years ago, when Wajid Ali Shah, the King of Oudh, decided to settle in Calcutta in 1856, after his
deposition, he created in Matiaburj, known as Mochikhola then and "earthy
paradise". Lucknow was lost to the British but a second Lucknow came up
here. The King set up a whole township where the people observed the same
ceremonies, enjoyed the same pastimes and even spoke the same language as
they did in the capital of Oudh.
The King built many sumptuous houses, each in a different setting,
pleasances, formally laid out parks with quicksilver fountains, an open-air
zoo stocked with rare fauna, an enclosure for snakes, an aviary, Imambaras
and a market. The King's entourage, which followed him from Lucknow, likewise
built houses here and the area was encircled by a high wall.
But in 1887 the King died. The British sold his property at throwaway
prices and the returns were distributed among his heirs. Everything went to
rack and ruin. Industry, and in some cases nature, encroached on whatever
Today, factories and rows of houses have come up where once stood
Shahinshah Manzil or Tafrih Baksh; overcrowded bazaars, slushy lanes meander
in place of emerald parks and noble gateways; harsh accents and the clang of
machinery have replaced courtly speech and the stains of music.
Only Sibtainabad Imambara, Begum Masjid, Shahi Masjid, Baitun Nijat
and Quasrul Buka have escaped destruction. Some of the houses, including the
magnificent palace in which the King resided, were acquired by South Eastern
Railway, but no one is sure which particular ones.
The story of these relics is history embroidered with legends and hearsay, the authencity is impossible to determine. According to Prince Anjum Quder - grandson of Birjis Qadr, Wajid Ali Shah's eldest son - who still lives
here, says Sibtainabad Imambara stood on sprawling grounds adorned with
flowering plants and fountains drawing water from the nearby Hooghly.
Here Wajid Ali used to meditate for hours during the Mohurram
mourning period and take part in congregations every morning. One morning,
on second day of Mohurrum, when the King returned to his palace, Sultan Khana
he breathed his last. He was laid to rest here.
Prince Anjum Quder, who is President of the All-India Shia Conference
and his two brothers, Dr. Kaukab Mirza and Prince Nayyer Quder, are honorary
trustees of the Sibtainabad Trust.
The Imambara, built in 1864, stands sparklingly whitewashed on Garden
Reach Road untouched by Bangla Bazar spread around it. Its imposing arched
portal is surmounted by the naubatkhana. An electronic clock attached to it
strikes the only jarring note.
The gateway emblazoned with the double mermaids, insignia of the
Royal Family and Trust, gives on to a marble courtyard facing the porticoed
prayer hall. Throughout the day the Imambara is alive with the chatter of
children who have come to study groups, holding discourses or employees
scrubbing the floor. The prayer hall resounds with incantations.
Innumerable lampshades of coloured glass hang from the ceiling of the
portico. On its wall are the portraits of Hazrat Mahal and her son, Birjis Qadr. During the sepoy uprising in Lucknow, she became his regent. After
Lucknow fell to the British, she fled with her infant son to Nepal where she
died. Later Birjis returned to India and died of food poisoning in Metiyaburz.
Wajid Ali, his son, Birjis, and daughter-in-law, Mahtab Ara, a Moghul
princess, and several other members of his family were interred here. Wajid
Ali Shah's grave is adorned with a silver zari, replica of a Muslim shrine,
banner, exquisitely embroidered with gold and silver thread dusty and
crumbling with age, candlebras and a priceless pair of jade vases.
A rare portrait by an unknown artist of the King in his last days
can be seen here (reproduced above). The King, stern and portly, is attired
in an elegant white angarkha, so unlike the overdressed beau he was in his
On a platform in this hall, Wajid Ali used to meditate. It is
surrounded by an open-work railing of brass. Beside it is a silver pulpit of
that period. The Imambara has two wings that enclose the courtyard. The first
floor houses the quarters of its employees, the office and a library which has
a fine collection of rare books and illuminated manuscripts, some embellished
by the King himself.
Some ground floor rooms are crammed with the sets of Shatranj Ke Kilari,
a gift from the director, and valuable mementos such as shawls, crockery
(supposedly the Kings) and heavy silver alams. The alams and embroidered banners
lead the Imambara's famous Mohurrum procession. Mention must be made of
Manindra Nath Ghosh's Jao-ka Tazia, which also takes part in the procession.
This tazia of wheat sprouts grown on a bamboo frame is a tradition that has
come down through the years.
The King had enlisted in his service talented artists, musicians,
dancers and calligraphists, as well as renowned hakims and theologians. Even
today, one can meet their descendants at Metiyabruz. Manindra Nath Ghosh and
Motilal Srimali for instance.
Motilal Srimali is a scion of the Shahi Paanwalas, traditional betel
suppliers to the Royal Family. He claims that he can trace his line from the
days of Raja Dasaratha of Ayodhya. His forefathers had mastered the art of
serving paan which he has inherited. By varying the spices and ingredients
he prepares paan, wrapped in gold and silver foil, that can set a man's blood
aflame or soothe strained nerves. His shop exhibits portraits of the King, his
famous wrestler, Ghulam Pehlwan, and Birjis Qadr alongside pictures of Hindu
gods and goddesses.
Old and wasted Manindra Ghosh whose great grandfather was a guard
makes no tall claims. He has muddled recollections of a zoo and a king's,
bequest. He laments that the plot of land gifted by Wajid Ali has been usurped.
His tazia he constructs on the platform ten days before the procession is
The Imambara Qasrul buka and Baitun Nijaat are in various stages of
disrepair. Qasrul Buka was the first Imambara to be built in Metiyabruz. Its
entrance is wedged between the remains of a distressed rampart and a factory
that occupies its hallowed grounds.
As one steps into the grimy courtyard, women in burqas scurry into the
dark rooms that surround it. A funeral gloom hangs inside the prayer hall
pervaded by the miasma of decay and mildew. A layer of dust carpets its floor.
Surprisingly beautiful lampshades still hang from the ceiling.
No effort has been made to reclaim weather-beaten Baitun Nijaat now
rising from amidst a tangle of shrubs. The King's personal Imambara stands on
a huge plot, part of which is occupied by a sawmill and a workshop. It is
decayed and abandoned. Yet the stucco pineapples on its parapet and moss
grown scaly monsters in its garden have survived. The weeds running riot in
the garden and courtyard are slowly approaching the portico, which is strewn
Wajid Ali Shah was a devout Muslim. He never missed his prayers or the
Ramazan fast. Legend says that the King, before constructing the first mosque
of his new settlement, made a proclamation inviting anyone who had not missed
even one of the five daily namaz since he became an adult to lay its
foundation. When no one claimed the distinction even after a month, the King
laid the foundation himself. This is the Shahi Masjid of Iron Gate Road, near
The Mosque, overshadowed by a godown, is entered through lane lined
with canna. It is small and beautifully proportioned. Stucco ornaments. on the
roof trace patterns on the sky. Jalousied doors open on to what once was a
row of fountains. Wrought Iron flowers bloom along this conduit of fetid water.
But even here Nature is gaining the upper hand. The mosque is
surrounded by an overgrown garden. Weeds and parasite plants grown apace. The
ground is thick with rotting leaves.
In contrast, Begum Masjid, adjoining Sibtainabad Imambara is well
groomed. Its yard is well scrubbed. The fresh coat of white-wash disguises
its age but there is telltale mildew on its doors. One of Wajid Ali Shah's mutai
wives was buried here - hence its name. Besides its dowdy neighbour this
mosque has a light and feminine appearance. An elegant structure, arched
doorways, and slender cupolas create this effect.
In paanwala's shop near what was perhaps the King's palace, there is
a picture of the Hooghly of yore. Wajid Ali poses on a brown steed against a
palace. The sky is canopy of turquoise. In the background a peacock boat sails
on the glinting river. On the other side, the Botanical Gardens is a haze of
green. Even today this view is unspoilt. But the palaces and beautiful boats
have sunk without trace.
All that remains is a huge and picturesque pile of bricks on a mound
rising from the river. This wild ruin has come straight out of the pages of
some Arabian romance. Any moment a houri could glance through its gaping
windows or the surroundings become fragrant with her attar. Gleeful urchins
splash into the river and work-a-day reality trundles back again.