April 12, 2013

Curzon Gate, Bardhaman

The documented history of the province of Bardhaman (aka Burdwan) in Bengal goes back over 2,500 years when the last Jain Tirthankar Vardhaman Mahavir stayed at a small hamlet known as Astikagram during his lengthy sojourn – the hamlet was immediately christened as Bardhaman in his honor and continued to exist in its simplistic, pristine state for over a millennium while the world around it changed and developed, emperors and local lords came and went, and territories changed hands. In 1657, when the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan (reign AD 1627-57) ruled over the vast subcontinent, Sangam Rai Kapoor migrated from Lahore (present-day Pakistan) to Bardhaman under express command of the emperor to take over, expand into a local stronghold and manage the affairs of Bardhaman. But that is not where our story begins – it fast-forwards two and a half century to when Maharaj Bijoy Chand Mahtab (ruled 1887-1941, under regency from 1887-1902 since he was only six at the time of crowning) ascended the throne of Bardhaman province and immediately ordered the provincial administration, lukewarm and largely undecided in transferring its loyalty from the ousted Mughals to the British colonists, to leave no stone upturned to serve and appease the British administration that had overtaken the country following defeat of the native forces in the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny/War of Independence – it is difficult to ascertain the primary reasons behind the Maharaj’s capitulation to the foreign forces but he could have been guided by sensitivity towards his subjects who would have benefited greatly, financially, academically as well as socially, by assisting the subcontinent’s masters in their entire capacity against localized revolts and freedom struggle outbreaks, or by the lure of personal achievements, monetary, social as well as statutory – either way, in his bid to keep his colonial masters content and satiated, the Maharaj, who was no more than a local well-paid and extremely affluent revenue collector (“zamindar”) enjoying a title (“maharaj”) that was under no circumstances hereditary, turned away from the freedom movement that was gradually gripping the country in a fervent and united stance – he was bestowed with the title of “Rajadhiraj” by Bordillian, the then Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, in 1903 and “Maharajadhiraj” by Lord Minto, the then Viceroy of the subcontinent, in 1908 in recognition of the valuable assistance he provided against the revolutionaries and the revenue his province generated annually to keep the coffers of British treasury overflowing. The Maharaj’s chivalry and courage was hailed when he saved the life of Sir Andrew Fraser, the Lieutenant-Governor, from Bengali revolutionaries intent on assassinating the latter and he was awarded with further titles of KCIE (Knight Commander of the Indian Empire) and Indian Order of Merit (class III).

The splendid gateway and the bazaar adjoining it

The Maharaj commissioned the grand Curzon Gate (also referred to as Bijoy Toran, a play on the Maharaj’s name since it could be translated both as the Maharaj’s gateway or “Victory gateway” (Bijoy literally translates to victory), when Viceroy Curzon visited Bardhaman on August 16, 1904 as part of a tour to Bengal. The magnificent gateway, a huge Gothic-inspired structure, looks slightly out of place at the head of the typical Indian bazaar (market place) where it stands, but definitely fulfills its function by acting as a majestic gateway leading to the Maharaj’s palace, which is about a kilometer away on the road emerging from the gateway. The massive gateway’s central and largest arch is surmounted by spellbinding sculptures of three Greek women dressed in robes and personifying Education, Industry and Agriculture – the three ethos in which the Maharaj aimed to and largely succeeded in making his province sufficiently affluent, he himself being the first member of the royal family to formally attain educational qualification from the renowned Calcutta University. Each of the two smaller, side-arches is crowned by the statue of a lion seated regally atop a low platform. 


Exquisitely sculpted, thick Corinthian pillars support the high pedestals while the pedestals that serve as the base for the pillars are themselves adorned with panels crafted out of incised plaster and displaying a very intricate, highly fantastical and ethereal representation of foliage, trees and flowers; A band of beautiful floral patterns runs along the central arch while the gateway’s top is ornamented with star-spangled medallion motifs – in its entirety, the gateway is undoubtedly a testimonial to the skill of the artists who toiled on it and dexterously conceived and executed a European style structure even though their chief preoccupation might have been crafting traditional and vernacular artistic and architectural specimens. The gateway leads to the aforementioned multifaceted bazaar where one can purchase numerous items ranging from food articles and sweets to clothes and accessories – walk straight in and you can also visit the famed Sarvamangala temple, a pretty Shaktipeetha and a well-known shrine housed within the premises of a huge mansion. 

The panel with fantastical representation of trees and foliage at the bottom of the gateway

It is of course another matter that in 1905, Lord Curzon announced the partition of Bengal into Hindu-Muslim enclaves leading to widespread riots and repercussions for the imperial administration. Soon thereafter, though Bengal was reunited into a single province, the Maharaj, sensing a shift in British policies that were bound to be greatly unfavorable to the Zamindari (revenue agent-landlord) system and would have depleted his resources and revenues in a single stroke, began associating with and funding the freedom struggle leaders. Following independence and the abolition of Zamindari system, the magnanimous descendants of Maharaj Bijoy Chand gave up their territories and palace to establish small cultivators and the University of Bardhaman respectively and themselves began managing the private companies and industrial institutions in which they were stakeholders and took active interest in commercial and real estate interests. The gateway still functions as a beacon, welcoming visitors to the city with its gentle, unassuming enormity and graceful artwork – after all, the Bardhaman railway station is so close to it that most visitors pass by it and marvel at its regal splendor whenever they emerge into the city.

The realistic lion and the skillfully-sculpted Corinthian pillars (bottom)

Location: Near Bardhaman Railway station
How to reach: If arriving from out station via rail, one can simply deboard and walk to the gateway. Buses and rickshaws are available from different parts of the city to the gateway.
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 10 min
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