A Saturday morning through the winding lanes of Wajid Ali Shah’s Metiaburj

Walking down the dingy lanes of Metiaburj (or Metiabruz), on the southern fringes of Calcutta, one would hardly imagine that less than a century and half back, the place was developed into a ‘mini Lucknow’ by Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Oudh (or Awadh), with palaces, mansions, mosques and parks dotting either side of the stretch. A heritage walk organised by ITC Sonar on April 23 as part of its ‘Royal Kitchen’ series offered history enthusiasts a peek into the time and tales of the last ruler of Oudh.

  • Published 7.05.16
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Walking down the dingy lanes of Metiaburj (or Metiabruz), on the southern fringes of Calcutta, one would hardly imagine that less than a century and half back, the place was developed into a ‘mini Lucknow’ by Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Oudh (or Awadh), with palaces, mansions, mosques and parks dotting either side of the stretch. A heritage walk organised by ITC Sonar on April 23 as part of its ‘Royal Kitchen’ series offered history enthusiasts a peek into the time and tales of the last ruler of Oudh.

Sibtainabad Imambara

The sprawling imambara, approached through an arched gateway on Metiaburj’s Garden Reach Road, has ornate interiors lit up with colourful chandeliers. The mausoleum also houses the tomb of Wajid Ali Shah and intricately designed tazias that date back to his time. The golden settee or throne used by Satyajit Ray for his epic Shatranj ke Khiladi, in which Amjad Khan played the Nawab, has found a place beside the nawab’s tomb. A big bronze plate with a royal insignia at one corner of the imambara and the rare paintings that grace the walls bear testimony to the royal’s rich past.

Although the British decimated most traces of Oudh royalty in Metiaburj after the Nawab’s death, the Sibtainabad Imambara has survived to carry the legacy forward to this day.

Digital display of manuscripts

The digital print of a rare Persian calendar, prepared by Wajid Ali Shah, was displayed for the group outside Victoria Memorial. Also on display was the front page of Musammi-Ba-Banni, a book the Nawab had penned to describe the nuances of Kathak dance.

BNR house

The majestic BNR House, a few steps from the South Eastern Railway headquarters in Garden Reach, has a verdant garden in front, overlooking the Hooghly. The white mansion, modelled after the Metcalfe Hall on Strand Road, has been witness to the city’s changing skyline and has stories lurking in every nook and corner. After Wajid Ali Shah was released from Fort William, he moved into this ‘Parikhana’ or the abode of fairies, where the young courtesans practised and performed Kathak and thumri for the Nawab. The Hooghly river reminded Wajid Ali Shah of Gomti in Lucknow and he is known to have enjoyed boat rides in the evenings. Originally built by the British government in 1846 as the official residence of Sir Lawrence Peel, the BNR House became home to general manager, South Eastern Railway, in 1985.

SER headquarters

The South Eastern Railway headquarters, erstwhile Bengal Nagpur Railway headquarters, spanning 53,613sq ft, is a rare example of Indo-Saracenic architecture. The edifice that stands on the erstwhile estate of the Nawab in Garden Reach Road was constructed in 1907 at a whopping cost of Rs 7,01,995. It is crowned with a cluster of domes concealing the water tanks on top. The entrance is through a large portico that has structurally remained unaltered over the years.

Bichali Ghat

After his throne in Lucknow was usurped by the East India Company in 1856, Wajid Ali Shah, accompanied by his family members and a large entourage of advisers, chefs, subjects and a menagerie of 23 tigers, lions and leopards, came ashore in Bichali Ghat (across the Hooghly from Indian Botanic Garden) where he spent the remaining 31 years of his life. As lore goes, one of his tigers escaped from the menagerie in 1879 and swam across to botanical gardens. There, it attacked the curator Adolf Biermann and was shot down by the magistrate of Howrah. The ghat that ferries hundreds across the Hooghly river today bears no evidence of its glorious past.

Kite corner

Apart from Awadhi biryani, if there is one thing that the Nawab has passed on to the people of this city, it is his legacy of kite-flying. The sport caught the fancy of many nobles and zamindars, who are also known to have staked fortunes on it. The kite shops in the Metiaburj lanes, although few in number now, are a gentle reminder of the royal passion for this sky sport. “I also wish to try my hand at kite-flying,” said Isabelle Archment, who tagged along with mom Nilufer, representative of the Turkish consulate. “The imambara visit was the best part of the tour. I found the colourful chandeliers and tazias very interesting,” added the Class II student of Calcutta International School.

The group gathered on the SER headquarters stairways for a photo session. Pallab Mukherjee, PRO, South Eastern Railway, explained the significance of the century-old edifice.

“It is our continuous endeavour to showcase unique experiences of the region,” said (left) Atul Bhalla, GM, ITC Sonar. The walk was curated by the Golden Keys Concierge Services of the hotel and supported by Shahanshah Mirza, the great-great grandson of the Nawab. “Not many people know about the hidden treasures around this part of this city. The initiative will go a long way in creating awareness about the legacy of the Nawab,” said Mirza.

 

“I found the tour extremely informative. The best part is that Shahanshah Mirza explained the significance of each heritage site in detail,” said Friso Maecker, director, Max Mueller Bhavan.

 

 

“I have been to Metiaburj a year-and-a-half ago, when the tomb of Wajid Ali Shah was still undergoing restoration and I must say they have done a wonderful job. I think there should be more such heritage walks to help people identify with their rich and varied culture and heritage,” said Andrew F. Ryan, general services officer, US Consulate.

 

“I knew little about Wajid Ali Shah and his contributions to the city. The tour gave me a chance to know more. Also, I found the kite shops and the history associated with it fascinating,” said Stephane Amalir, director, Alliance Francaise du Bengale.

 

 “Every heritage building has a story to tell. It feels good to see so many history enthusiasts from different parts of the globe taking interest in our city’s unexplored heritage. I am glad to be a part of the tour,” said Nayantara Palchoudhuri, honorary consul of Norway.

 

“Although Garden Reach and Metiaburj are located within the city’s periphery, they are seldom visited by city folk. I thank ITC Hotels for taking this initiative and I am honoured to have led a host of dignitaries through these winding lanes of Metiaburj,” said Rangan Datta, travel blogger.

 

 

Amalir’s wife Laura echoed similar sentiments. “I have never been to a shrine before. Also, the Nawab’s stories are in some way or the other linked to the colonial era and I, being a Britisher, found the stories absorbing.”

 

 

Text: Rumela Sinha
Pictures: B. Halder

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