Edited by Anas Khwaja 6.22.2010
The nawabs of Dhaka like their ancestors were sunni muslim. They were caretaker of Hussaini Dalan -the main building of the minority Shites’s in Dhaka. By virtue of this custodianship they were privileged to be the titular head of the Shia community in Dhaka. The Nawabs patronized Muharram festival, had deep passion for Persian literature and supported the Shia community monetarily. All these speak for the Nawabs secular mind which helped them earn premier position among the heart of the Dhakaiya’s.
Custodian of the Imambarah
Husaini Dalan is also known as Dhaka Imambara (enclosure of the religious leader). This was built during the later half of the Mughal rule. It is the venue for Majlis (gatherings) held during the month of Muharram which commemorates martyrdom of Husain (RA), grandson of prophet Muhammad (SM).
Historically, representatives of the Mughal emperors in Dhaka were the custodian of Imambarah. The last naib e nazim of Dhaka Ghaziuddin Haider died in1843. After his death collector of Dhaka (I.G.Campbell) wrote to Government to appoint a new motawalli. Before any reply was received, Moharram came on. Not knowing to whom the Imambarah grant was to be paid the collector withheld it. He waited for orders from administration in Kolkata. That year the entire expenses were borne by merchant-prince Khwaja Alimullah, the founder of the Dhaka nawab family. Later orders were received from Kolkata appointing Khawja Saheb as motawalli and instructing the collector to hand over future grants to him. Over and above the Government grant, Khawaja Alimullah would spend large sums from his own pocket towards the Imambarah expenses.
Hussaini Dalan or Dhaka Imambara
After Alimullah passed away in 1854, his son nawab Khwaja Abdul Ghani, became motawalli of the Imambarah(1). His passion for the muslim faith led him to build and repair mosques and tombs which without his financial aid would have crumbled to pieces. Some of these mosques, notable amongst which is the Hussaini Dalan of Dhaka, are renowned for their architectural beauty and antiquity. For the repairs of the Dhaka Imambarah this nawab gave a princely donation of one lakh rupees (2). Although himself a staunch Sunni, he did not hesitate to maintain at great expense the largest Imambara in Dhaka which is entirely a Shia institution. This is but one instance of his wide sympathies and liberal-mindedness (3).
He was still alive when, with his consent, his son Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah took over charge of this office. [Official order no: 2678”(Political) govt. order dated: 18th August, 1891]. Nawab Ahsanullah’s services to the Imambarah were great and many, as his liberality, like that of his forefathers, were not limited to any particular sect or community. Within a period of ten years, he spent a sum of about Rs. 55,000 on repairs etc.
After Nawab Ahsanullah his son honorable nawab Khawja Salimullah assumed motawalliship in1901. He had all along made liberal contributions to Imambarah’s funds in keeping with the traditions of his illustrious ancestors (1). The “Silver Zari Mubarak” is the contribution of nawab Salimullah, which is used to wrap the wooden Zari in the ten days of Muharram every year (4).
The Imambarah receives an annual grant of 1,283 Rupees and 8 annas from the Nawab of Dhaka’s estate. (1)
From 1844 through 1958 the Dhaka nawab family enjoyed the motawalliship of the Imambarah for long 104 years. This management ended with the death of the fourth nawab Khwaja Habibullah. It is to be noted that Major Nawab Khwaja Askari also served as a member of the Hussaini Dlalan management committee from 1958 through 1971 (4).
Shia -Sunni riot control by Nawab Khwaja Ghani
Nawab Khwaja Ghani’s influence with both Sunnis and Shias was great. When a serious difference occurred between them, threatening to lead to open mutiny, he was asked by the local authorities to arbitrate between them. This he did with such success that their differences were speedily healed (3). Nawab Ghani’s settlement of a violent Shia- Sunni riot through arbitration is described by A. Claude Campbell below in detail.
“Khwaja Ghani was a model zamindar, both towards the government and his ryots (peasants), while its influence over his co religionists was at times the means of preventing serious disturbances. As an instance of this may be mentioned the prevention, in 1869, of a serious dispute between the two Muslim sects of Sunnis and Shias at Dhaka. It would appear that one morning a placard containing caricatures of the well known saints of the Sunni sect were found pasted on a wall in the native Chowk at Dhaka, with insulting and abusive remarks in the Persian language. This was at once ascribed to the Shias, and the Sunni was determined upon revenge regardless of the consequences. The Shias were assaulted in the streets and elsewhere by their opponents, whilst the authorities, to whom they appealed, could do but little to help them. To make matters worse the servants of the Shias, their cooks, bhisties (water carrier), and methers even refused to serve them.
The authorities at once appealed to the Nawab, though himself a Sunni, at once consented to do what he could, and invited the headmen of both sects to meet at his residence. At this meeting, by his judicious management and advice, he succeeded in restoring peace between the hostile sects, and to cement the peace he gave an entertainment to upwards of 20,000 persons at his own expense” (5).
Post quake Imambarah reconstruction by Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah
The great Indian earthquake hit Dhaka with an estimated magnitude of 8.1 richter scale on June 12, 1897. The earthquake killed 1,542 people and brought down 50 percent of the masonry structures (6). Ahsan Manzil, clock tower of the Armenian church and many other landmark buildings of immense architectural beauty along with Hussaini Dlaln were severely damaged by the earthquake.
Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah at a cost of about one lakh rupees rebuilt the Dalan. This reconstruction was carried out on the original plan under the supervision of an european architect (1).On another account nawab subscribed a sum of two lakh rupees for the reconstruction and repairs of the Imambarah (2). As part of the renovation project the present eastern part was removed (4).Flat roof and Doric columns holding up the southern verandah were added in this phase (7). The gas installation of Imambarah is also due to the generosity of the same nobleman (1). On October 1898 Shia community of Kolkata gave Nawab Ahsanullah a receiption for renovating Imambara at a cost of Rs 250,000 (8).
Gift exchange with the Shah of Iran
Some years before his death nawab Ahsanullah sent a present to Shah of Iran. His gift included a minature Imamabarah in silver with a historical account of this building finely written in Persian (1). Shahanshah and Sultan Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar originally requested a photograph of the Imambarah. Nawab Ahsanullah’s appropriate response maintaining his status and dignity was a filigree model of Hussaini Dalan. This gift was made in silver and gold by renowned jeweler Ananda Hari (9). Another replica of the original building is preserved at the Bangladesh national museum
Silver replica of Hussaini Dalan
Patronage of the Parsi literature & language
For more than 600 years (from 1203-1837 AD) Persian was the state language in Bengal. The Khwaja Nawab family of Dhaka played a vital role in the history of Persian literature in Bengal. Khwaja Abdul Ghani, Khwaja Ahsanullah and Khwaja Salimullah learnt Persian at home and gained proficiency in Persian. Nawab Abdul Ghani used to organize competitions among poets and singers on the occasions of muharram and other festivals. Khwaja Ahsanullah Shaheen used to compose poems in Persian in his leisure time. His book “Kulliyat-i-Shaheen” included 4 farsi Gazals. He was a great patron of Persian poets and writers and inspired Mirza Mahmud Shirazi Makhmur to write in elegant Persian a history of the Hussaini Dalan. Khwaja Asadullah Kaukab (d1859) wrote “Durbeen”, a collection of Persian devotional poems while Khwaja Abdur Rahim Saba Pocha Mia (d1878) is famous for his manuscript “Daste Saba” and Persian prose “Tarikh-i-Kashmiriyan e Dhaka” (1861-1871). Khwaja Muhammad Afzal (1875-1940) was poet, writer, skilful versifier and an expert in the use of the abjad system. Formally educated in Persian and English he was a disciple of Mirza Mohammed Makhmur Shirazi -Iranian poet Vesal Shirazi’s nephew. Among his noted works in smooth and mellifluous language are Diwan, a collection of poetry in Persian and Gam-e-ma-Paikar, a three volume chronicle in verses (10).
Other poets from Dhaka Nawab family to cultivate Persian literature in the 19th and 20th centuries are Khwaja Abdul Gaffar Ofa, Khwaja Fayezuddin Haider Jan Shayek (D1868), Khwaja Atiqullah Shahzada Shayeda (1928) , Khwaja Ismail (1881-1959), Mirza Fakir Ahmed (1877-1960), K.M.Salim (1901-1983), Khwaja Abdur Rahim Lengra (a.k.a Asem), Khwaja Bedar Bakht (1942), Khwaja Mumtaz Bakht and Khwaja Mohammed Adel (1904-1973).In addition Khwaja Abdul Halim was the first family member to do masters in Persian from Dhaka University in 1942 and stood first class first. Khwaja Mumtaz Bakht also had the rare honors of presenting “Deewan”, a collection of poems, to the late Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi who visited Pakistan at the invitation of the Governor General of Pakistan Khawaja Nazimuddin.
In addition to the contributions and annual grants mentioned above, Dhaka nawab estate sporadically made charitable contributions for the betterment of the shia community- be it in hometown Dhaka or far away country. The cash contribution list is as following-
**For renovation of Hussaini Dalan: Rs 20,000.00
**(1870–1871) For victims of famine in Iran with death toll of 2 million persons: Rs 3,000.00
**Repair of Bee Bee Ka Rouza Rs 235.00
**(1897) For the repairs of Dhaka Imambarah Rs 1,00,000.00
**School of Tehran/ Tehran College through H.E.Koshef Sultana Rs 2,000.00
**(1900) Jalpa Ispahan School Rs 500.00 (11)
Only a century ago words like ‘Tazia’, ‘Panja Alam’, ‘Marsia’ ‘Ya Husain, Ya Husain’ and ‘Shera Sinni’ echoed in the thick air of Dhaka. These seasonal Muharram words sound more foreign now than ever. Pesian sher shaeri, mushaera alonh with old Dhaka’s jubilant Muharram procession participated by sunni, shia and hindoos are a gossip of yester year. The Nawabs of Ahsan Manzl and the vibrant local shia community who made Dhaka so colorful are now nearly a chapter of our history.
JOURNAL OF THE MOSLEM INSTITUTE. Vol. II. July to September 1906. Page 282-286 Hosaini Dalan by A. F. M. Abdul Ali. M.A.-Deputy magistrate/collector Dacca (1)
Calcutta Review Jan 1901-Religious endowments and charities of Bengal Zemindars by Ich Dien, Page 234 (2)
Twelve men of Bengal in the nineteenth century B.F.B. Bradley Birt-1910 Page 188 (3)
Glimpses of Bengal by A. Claude Campbell- page 199 (5)
Dhaka extremely vulnerable to earthquake disaster, Tawfique Ali, The Daily Star Oct 12 2005 (6)
Dhakar Koyek jon Muslim Sudhi by Dr Mohammed Abdullah Page 55 and Moslem Chronicle 5 Nov 1898 page 1062 (8)
Kiingbodontir Dhaka by Nazir Hussain 3rd edition page 535-536 (9)
Dhakar Koyek jon Muslim Sudhi by Dr Mohammed Abdullah Page 95 (10)
Extracts from “Hussaini Dalan” by Mostafa Kamal published in “Padukhap” on 30th December, 1981
Nawab Salimullah by By Mohammed Abdullah 1986 Page 391-41011 (11)