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Mehtab Chand of Burdwan, c.1860-65The Zamindari of Burdwan (pronounced "Jomidar" in the former East Pakistan) was one of the largest and richest feudal estates in the province of Bengal, Created under Mughal rule in the 17th century, the estate flourished under the British and was noted for its support of education and the arts.

The erstwhile Maharajas of Burdwan in Bengal belonged to the Kapoor clan of the mercantile Khatri community and hailed originally from the Punjab. The dynasty was founded in the mid-17th century by Sangram Ray Kapoor, who hailed from Kotli near Lahore in present-day Pakistan. Sangram Ray is said[1] to have travelled eastwards on pilgrimage to the temple-town of Puri in Orissa. Thereafter, he travelled further northeast and settled permanently at Baikunthpur[2] near the town of Burdwan, where he and his son, Banku Bihari, prospered vastly as tradesmen and bankers.

In 1657, during the rule of the mughal emperor Jahangir, Banku Bihari's son Abu Ray was appointed the officer in charge of revenue collection and of the maintenance of public order in two precincts (Rekabi Bazar and Mughultuli) of Burdwan district. He owed this appointment to his ability to supply the army passing through Burdwan with adequate provisions at short notice. The family continued to flourish in trade, and Abu Ray's son Babu Ray added further to the prestige of the family by acquiring large estates. He purchased Burdwan and three other estates from Ram Ray, an important Zamindar of the area. His grandson Krishnaram Ray, son of Ghanashyam Ray, obtained letters patent from Aurangzeb in 1689 A.D., recognizing him as Zamindar of these estates and extending to Burdwan and some other areas the offices already held by the family in Rekabi Bazar and Mughultuli. The family thus entered the ranks of the nobility. Krishnaram Ray was ordered to not realize any new taxes from the peasantry but to encourage cultivation and maintain law and order. The nazarana for the land was set at Rs. 200,000/-.

Late Mughal era
The family was however hard put to maintain their newly acquired estates. Lawlessness was rampant and grew worse during the governorship of Ibrahim Khan, an incompetent administrator who was appointed to that office by the mughal emperor in 1689, the same year in which letters patent were granted to Krishnaram Ray. In 1695, Shova Singh, the landlord of Chetua-Barda in what is today East Midnapore district, seized Krishnaram Ray's estates by force. He did this in alliance with Rahim Khan, an Afghan strongman and mercenary of Orissa. Krishnaram Ray was slain in 1696 and all the other members of his family were held captive by Shova Singh. A number of ladies of the family committed suicide by taking poison. Krishnaram's daughter Satyabati is said to have herself killed Shova Singh with a dagger when he tried to molest her. She then killed herself. Krishnaram's son Jagatram Ray managed to escape as he had gone to Dhaka to seek the help of the governor, Ibrahim Khan. With the help of a mughal force garrisoned at Hooghly, and of the Dutchmen stationed at Chinsura, Jagatram Ray regained control of Burdwan.

Following this turmoil, the emperor Aurangzeb dismissed Ibrahim Khan and appointed his own grandson Azim-ush-shan governor. However, the general lawlessness which was the hallmark of the last years of Aurangzeb's life, and which presaged the demise of the Mughal empire, was already rife over the land. Jagatram Ray was murdered in 1702. He left two sons, Kirtichand Ray and Mitrasen Ray. As the elder son, Kirtichand Ray inherited the estates, while Mitrasen Ray was granted a fixed annuity from the estate's exchequer. Kirtichand Ray made the best of the then prevalent lawless situation: he fought with the Rajas of Chandrakona, Barda and Bishnupur and added the parganas of Chitua, Bhursut, Barda and Manoharshahi to his fief. In 1736, he received a firman from the powerless, figurehead Mughal emperor Muhammed Shah, confirming him in his new acquisitions and recognizing him as Zamindar of Chandrakona. He died in 1740 and was succeeded by Chitrasen Ray, who was conferred the title of "Raja" by the emperor in 1740. Chitrasen Ray died childless in 1744 and was succeeded by his cousin's son Tilakchand Ray, who also received the title of Raja. At this time, some other estates were added to his fief.

The East India Company
It was during the era of Tilakchand Ray that the British East India Company acquired Bengal. After the battle of Plassey (1757), the revenue of the district was mortgaged to them; later, in September 1760, the entire district was ceded to the HEIC by Mir Qasim, the Nawab of Bengal. This cession was confirmed by the mughal emperor Shah Alam II by the treaty of Allahabad, 1765.

In the initial years, the HEIC and its officers was notoriously rapacious, both in exacting revenue for the company and "gifts" and trade concessions for the officers personally. The amount of revenue demanded by the company was set arbitrarily at an unreasonable figure and could not be paid regularly. When Tilakchand proved irregular in the payment of revenue, the HEIC threatened to deprive him of his fief. In alliance with the Zamindar of Birbhum, Tilakchand faced a British force at a ford on the river Banka near Sangotgola and was defeated. This was on December 29, 1760.

Tilakchand died aged 37, leaving a minor son, Tejchand. His widow, Rani Vishnukumari, managed the affairs of the estate between 1776 and 1779, before handing over charge to her 14-year-old son Tejchand. Under the terms of the Permanent Settlement of Bengal Act (1793), Raja Tejchand entered into an agreement with the HEIC to pay them an annual revenue of Rs.40,15,109/- and also a "bridge-building charge" of Rs. 1,93,721/-. These terms also proved impossible to meet, and payments soon fell into arrears. Soon enough, in 1797, the Board of Revenue ordered the sale of portions of the fief for realization of arrears of revenue. The Permanent Settlement effected by the British, with its unreasonable revenue demands, drained the province of its very sustanance. The pressure on the landlords to meet these unreasonable demands resulted in the gradual but inexorable immiseration of the peasantry.

British government rule
Mehtab Chand (1820-79) as a young man, c.1840-45 A.D.The family continued as Zamindars of Burdwan and came to be recognized as "the premier nobleman of lower Bengal."[3] Their financial situation improved as certain revenue reforms were carried out by the HEIC. By 1911, their rent-roll was upwards of £300,000. The estate attained great prosperity due to the excellent management of Maharaja Mahtab Chand (born 1820, ruled 1832-1879), who held the estate when the British Crown assumed the government of India in 1858. Mehtab Chand's loyalty to the British, especially during the "Hul" (Santhal rebellion) of 1855-56 and the Indian rebellion of 1857, was rewarded with the grant of a coat of arms in 1868 and the right to a personal salute of 13 guns in 1877. In 1864, Mehtab Chand was appointed as an additional member of the governor-general's Legislative Council. He was the first Bengali to receive that honour. One of his successors, Bijai Chand, (b. 1881, ruled 1887-1941), earned great distinction by the courage with which he risked his life to save that of Sir Andrew Fraser, lieutenant-governor of Bengal, when an attempt to assassinate him was made by malcontents on November 7, 1908.

India attained its independence in 1947. The family continued to hold the fief of Burdwan until Zamindaris were abolished by the government of India in 1956.

Zamindari as a Caste
Zamindar is now one of many higher castes in the Indian subcontinent's Islamic caste system. Those who are part of the zamindar caste nowadays are descendents of actual zamindars during the Mughal era. Unfortunately, there are very few zamindars and mughals that exist today. Some landlords and property owners nowadays (especially in the former East Pakistan) create false claims that they are of the zamindar caste in order to feel and to be seen as supreme and worthy of respect.

One's traditions, values, culture and the professions of their forefathers (professional occupations, i.e. medical doctors, lawyers) may determine whether or not one is truly of the zamindar caste.

There is no caste in India as such known as zamindari

During the three centuries that they held the estate of Burdwan, the Kapoor family contributed richly to the development of Burdwan as a cultural center. In particular, Mehtab Chand Ray and Bijay Chand Ray are credited with having extended patronage to scholars and artists, including:

  • Paramhansa Yogananda, teacher of meditation and yoga
  • Sadhak Kamalakanta, Bengali poet and singer
  • Gopeswar Banerjee, noted musician of Vishnupur
  • Dasharathi Roy, poet and composer of Panchali
  • Padmalochan, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna

In 1882, the Burdwan Raj College was started in Burdwan, which was supported entirely by the revenues of the estate.

The family also constructed several tanks and temples. Ghanashyam Rai, son of the founder Abu Ray, constructed a large tank, the Shyam Sagar. His son Krishanaram Ray constructed the Krishna Sagar tank. His grandson Kirtichand Ray, who founded the town of Kanchannagar, constructed the excavated the Yadeswardih tank. The Ranisagar tank was excavated by order of Kirtichand's mother Brajakishori, who also erected the Baikunthanath Siva temple at Kalna. Kirtichand's son Chitrasen Ray built the famous Siddheswari Temple in Kalna. During the rule of Chitrasen's son Tilakchand, several temples were built. His mother Lakshmikumari erected the Sri Krishna temple at Kalna, while his wife Chhangakumari erected the Jagannath temple at Kalna. Other legacies include the Sarbamangala temple, the Baikunthanath Siva temple, the Bijoy Toran and the Rajbadi (palace).

Antpur in the district of Hooghly in West Bengal has a number of terracotta temples that have won applause from lovers of antpur.

All the monuments in Antpur are located in land owned by the Mitra family, an erstwhile Zaminder of the area. To Krishnaram Mitra, a dewan of Maharaja Kirtichandara of Burdwan Raj, goes the credit of erecting the most richly decorated terracotta temple of Radha-Govinda.

This temple, founded in 1786, is of well-known Bengali hut atchata-type with a do-chala ante-chamber in the front. On three sides, east, south and west, is found opulence of carved terracotta figurines depicting legends from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas. Battle scenes of Rama-Ravana confrontation are depicted on the central frieze of the south facade of the temple. The western facade depicts Kali killing demons in a fierce battle. There are also many secular scenes like hunting, soldiers marching, the local Zaminder or Raja being carried in a palanquin.

Outside the compound of the Radha-Govinda temple there are a few brick temples belonging to the second half of the eighteenth century.

In literature
In his "The Hungry Stones And Other Stories," Rabindranath Tagore writes: "the Chota Lord had been heard to say that in all Bengal, the only really respectable families were those of the Maharaja of Burdwan and the Babus of Nayanjore."

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