The family played a key role in shaping the politics of the Indian subcontinent.
The Nawab of Dhaka (originally spelt in English as Nawab of Dacca) was the title of the head of the largest Muslim zamindar family in British Bengal and Assam, based in present-day Dhaka, Bangladesh. The title of nawab, similar to the British peerage, was conferred upon the head of the family by Queen Victoria as a recognition of the first Nawab’s loyalty and contribution to the social welfare activities.
Though they had nothing to do with the Mughal Nawabs of Dhaka or Murshidabad, they came to be known as the Dhaka Nawabs from 1875. However, in the first half of the twentieth century, the family had successfully transformed its landholding status into political power. Until early 1950s, the Ahsan Manzil, the headquarters of the nawab estate, was the focal point of Muslim politics in Eastern Bengal. Nawab of Dhaka was the title of the head of the family and the estate from 1843.
Dhaka Nawab Estate was the largest zamindari held by any landholder in Eastern Bengal during the colonial period. The founding members of the Dhaka nawab estate were Khwaja Hafizullah and his nephew Khwaja Alimullah. In terms of land acquisition, land management and accumulation of wealth and power, the greatest figures of the estate were Khwaja Abdul Ghani and his son Khwaja Ahsanullah.
The Nawabs of Dhaka were Persian and Urdu-speaking aristocrats tracing their ancestry to Kashmiri Khan Mughal merchants who arrived in Mughal Bengal during the reign of emperor Muhammad Shah to pursue trade, but eventually settled in Dhaka, Sylhet and Bakerganj. The founder of the family, Khwaja Abdul Hakim (Abdul Hakim Kashmiri Khwaja), came to Bengal from Kashmir for trading purposes. He settled in Sylhet and established himself there as a businessman. Hakim’s tomb lies in the Sylhet Collectorate building area.
Another branch of the Khwaja family led by Abdul Kader Kashmiri Khwaja and his sons Khwaja Abdul Wahab and Khwaja Abdullah came to Bengal and settled in Dhaka in 1730. Khwaja Abdul Wahab started business in Dhaka dealing mainly in leather. His younger brother Moulvi Khwaja Abdullah, a Sufi, also settled in Dhaka.
Abdullah’s family later came to be known as the Nawab family of Dhaka. Khwaja Abdullah (d. 1796) had three sons, Khwaja Ahsanullah (1846–1901), Ahsanullah Khawaja (d.1795) and Khwaja Hafizullah (1735-1815).
Khwaja Alimullah (d. 1854), son of Khawaja Ahsanulla was the first holder of the ‘Nawab’ title, and Khwaja Abdul Ghani (1813–1896), his son, was the second Nawab of Dhaka and first to assume the title of Nawab, when the title was made hereditary by Queen Victoria. He was followed by Khwaja Ahsanullah (1846–1901), Khwaja Salimullah (1871–1915) and Khwaja Habibullah Khan Bahadur (1895–1958), the fifth and last Nawab of Dhaka.
Khwaja Alimullah, purchased Ahsan Manzil, which was then a French trading house. The other residences included Shahbag Garden House, Paribag Garden House, Dilkusha Garden House, Compamy Bagan and Baigunbari Park.
Rise to Power
Through intelligent investments and careful management of assets this family of Kashmiri merchants of hides and spices rose to become the Nawab family of Dhaka.
Hafizullah and his nephew Khwaja Alimullah (d. 1854) traded with the British, Greek and the Armenians in leather, salt and gold bars and also in money lending businesses. Their business success and charity brought for them social prestige and influence.
This was the time when trade was growing in Bengal and the textile weaving industry was collapsing. The old zamindars couldn’t pay their revenues on time and so the East India Company began to auction off their lands. The British entrenched the pre-colonial zamindari system through the Permanent Settlement. Hafizullah and his nephew Alimullah purchased a number of estates (zamindari) sold in auction under the rules of the permanent settlement. The zamindari purchased by Khwaja Hafizullah included the Aila-Tiarkhali and Fuljhuri parganas of Barisal, Itna pargana of Mymensingh, Baldakhal and Elahikhal parganas of Comilla.
Hafizullah acquired Atia pargana in the former Mymensingh District (currently in the Tangail District). In the pre-partition India, a group of villages or a subdivision of a district was referred to as pargana. Hafizullah bought a 4-anna (one fourth) share of the pargana, including Dhamrai, the Atia Mosque built in 1608, and much of Madhupur forest in 1806, on the strength of a mortgage bond for Rs. 40,000. Profits gained from this purchase motivated him to engage further in the purchasing of land properties. He also acquired Aila Phuljhuri in the Bakarganj Sundarbans, a 44,000 acres (180 sq km) area bought for Rs 21000 in 1812, at a revenue demand of only Rs 372 annually. After clearing of the jungle was affected, in the late 1870s, its estimated total rental income appeared as high as Rs 2,20,502.
Due to an absence of any surviving male successor of Hafizullah, his estate upon his death came to his nephew Khwaja Alimullah, son of his deceased elder brother Ahsanullah, whom he had groomed as an estate manager. His landed acquisitions were added to those of his uncle, consequently making the united zamindari as one of the largest in the province.
In 1846 he made a waqfnama in favour of his second son Khwaja Abdul Ghani, and gave him the management of all the properties of the family. This aided in preserving the family wealth as it could not be divided amongst descendants and was the reason for the future success of the family. Khwaja Alimullah died in 1854 and was buried in the Begum Bazar graveyard.
On the succession of Khwaja Abdul Ghani to the management, the prosperity of the house reached its zenith. Under him the land control of the family was extended to many parganas in the districts of Dhaka, Bakerganj, Tripura and Mymensingh. For management, he split the zamindari into 26 sub-circles, each governed by a kachari (office) headed by a naib (manager) with a number of amlas (officials). He was vested with the personal title of Nawab in 1875, which was made a hereditary title by Queen Victoria on 1 January 1877.
In 1934, the family had estates that covered almost 200,000 acres (810 sq km) and was well spread over different districts of Eastern Bengal. Together with properties in Shillong, Assam, it earned a yearly rent of £120,000. With its wealth, social status and close relationship with the Raj, the family of the Nawab of Dacca became the single most powerful Muslim family in Bengal.
Extended kin of the Dhaka Nawab Family played a vital role in the history of Urdu-Persian literature in Bengal. Khwaja Haider Jan Shayek, Khwaja Kawkab, Khwaja Atiqullah Sayeda, Khwaja Muhammad Afzal and Sir Khwaja Nazimuddin KCIE, CIE and others contributed considerably to Urdu and Persian literature in the 19th and 20th centuries. The family maintained close connection with literary figures like Mahmud Azad and Hakim Habibur Rahman. Khwaja Muhammad Azam wrote Islami Panchayet Dhaka (1911) in Urdu. His son, Khwaja Muhammad Adel, co-edited Jadu, a monthly journal with Hakim Habibur Rahman. Khwaja Abdur Rahim Saba (d. 1871) wrote Urdu poems. His manuscript, Dast-e-Saba is preserved in the Dhaka University library. Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah wrote Urdu poems under a pen-name, Shaheen, compiled as Kulliat-e-Shaheen, and a history of his family, Ta’arīkh-e-Khândan-e-Kashmirian. He was also a composer and lyricist of thumri songs, and a financier of Ahsanul Kasas (15 February 1884), an Urdu weekly magazine brought out from Dhaka.
Nawab Samiullah’s grandfather Nawab Abdul Ghani and his father Nawab Ahsanullah were directly associated with the foundation of the Mohamedan Literary Society by Nawab Abdool Luteef in 1863. Nawab Ahsanullah opened a branch of the Mohammedan Literary Society in Dhaka.
It was in the latter part of the 19th century that the art of photography got its momentum in Dhaka under the patronage of Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah and his son Nawab Khwaja Salimullah. Khwaja Ahsanullah joined the Calcutta-based Photographic Society of India in 1888.
The first Bengali organization for producing and exhibiting films was the Royal Bioscope Company, established in 1898 in Calcutta by Hira Lal Sen (1866-1917). Sens’s grandfather Gukul Krishna Sen Munshi of Zindabahar lane was a close friend of Nawab Abdul Ghani. (1813-1896).
On the 16th and 22nd March of 1911 Royal Bioscope Company exhibited shows at Ahsan Manzil. Nawab Salimullah arranged these shows in honour of Khwaja Yusuf Jaan who had earlier been bestowed the Nawab title. Two more shows at the residences of K. Abdul Alim and Khwaja Azizullah were arranged on the 24th and 25th respectively. Starting June 5, 1916 for a couple of days, Nawabzada Khwaja Atikullah had also premiered movies at his Dilkhusha residence.
The first filmmaking process in Bangladesh started under the financial help and patronage of the Dhaka Nawab family. In 1927-28, a group of young men of the Dhaka Nawab family produced a short film Sukumari. They set up Dhaka East Bengal Cinematograph Society and produced a full-length silent movie, The Last Kiss.
Khawaja Alimullah, with the aid of the British, set up the Ramna Race course and established the Gymkhana Club.
The family is also remembered for its role in the development of football in the city of Dhaka. Khawaja Nazimuddin,Khawaja Nooruddin and Begum Nooruddin were the members of the organising committee of Calcutta Mohammedan sporting Club. Khawaja Nazimuddin was appointed general secretary of the club.
The Armenians introduced Billiards in Dhaka during the 18th century. They started a club in the old part of the town where they played other sports as well. Due to the similarity of the cue ball to the eggs, the native named the premise Anta Gharer Moidan – Field of the Egg House. Inspired by the Billiards club for Armenians located on the Antaghar Moidan (presently Bahadur Shah Park) in Dhaka, the European civil servants established the Dhaka Club in 1851. The land of Dhaka Club was leased out from the Dhaka Nawab Family.
Both Nawab Khwaja Abdul Ghani and Nawab Ashanullah were great patrons for sports and billiard was no exception. They made sure that Ahsan Manzil palace – the residence and the official court of the Dhaka Nawab family – had a dedicated room for playing the game. At the invitation of Nawab Ahsanullah, professional billiards players Charley Hughs and his contemporary Joseph Bennet played at the Ahsan Manzil. Professional British billiards champion John Roberts Jr. was also invited to partake in these games at the royal palace. John Roberts Junior discussed these visits to Ahsan Manzil and his acquaintance with the Dhaka Nawabs in his memoir Modern Billiards (1910 edition).
Khawaja Alimullah carried out the development work for the Dhaka Municipality. Nawab Abdul Ghani made several contributions towards benevolent and charitable work, not only in the city and elsewhere in Bengal but also beyond the Indian subcontinent. Under Khwaja Abdul Ghani, the family, for the first time, developed interest in the politics and social works of the country.
He organised Dhaka into panchayet mahallas, which was endorsed by the British Raj in view of his support to the Raj during the Sepoy Mutiny. One of his most important contributions was the water works system in Dhaka city. The filtered water was supplied free of charge to the people of Dhaka. In addition, he established a number of schools, madrasas and donated funds for the Mitford Hospital in Dhaka, Kolkata Medical College and Aligarh College. He supported women to act in dramas in spite of opposition from leaders of the conservative society. At the beginning of each year, he arranged a grand fair in Shahbagh Garden, and maintained a Portuguese Band to entertain guests on festive occasions. He oversaw and financed the construction of Buckland Bund.
Nawab Abdul Ghani handed over the responsibility of the Dhaka Nawab Estate to his eldest son, Khwaja Ahsanullah (KCIE), on 11 September 1868, but continued to supervise the estate until his death on 24 August 1896. Nawab Ahsanullah established the Ahsanullah School of Engineering.
Nawab Salimullah, the second son of Ahsanullah, took up the management of the zamindari in 1902. He was a great educational reformer and a philanthropist, rendering financial assistance to many poor students besides establishing the largest orphanage of undivided Bengal, Salimullah Muslim Orphanage. He also donated the Salimullah Muslim Hall for the students in Dhaka, which was then the largest residential Hall in any Asian University.
Role in Politics
Nawab Bahadur Sir Khawaja Salimullah was the first man of the Nawab Family of Dhaka to actively participate in politics. Although, his father, following in the influenced by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, was an active critic of the Indian National Congress and under his patronage an assemblage of the Muslims was arranged on 11 November 1888 in the premises of Ahsan Manzil. Nawab Samiullah is mainly remembered today for his role in the partition of Bengal which was implemented on 16 October 1905, aimed at securing the socio-economic progress of Muslims by establishing a separate Muslim majority province; secondly, for being the founder of the All India Muslim League in December 1906 and the establishment of Dhaka University in 1912.
Dhaka Nawab Family, together with the Ispahanis, had a considerable influence on the All Bengal Muslim Students League (the Bengal chapter of the All India Muslim Students Association renamed in 1938). The Ispahani family, also known as the House of Ispahani, are a Perso-Bengali business family, originally hailing from Iran and settled in Bengal for more than two centuries. In Bangladesh, they own and manage M. M. Ispahani Limited, one of the country’s leading conglomerates.
With an object of counting support in favour of the partition of Bengal, Viceroy Lord Curzon had a visit to East Bengal in 1904 and was a guest of Nawab Salimullah on 18 and 19 February. A reception was arranged for the viceroy on 18 February at the premises of the Ahsan Manzil. With an object of uniting the Muslims, Nawab Salimullah floated, in 1906, an organisation. Purba Banga O Assam Pradeshik Muslim Shiksha Samiti (East Bengal and Assam Provincial Muslim Education Association). The first conference of the association was held on 14 and 15 April 1906 at Shahbagh in Dhaka with Nawab Salimullah in the chair, and he was elected as chairman of the executive committee of the association.
The partition of Bengal came into effect on 16 October 1905 and a new province was formed as the Province of East Bengal and Assam. Sir Joseph Bampfylde Fuller was appointed as Lieutenant Governor of the new province. On the very day of the inception of the new province (16 October 1905), he launched a political organisation, Mohammedan Provincial Union, in a meeting of the leading personalities of East Bengal held at Northbrook Hall in Dhaka with himself in the chair.
Due to family dispute, Khwaja Atiqullah, a step-brother of Nawab Salimullah brought a resolution at the Calcutta session of the Congress (1906) denouncing the partition of Bengal. Some others decrying the partition included Abdur Rasul, Khan Bahadur Muhammad Yusuf (a pleader and a member of the Management Committee of the Central National Muhamedan Association), Mujibur Rahman, Abdul Halim Ghaznavi, Ismail Hossain Shiraji, Muhammad Gholam Hossain (a writer and a promoter of Hindu-Muslim unity), Maulvi Liaqat Hussain (a liberal Muslim who vehemently opposed the ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British), Syed Hafizur Rahman Chowdhury of Bogra and Abul Kasem of Burdwan. A few Muslim preachers like Din Muhammad of Mymensingh and Abdul Gaffar of Chittagong preached Swadeshi ideas.
In 1906, the All India Muslim League was founded at Dacca through the initiative of Nawab Salimullah. However, the influence of Dhaka Nawab family on the Muslim Students League eroded after the partition, particularly after Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s pronouncement on the state language issue in 1948. The anti-Khwaja faction of the Muslim League broke away from the All Bengal Muslim Students League, and established East Pakistan Muslim Students League in 1948. This Students League spearheaded the language movement that began the same year.
The Nawab Family, after five generations of power and splendour, began to decline. Extravagant living and the necessity of maintaining an ever-increasing number of dependents were the main causes. Added to this was the considerable sums spent by Nawab Ahsanullah and Nawab Salimuilah on public service, which some believed to be a pro-partition propaganda.
The estate management deteriorated to the extent of rising revenue arrears and estate debts. For political considerations, the government backed up Nawab Salimullah financially, which included a confidential official loan to clear up his personal debts.
The tottering Dhaka Nawab Estate was brought under the Court of Wards in September 1907-09. The first steward of the Estate was HCF Meyer who was followed by LG Pillen, PJ Griffith and PD Martin, all members of the Indian civil service.
The Dhaka Nawab Estate was abolished in 1952 under the East Bengal Estate Acquisition and Tenancy Act (1950). Only the Ahsan Manzil complex and Khas lands held under raiyati rights were exempted from the operation of the Acquisition Act. But due to many unresolved family claims, many assets of the estate were still controlled by the Court of Wards. The land reforms board, which is the successor of the Court of Wards, still holds those assets on behalf of the family.
Constant infighting also led to the decline. In 1952, the East Pakistan Estates Acquisition Act formally abolished the estate. Successive land reform in Pakistan and Bangladesh brought an end to the remaining landholdings of the Nawab family.
Khawaja Alimullah purchased the famous diamond, Daria-e-Noor (not to be confused woith the one of the same name in Tehran) at a government auction in 1852, held by Hamilton and Company of Calcutta. The diamond was initially exhibited at The Great Exhibition in Hyde Park but failed to sell for a desirable price, and was sent back to India.
Roads in the city of Dhaka that have been named after the members of the Dhaka Nawab Family include Abdul Ghani Road , Ahsanullah Road, Nawab Habibullah Road, Nawab Street, Nawab Yusuf Road, Sir Nazimuddin Road, K.M.Azam Lane, K.M. Asghar Lane and Shahzada Mia Lane .
The Salimullah Hall in the University of Dhaka established as Salimullah Muslim Hall on 10 Dec 1920 sprawls over 12.91 acres of land including 75 thousand sq. ft. of garden. The two-storied building houses 810 students. After the creation of Bangladesh, the then government deleted the word ‘Muslim’ from its name through a resolution by the Syndicate of University of Dhaka in a meeting held on June 17, 1972.
Jaspreet Kaur is a Delhi-based architect, urban designer, Trustee Lymewoods & Span Foundation and Consulting Editor of Kashmir Newsline.