Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s private zoo : An extravaganza

When the banished king reached Calcutta leaving behind his beloved capital of Lucknow, the royal entourage left the Calcuttans dumbstruck. Apart from the matchless musicians heading the procession and the gold plated palanquin in which Wajid Ali Shah was seated – the spectacle encompassed a long series of carts with cages of diverse birds, monkeys, leopards, camels, elephants and giraffes on foot.

In his new ‘capital’, the beautiful township of Metiyaburj lovingly referred to as Chota Lucknow, Wajid Ali Shah sustained his incredible collection of rare animals. It gradually went on to be one of the finest zoological gardens in the world. For the residents of Calcutta as well as the painters and visitors from abroad, the menagerie was like a mesmerizing dreamland. It was spread over a large area where countless animals could be seen, ranging from spotted deer, exotic species of monkeys, sheep, two-humped camels from Baghdad, a pair of giraffes from Africa and other wild herbivores. Inside large iron enclosures strolled tigers, leopards, lions, cheetahs, lynxes, hyenas, wolves and various other carnivores. Stables were full of rare horse breeds.

It is fascinating to know that each and every animal had a particular name, and the Nawab called them by their names while talking to his pets! There was a marble pool around which flocks of partridges, ostriches, turkeys, sarus cranes, geese, herons, demoiselle cranes, peacocks, flamingos, and hundreds of other exotic birds clustered. Wajid Ali Shah was proud to possess a spectacular aviary of eighteen thousand pigeons of the finest varieties. Every morning, the ex-king would feed the exquisite fishes swimming in large water pools with his own hands. The most attractive exhibit were the snakes- whose number ran into thousands and included large pythons and cobras.

Well, it was not very easy for the banished Nawab to nurture his passion at Metiyaburj. Wajid Ali Shah had to spend an enormous sum to upkeep his zoo, provided there were eight hundred attendants and three hundred fanciers for his pigeons, about equal number of people for his fishes and thirty to forty attendants for his snakes. He spent more than one third of his monthly pension on the maintenance of his menagerie!

After the death of Wajid Ali Shah, many of his zoo animals were shifted from Metiyaburj to Calcutta. Probably, he was the first person to foster the marvelous idea of tending his animals in the open and gazing at them for hours.

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