24. Journeys (4): Remembering times past in Sonargaon

A lovely day today! It’s amazing how short a distance you need travel from Dhaka to be transported to the relative peace and quiet of rural Bangladesh. The destination of today’s day-trip, with a fellow volunteer, was the ancient city of Sonargaon (‘Golden Town’ in Hindi), 25km southeast of the city, in the Narayanganj district, of the Dhaka division (see post 8 pt. 13). A bus journey from Gulistan station took us to Mograpara – the departure point for the sights that make up the scattered remnants of Old Sonargaon.

Today, very little remains of what was once a thriving port city,  accessible from the Meghna River, and, at its zenith, a centre of culture and commerce. Furthermore, it is very difficult to get a clear picture of the history of the area, particularly in relation to the specifics of the remaining historical ruins. Guide books are vague: Internet searches quickly lead to the now familiar Bangladeshi quagmire of contradictory information, with much plagiarism between sites. Of course there is the added complication that I am looking for information in English.

Nevertheless, despite not having reliable knowledge, I certainly got a feel for the grand past of this area through the many decaying remnants of an impressive built heritage. It was astonishing and thrilling to suddenly come upon a ruin from pre-Mughal times, or a crumbling mansion from the British Raj era, while travelling slowly by rickshaw through serene, bucolic countryside.

Sonargaon in medieval times

The few surviving remnants of Sonargaon are scattered along quiet country roads, on both sides of the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway. As far as I can make out, Sonargaon, as a medieval town, had importance as a Hindu capital, before becoming an Islamic capital and the seat of an independent sultanate in Bengal. I have read that observations from an envoy of the Chinese Emperor in 1406 attested to its prosperity: it was described as a walled city with wide boulevards, great bazaars and majestic mausoleums. Later (1588), the merchant and chronicler Ralph Fitch wrote of its importance as a centre for the manufacture of superior quality, indigo-dyed, fine muslin. (Incidentally, this muslin forms the base for the beautiful, woven jamdani fabric, for which Dhaka was famous during the Mughal period, a tradition that continues today.) After the Mughals conquered Bengal, they moved their capital to Dhaka in 1608, thus inaugurating Sonargaon’s long, slow decline.

Quaint pre-Mughal bridges and ghosts of the East India Company

Our rickshaw-puller had to negotiate a few bridges that were shaped like inverted ‘U’s: mind you, we stepped out for the uphill bits! One in particular was marked on a map in my guidebook. This was the picturesque, pre-Mughal, three-arched, brick-built Dullalapur Bridge. I found a photo of this bridge, taken in 1872,  in the British Library online gallery, and have included it (together with others from that time of the sights I saw today) in the selection below. All are attributed to a ‘W. Brennand’, about whom I’ve been unable to find any information.

Near this bridge, we visited Nil Kuthi (literally ‘blue house’), once an indigo factory and trading house built by the British East India Company. Indigo dye was one of the main products traded by the Company. I have been interested in natural dyes for some time now, and so it was exciting to visit this house and find out a little more about indigo. However, the story of indigo in Bengal is not a happy one. I have read that the industry was associated so closely with oppression and coercion, that it led District Magistrate E. W. L. Tower to testify before the Indigo Commission in 1860 that, ‘not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood’. After half a century of subjugation, there were a number of mutinies in Bengal, the most well-known of which is the bloody Indigo Revolt of 1859-61. In 1860, the playwright Dinabandhu Mitra wrote the revolutionary drama Nil Darpan (Indigo Mirror). Because of its anti-British portrayal of colonial planters’ exploitation of Indian peasants, it was translated anonymously by the great Bengali writer, Michael Madhusadan Dutt. (For more on Dutt see post 34.) For those who are interested, you can read the full play here. To this day, older farmers in Bangladesh are uncomfortable about indigo production. However, today in Sonargaon, apart from its name and my imaginings of times past, there is no evidence of the indigo industry at Nil Kuthi. It is a collection of stone buildings, around a courtyard, housing local families.

Mosques and tombs and a medieval centre of learning

We saw quite a few historical, interesting mosques which you can see in the photograph selection below:

  1. The small, enclosed, square-type, single-domed Goaldi Mosque, built in 1519 by Mulla Hizabar Akbar Khan, and since restored.
  2. The mosque and tombs of Panch Pir (Panch=5; Pir=Holy man). The British Library catalogue, drawing on a tour report of Bengal and Bihar in 1878-80, states that nothing is known about the holy men buried in the five tombs here, but that they were venerated throughout Bengal. I couldn’t find a reliable date anywhere for the mosque, but it is still in use. Since we visited on a Friday, there were many men in attendance at prayers.
  3. The distinctive red-domed mosque of the saint Pir Muhammad Yusuf, dating to 1700, and a nearby tombs complex. Again, this mosque is still in use. The British Library surmises that it was probably erected by Pir Muhammad Yusuf, and the tombs of the saint and his family are in the adjacent complex. Some of the tombs are housed in roofed huts in the distinctive ‘bengali’ architectural style.

Interestingly, Banglapedia (the national encyclopaedia of Bangladesh) states that this latter location also ‘appears to be’ the site of a medieval centre of learning, founded by Sharfuddin Abu Tawwamah, an eminent medieval scholar, Islamic philosopher and Sufi saint. He was originally from Bukhara (in present day Uzbekistan), and died in Sonargaon in 1300. We were shown the ruins of a madrassa and library that he was instrumental in founding, and that presumably formed part of the medieval centre of learning. We also saw his tomb, and the tomb of the saint Ibrahim Danishmand. The latter, together with Pir Muhammad Yusuf, succeeded Pir Abu Tawwamah (referred to above)– though I have failed to locate exact dates for these saints.

[Aside: While I find Banglapedia to be a helpful resource, it is worrying that as a project it has courted some controversy in relation to omissions, bias and adulteration of facts. It has also been mooted that it has had to bow to government pressure in relation to its representation of certain specifics.]

As well as the mosques and tombs above, we also visited the renovated tomb of the sultan Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah, who died in 1410. This was the most impressive of the tombs:  it was made from solid, black basalt and is said to be one of the earliest buildings from the Islamic period in Bangladesh. I have read that, according to one S.M. Taifoor, it “is the earliest specimen of Saracenic art in the architecture of Bengal”.

An imposing Hindu temple

We had to leave our rickshaw and walk along a riverbank for some time in order to reach the ‘Tall Shiva Shrine’, located in an isolated spot surrounded by trees. It looked a bit like a set from an Indiana Jones film – a ruined temple emerging from the jungle. I was unable to find out anything about this ‘shrine’ – apart from it being a Hindu monument and possibly a mausoleum. Nearby, there was a crumbling, evidently once-grand, stone house, where there appeared to be a few families now trying to eke out a living. The women and children were thrashing rice out front. They were all extraordinarily thin, and I wondered if they were in fact suffering from malnutrition. A few of the children seemed to have problems with limb coordination. It was a strange juxtaposition: the once evident grandeur of the house and the poverty of its inhabitants.

Crumbling colonial mansions

Not far from here, again in the middle of the countryside, we happened upon two more beautiful, old houses from the British Raj period, all in various stages of decline and indeed strangulation by vegetation. Yet again, beautiful children accompanied us while we were here: one little girl in particular told me that she wanted to be my ‘bondhu’ (friend). She was so lovely and so sweet – I wanted to take her home with me! There were people living in the better-maintained of the two houses and they invited us in. Everything seemed to happen in one room – sleeping, cooking and eating. There was a child-like man sitting on the bed watching a musical on TV and clapping along. It seemed to be one long song, performed (or mimed) by an all-male cast, and he insisted that we all join in the clapping. A surreal few moments! We were taken upstairs then to meet other family members, all of whom had some degree of physical deformity. They were most open and friendly and, it transpired, were involved in craft work. One woman showed us soft toys intended for the Christmas market, and told us that they had clients in Banani in Dhaka as well as overseas in London. As we boarded our rickshaw to leave this area, I felt a twinge of sadness waving goodbye to my little friend, knowing that I would never see her again, and wondering what fate held in store for her.  Amar shundor bondhu, biday.

Stunning Panam Nagar

Back in our rickshaw, we came upon the awe-inspiring ghost-town of Panam Nagar quite suddenly – fittingly. We had been stumbling upon magnificent, crumbling rajbari (raj=king; bari=house, so literally ‘king’s house or palace’) all day, but it was something else entirely to turn up in an entire street of such houses. This ‘town’ is a single, narrow street of fifty or so ramshackle mansions and is eerily quiet, especially for Bangladesh. Its origins lie in the late 1800s/early 1900s, when the houses were built by wealthy Hindu cloth merchants. The evident grandeur of the houses reflects the status and lifestyle of the elite classes during the British colonial period. They are rich in ornamentation and architectural detail. After partition in 1947, and later during the anti-Hindu riots that led to the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965, the minority Hindus fled Panam Nagar (and elsewhere in East Bengal) to West Bengal, and other parts of India. In 1965, the government declared all such property ‘Enemy Property’ and assumed ownership.

In 2003, the street was earmarked for protection and conservation, but nothing has happened yet in this regard. By this time, most of the houses were occupied by illegal residents, who refused to relinquish possession: after all, they had been living here for 40 years. In 2006, a second attempt at social displacement ensued. This time the government was backed by the army. I don’t know what the position is today, or how the 2006 government action played out. As we passed through, there didn’t appear to be very many people around. It looked as though some of the houses were entirely deserted, and as if others had been ransacked (of stone and other materials). Many were being slowly engulfed by vegetation. I had a fleeting feeling of melancholy as we wandered amongst the silent, deserted ruins of ghostly Panam Nagar.

Arts and crafts in Bangladesh

Our next stop was the Sonargaon Folk-Art Museum which is housed in the stunning Sadarbari, a zamindari palace built in 1901. It is ridiculously picturesque with balconies, arched gateways, high ceilings, mosaic work and steps leading down to a pond with life-sized English horsemen in stucco on either side (see picture below). The museum was the brain-child of the well-known artist Shilpacharya (‘Great Teacher of the Arts’), Zainul Abedin, and was established in 1975. His sculpture ‘The Struggle’, based on his painting of the same name, is located here on the grounds. Every day in Bangladesh, I see scenes that could have been his inspiration for this piece. (You can see his painting of the same name in post 30.) Today there are other buildings, in addition to Sadarbari, that are more suitable for certain of the exhibits. Among the dozens of art and craft forms in Bangladesh, the most important are terracotta, basketry, metal work, textiles and painting. I saw lots of interesting exhibits, including embroidered quilts, bamboo fish traps, woven mats, wood carvings and lovely, painted terracotta ware.

An invitation

At a little village called Noail, we were delighted to accept an invitation to visit our rickshaw-puller’s home – a single-roomed, windowless, corrugated tin hut, set amongst trees in a community of similar houses. It reminded me a little of the Adivasi (indigenous/ethnic minority) villages I had seen, in that the houses were in neat clusters. (See post 18.) After the unlocking of a substantial padlock, we went into the single, small, mud-floored room, where we were directed to sit on the bed. Everything was organised: it had to be, because this one room was home to the rickshaw-puller, his wife and their two children. It was possible to catalogue the entire contents of the household at a glance. There was no running water or electricity.  I suspect that there may have been a communal hut where cooking took place. Alternatively, I noticed ash under a tree outside so perhaps meals were cooked there. He offered us what tasted like dates, and a type of preserved, jellied mango that he took from glass jars. The house gradually filled with relatives – his grandmother, brother, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews. Apart from the rickshaw-puller, who had a little English, and our little bit of Bangla, communication was limited: there was a lot of smiling! I felt very privileged to have been offered this glimpse into the lives of the rickshaw-puller and his family.

Final words

Today has been a very interesting day with much food for thought. It is sad to see that so much of the country’s rich cultural heritage is being lost. On the other hand, it is understandable that preservation would take a back seat to the daily struggle for survival. Today, visiting poor families living in and amongst these ancient ruins, I got a real sense of both the wealth of the past and the poverty of the present in Bangladesh.

I have put together some photographs below. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (86 photographs in all). Enjoy!

1. Mosque on road between Dhaka & Sonargaon 2009

For more photographs from Panam Nagar, have a look at the lovely photo book below, published by Anil Advani, a native of India but currently living in Bangladesh. I have left it open on my favourite page: click on the little arrows to left and right to turn the pages.

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7 responses to “24. Journeys (4): Remembering times past in Sonargaon

  1. If you have further study about the life of Ibrahim Danishmand i shall be thankful to you.

    • Unfortunately, Moin, I don’t. It was difficult to research content for this post, not being able to read either Bangla or Urdu. There is a short article in Banglapedia which I am assuming you have seen. Beyond this, and what I found in online searches, I didn’t have enough time to carry out an in-depth study. Maybe one day! Sorry. Regards, Ann.

  2. Thanks Ann!

    Ditto about your blog and photos. Am enjoying reading your posts and your pictures.

    Best regards
    Anil

  3. Thank you for the appreciation of the Sonargaon / Panamnagar photo book I published. I’m from India and I’ve lived in Bangladesh a long long time and loved every minute of it. We are in the process of relocating back to India this month and I will miss Bangladesh, definitely!

    • A lovely surprise to hear from you Anil! Yes, leaving is always difficult. I’m glad you enjoyed your time in Bangladesh. I have had a quick look through your blog. Yet more beautiful photographs: I’ll be back! I’m sure you won’t be without inspiration back home in India either though. Best wishes with the move and thanks for commenting.

      P.S. I’ve updated the post to reflect that you are Indian and not Bangladeshi, as I had assumed. Sorry 🙂

  4. I was astonished to visit Sonargaon and through your writing we know more about the rich history and glorious past of the area…Panam City attracts me most.

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