An Admixture of Cultural Heritages
Bangladesh inherits a rich architectural
heritage - reminiscences of the past great civilisation of the region.
Ancient edifices found in a specific region brings to the limelight
the history of specific periods like Mahastan & Paharpur of
Buddhist architecture, Bagerhat of Khan Jahan Ali and Gaur of Sultanate
etc. But Sonargaon, is a unique example of early Islamic or Sultanate,
of Mughal and of Colonial architectural epoch -- an admixture of
various cultural heritages.
background: Sonargaon literally meaning 'golden village',
was the capital of the province Bang (eastern Bengal). In 1338 Fakhr
al-Din-Mubarak seized the provincial government of Sonargaon. He
was the first Sultan of Bengal. In 1352 the Sultan of Gaur (Ilyas
Shah) defeated him. From then Sonargaon formed a part of the independent
Kingdom of united Bengal until the advent of the Mughal (1575).
In the reign of Akbar, this was the chief city of Isa Khan, who
maintained his independence for several years. After Isa Khan's
death it became a part of the Great Mughal Empire.
decline started with the establishment of the Mughal capital in
Dhaka in 1608. With the conquest of the kingdom of Isa Khan by the
forces of Islam Khan in 1611, it became one of the sarkers of the
Bengal subah losing its former prestige. The history of
Sonargaon for the next 200 years, until the establishment of the
commercial cum residential belt of East India Company in Panam,
still remains unknown. This colonial city Panam came into being
in the 19th century and flourished till the end of the Second World
background: According to the world map "Theatrum Orbis
Terrarum" vol. II (fig. 1) published in 1650 AD from Amsterdam,
(H Blockmann, Contributions to the History and Geography of
Bengal, Calcutta, 1968) Sonargaon was a port city by the Bay
of Bengal. Ibn Batuta described, "it was a very important port
city where merchant-mariners of China and Java came with their merchant
ships for trade" (M I Abdullah, Ibn Batuth's account of
Bengal, tr. by Harinath De, Calcutta 1978, p. 78). Sonargaon,
the medieval capital of eastern Bengal is currently the name of
an administrative Upazilla in the district of Narayanganj.
It is situated about 21 km south-east of Dhaka city and about 5
km west of Narayanganj town. The territory of Sonargaon that was
developed during the early Islamic period cannot be defined. N K
Bhattasali estimated the total area of Sonargaon to be about 24
sq. miles. (N K Bhattasali, Bengal Chief's Struggle, Bengal
Past and Present, Vol. XXXV, Calcutta 1977, pp. 24). What remains
now of a few medieval buildings, scattered in this region exists
in the villages of Aminpur, Dulalpur, Goaldi, Mograpara, Sadipur
and Muazzampur etc. of the Upazilla Sonargaon and Bandar.
The Dhaka Chittagong highway runs through this upazilla. This highway
looks like the dividing line between the medieval Sonargaon city
and colonial Panam city (fig. 2). The present geographical situation
of the Upazilla Sonargaon at the junction of the river
Meghna and Brahmaputra made it one of the most flourishing centers
of trade and commerce.
background: Sonargaon and its neighbourhood were famous
from the early days for manufacturing and exporting Muslin,
one of the finest cotton fabrics in the world. In reality the decay
of cotton manufacture began when the English East India Company
adopted a calculated policy of destroying the artisans and the industrial
institutions of Bengal with a view to accelerating the progress
of the Industrial Revolution in England in the later part of the
eighteenth century. From that time the economy of Sonargaon depended
upon agricultural products like betel-leaf (pan) and mango
(am). According to Cunningham "there are other signs
of an old city in the numerous pan or betel gardens and
the great numbers of am or mango trees. The best kind of
pan or betel is called Kafuria pan, from its faint
scent of camphor. It is said to be in great demand in Lucknow. The
mangoes are still famous, the best kinds being known as Shahi-pasand
or the king's favourite and senduria or the red mango."
(A Cunningham, Report of a Tour in Bihar and Bengal in
1879-80, Calcutta 1882, p. 135)
The locals consider the village Mograpara the place to have been
the site of the capital city of Sonargaon. We are unable to trace
any building in Sonargaon, which could be identified as residential
of either the Sultante or the Mughal period associated with the
name of the famous Isa Khan, chief of the Baro Bhuiya.
came into prominence not only as a seat of government or a business
center, but also as a center of saints and missionaries. They settled
in Sonargaon and its neighbourhoods and built mosques of which only
a few structures remain. Of the nineteen surviving mosques, eight
belonged to the early Islamic period dating from the 15th &
16th centuries and the rest to the Mughal period from the 17th &
18th. The mosque at Bander (1481-82) was built by Baba Salih, at
Goaldhi (1519) (fig. 3) by Mulla Hidjb'r Akbar Khan and the mosque
at Muazzampur (1432-36) by Firuz Khan. (Abu Sayeed M Ahmed, The
Choto Sona Mosque in Gaur: An Example of the Early Islamic Architecture
of Bengal, Karlsruhe-Germany 1997, pp. 114-119) are some examples
of early Islamic period. Panch Pir mosque at Mograpara (late 17th
cent.), (fig. 4) mosque at Dulalpur and Abdul Hamid's mosque at
Goaldi (1705) are some examples of Mughal mosques. Most of these
mosques have square shaped single prayer rooms with turrets at each
outside corners. The mosques of Khan Jahan Ali at Bagerhat (fig.
5) might have provided precedence for such adaptations of the square
shaped single room with other typical features like curved cornice,
terracotta ornamentation etc. The innumerable inscriptions found
here indicate that many tombs were built in the Islamic period.
The tomb of Sultan Ghiyasuddin Muhammad Azam Shah (1388-1410) at
Mograpara is believed to be the earliest Muslim monument of present
Bangladesh. It should be mentioned that tourists or visitors are
being frequently misinformed by some locals that the present Panam
city is the ruin of the old capital of Isa Khan of the 16th century.
city did not have a single Muslim house in the colonial period.
The surviving buildings originally belonged to Hindu talukdars,
shahas and poddars. The majority of the population
was wealthy merchants who used to control the export of Pan
& Am, made considerably large purchases in Dhaka and
Calcutta and sold commodities in the villages around. Most of these
merchants were absentee landlords who could be found here only in
the autumn to celebrate the Durga-puja festival.
Story : Dr Abu Sayeed M Ahamed
Department of architecture,
the university of asia pacific
Photo : Syed Zakir Hossain