<%-- Page Title--%> In Retrospect <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 155 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

May 21, 2004

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Dacca in the 1820s

A French Traveller's Account

Translated by Raana Haider from the extract in French on Heber's travels to Dacca in 'Voyages dans L' Asie Meridionale (Travels in Southern Asia): Hindoustan, Inde, Chine, Sindby, Lahore, Caboul et Afghanistan.' Heber made the journey to Dacca sometime between 1824 and 1826. A reading of the original extract in French was made at the Francophone Group meeting in Dhaka in March 2004. The translator is the author of 'Parisian Portraits' -- a profile on Paris, the city of light. Published by The
University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2000.

His intention was at first to proceed to Dacca, which was at a distance of only forty-five leagues from Calcutta, but the winding road that one is obliged to follow, forces one to cross more than a hundred and twenty. Heber took eighteen days covering this route that presented no particular incident. Finally on the 3rd of July, he glimpsed the towers of Dacca. "Slowly, as we approached," he said, "I was quite surprised at the grandness of this city, and of the majestic ruins that appeared to make up a large part of it. Passing by some large palaces and also some old mosques and turrets that appeared to be for the same period with nothing but ivies and pipals covering them, we reached our destination. We saw large and beautiful buildings that from a certain distance, appeared to be in a better state of conservation; but at a closer distance, we realised that they were just as dilapidated as the others.

"As we were advancing towards the river, a sound the most solemn and the most odd that one could imagine, the sound thundered in my ears; it appeared to emerge from the very core of the water that we were crossing. It was long, loud, muffled and abrupt at the same time, sounding like the bellowing of a bull or a sound produced by a breathing whale. "Ah!" cried one of the boatmen after having carefully listened for a few moments, "these are elephants that are bathing." Soon, in fact, I saw some twenty of these monstrous beasts whose heads and trumpets appeared on the water level."

"The city of Dacca is nothing more at present then a miserable shadow of her ancient grandness, yet nevertheless, it is a still a substantial city, since the population is three hundred thousand souls and the number of houses or huts number more than ninety thousand. The company of India owns a stable with two or three hundred elephants, because this is the number that one catches each year in the neighbouring forests. In Dacca they are teamed, they are domesticated, finally, they are provided with all they are accustomed to in their state of captivity -- since they are indispensable."

"The layout of the city is unseemly," said Heber; "the surroundings are very picturesque, but so far away that as I travelled in the countryside, I no longer saw any trace of culture. The day after my arrival, I was surprised to come across a stage-coach. It was, frankly-speaking, an old dirty and dusty four-wheeled carriage pulled by four horses; the drivers wore red livery, and around us strutted a dozen men dressed in the same colour, who had for their head-dress large turbans. I learnt that this team belonged to the nawab of the place, and that the type of soldiers who formed the escort was his

particular guard of honour.

"This potentate, as all the others, no longer enjoys any political authority, and even does not have the privilege to utilise the royal palanquin of his forefathers. Nevertheless, the government provides him 25,000 francs per month; he has a court and they have given him the title of “His Highness”. The next day, he came to visit me.

This was an old man of good appearance, whose light complexion indicates the care with which the descendants of the Muslim conquerors have taken to keep any mixing of their northern blood. During his visit, that lasted quite some time, he did not stop smoking his pipe and spoke to me in quite good English. He told me, amongst other things, that custom demanded that at least I ride an elephant, walk around the ruins of the city, to see some of the tigers and the numerous snakes. His entire costume was made of simple white muslin, only on his turban was there a small gold tassel. His son who accompanied him, and who appeared to be around thirty years, was more dark-skinned and a lot less polished. His turban was of crimson silk, with golden fringes and decorated with many precious stones. Like his father, he wore on his fingers rings surmounted with huge diamonds. When he (the nawab) reentered his car, the guardsmen who escorted him called out names that were all quite bizarre. They called out in a loud voice, in effect, the different titles of their master. "He is the lion of the war! He is wisdom in advice! He is an exalted and powerful prince!"

"The next day, I went to return the visit of this person of rank. In order to reach his place, I had to cross a considerable part of the town, and to cross a long avenue of aged trees, amongst which were huts; at the end of which I entered through an old arcade of bricks -- a front courtyard surrounded by buildings in ruins. In the middle, stood a large tree surrounded by undergrowth. In front of the arcade, was a fine gate under which the guards of the nawab stood in line in order to receive me and where I found a chair with porters, whereby I was obliged to use it to cross into the second courtyard. This was a quad of low and irregular construction but not devoid of elegance, well maintained and white-washed. To the right, a flight of steps took me into a very beautiful octagonal salon supported by gothic pillars and lit by tall pointed windows with stained glass windows. It was furnished with a large round table, with arm-chairs in mahogany wood mirrors, gravings; all was fitting and decent. The nawab insisted on presenting me with a gift; he gave me his cane that was cut of a single piece of ivory and richly worked."

The 20th of July, Heber continued his journey in the eastern direction, first on the Pudda and then on the South (rivers)."......


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