Rajshahi and the legacy of the Padma

The silk town is witness to the vagaries of the mighty river

Dr. Nurul H. Choudhury

Rajshahi is situated on the northern bank of the lower stream of the Ganges, known as the Padma. Like many other towns and cities located on the riverbanks, Rajshahi depended heavily on the Padma for its growth and development. In other words, the Padma greatly influenced the socio-economic conditions of the people of Rajshahi.

The areas, which comprised the greater district of Rajshahi, were inhabited preponderantly by the Hindus. The Muslim saints or Sufis, as they were called, who first arrived in this area promoted education and culture among the local people. They also provided food and shelter to the hungry and distressed, and elevated the morals of the people by their piety and exemplary character. The most distinguished of all these sufis was Shah Makhdum Abdul Quddus Jamal-al-Din Rupash. He arrived in Bagha in 1288 A.D. from Baghdad. Later, he came to the Rajshahi town. He passed away in 1325 A.D. on the present site of Dargahpara on the bank of the Padma. The dargah or shrine of the great saint, which attracted a large number of devotees, contributed to the growth of Muslim population in the area.

Rajshahi also enjoyed an advantage due to its being located on the bank of a large navigable river, the Padma. It emerged as a commercial centre, particularly for silk trade. In the absence of any recognised land route, the bulk of the trade was carried through the Padma. A large quantity of silk and silk fabrics was exported to the various parts of the Mughal Empire, to the neighbouring countries and to Europe. Rajshahi also became a prominent trading centre after the advent of the Europeans in the seventeenth century. The first Europeans to arrive here were the Dutch. Their silk factory located in the Barakuthi still stands on the riverbank as an important landmark. The Dutch were followed by the French and the English.

Sericulture was an agricultural home industry. The cultivators grew mulberry trees and reared silk worms in their houses on the mulberry leaves. Men, women and children were engaged in the rearing of the worms, winding, weaving and dying the silk. The mulberry tree thrives in the hard sticky soil in the Barind area and was therefore mostly cultivated in the district of Rajshahi, in the southern part of Dinajpur and Rangpur, in Murshidabad and its reighbouring areas. With the increasing commercial activities of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, cultivation of mulberry crops increased, thus contributing to abundantly productive silk industry. Following the incidents of the mid-eighteenth century, when the Marathas committed the most horrid devastation and cruelties and fed their horses and cattle with mulberry plantation in western Bengal, the Directors of the East India Company took some precautionary measures. They arranged for those people engaged in the silk industry to migrate to the other side of the Padma for in case Marathas or others should ever raid Bengal, they would not be able to cross the great river to destroy the mulberry plantation or disperse the winders of raw silk.

Undoubtedly, this measure contributed considerably to the prominence of Rajshahi as a major silk producing centre.

It was not the persons engaged in silk industry who alone migrated to Rajshahi. Common people of Murshidabad and its adjoining areas, scared of the Maratha atrocities during the middle of the 18th century, also crossed the river and settled in Rajshahi. Such influx of large number of people contributed to the growth of the population in the locality.

In any case, it was the silk industry, which brought fame and fortune for the people of Rajshahi. But with the British East India Company’s occupation of Bengal in the middle of the eighteenth century and the Company's commercial policy together with the invention of machines led to the gradual decline of the silk industry of Rajshahi.

The shifting of the district headquarters from Natore to Rajshahi in 1825 gave a new impetus to the growth of the town, which also served later as the headquarters of the divisional administration. Since then most of the government offices and residences of high officials of the district are located on the bank of the river.

Among other most important institutions and buildings located on the bank of the Padma are Circuit House, Collectorate, Court House, Rajshahi Collegiate School, Rajshahi Government College, Varendra Research Museum, Rajshahi Madrassah, Rajshahi Radio station, Motel and Rajshahi Central Jail etc. The Central Jail was constructed in the middle of the 19th century. Apart from holding the prisoners, the jail, at its early stage, had another important role to play in the town life of the people. The European residents in Rajshahi had to depend on the Jail for the drinking water, which would be sold to them at an anna per bucket or tin. The same water was used by the prisoners. It was obtained from the river Padma and brought inside the Jail through pipe. Later, in order to avoid difficulty and expense the Public Works Department had arranged an independent and reliable water supply by sinking well inside the Jail.

Severe lateral erosion by the capricious Padma occasionally jeopardized the very existence of Rajshahi town. The District Courts and other offices as well as many residential quarters located in Srirampur and Sahebganj were completely eroded by the river in 1854. The Court and the Collectorate were consequently relocated to the present site. Embankment and other river training measures since started have gradually been extended and intensified over the past years. A seven-mile embankment from Nabinagar and Kajla as well as brick-mattressing and groins now guard the city against the river. But these efforts, involving huge expenditure though, can hardly provide permanent check against the vagaries of the mighty Padma.

Every year the Padma is forming and cutting away land along its course by constant alteration of deposition and erosion. During the rainy season, the river strikes its banks with immense force. During the 1960s, India diverted the flow of water of the Ganges by building the Farakka Barrage. It has reduced the water level of the Padma. Consequently, more areas of the river are being silted up and chars are formed. Fertile chars are the frequent scene of bloody clashes arising out of disputes regarding the ownership of the chars or part of them. The char area has also an adverse effect on the health of the people. Researches have shown that the germs of Kala Ajar originate in these areas. A special type of fly, which produces the germ, is usually found in the char areas. The regularly emerging chars are also safe haven for the smugglers who bring cheap and banned item across the border. Again, for generations the Padma had been a source of supply of fish not only for the people of Rajshahi, but also for other districts. The hilsa fish of the Padma was once considered a delicacy in the whole of Bengal. A large number of fishermen earned their bread by fishing in the river. But fall in the water level and the formation of char reduced availability of fish.

The decline of the silk trade and the decay of the river channel also dealt a serious blow to the economy of the town. Although the opening of the railway in the early 1930's provided a fillip to the development of the town, its alignment closely touching the northern margin of the built-up area, and paralleling the river, constricted the growth of the town. Sandwiched between the railway and the river, the town could only grow in a ribbon form with almost a single thoroughfare, i.e. the Natore Road. Thus, the vibrant Padma, which once was the lifeblood of Rajshahi, with the passage of time, has become a liability.

Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

The author is Professor,Department of History, University of Rajshahi,Rajshahi.

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