Sonargaon, thriving capital of 13 century Bengal, and Panam City tell endless tales.
One could almost see them. Bengali matrons with bunches of keys thrown over their shoulders. Gliding across these large aangans or holding court amidst loving families or even tending to newborn babies in out-houses that had delivery rooms.
More images of large weddings, celebrations, ceremonies and even scenes of sorrow - Devdas style - flashed through one’s mind as one was led from one mouldy room to another; one chipped and scarred pillar to another. The lingering traces of colourful mosaics among creeper-entwined walls and moss-covered floors suggested lives well lived. As was evident from the half-intact structure of the Rajbari. Yes, it is among the ruins of ‘Baris’ (homes) of Panam City and Sonargaon, the once famous capital of 13th century Bengal-now part of Bangladesh - one saw the meagre remnants of the glory and glamour of an era.
While one long and narrow winding lane boasted the shell of a Kashinath Bhaban, dated 1305, another marble embedded square above a different doorway showed off a ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Rama-1315’ in Bengali. It somehow boggled the mind that anything, even on marbles such as these, could actually survive so many centuries. Wouldn’t the script have been different? The style of writing dissimilar? Surely there must be another explanation. So one must assume that the dates mentioned must necessarily belong to the vernacular calendar, which would then place them somewhere in the 19th century that would also go back a couple of hundred years. Standing side by side, ghostly and eerie, the ornate broken-down doorways of Panam City could easily fulfil the criteria needed for a Bollywood mystery.
Despite the Hindu name-plaques and architecture reminiscent of old Europe, the locals informed one that it had been a Muslim stronghold for centuries. This might well be true because Sonargaon was the capital of the 13th century Dhanujamadhava Dashrathadeva’s Hindu kingdom only briefly, till it turned Muslim and became a part of the Tughlaq Empire, the Sultanate of Delhi and, for a while, the Mughals. And it was only in the 19th century, well-to-do Hindu families - during the colonial period - moved in to create a new city called Panam City next to Sonargaon and transformed the place into a thriving cotton producing centre. This then, one decided, explained not only the names and the dates above the lintels but the ornate facades themselves.
In the past, Sonargaon could only be reached by crossing a massive water channel that surrounded it. And there are three small brick bridges to prove it. These bridges, now being renovated, go back to those centuries too. The innumerable, intermittent, large and medium green swathes of water one saw among the lush and fertile vegetation were probably breakaways from that original body of water. Filled with hyacinth and clusters of little flying fish, one spotted a couple of darting water snakes as well. There were also a few well defined ponds, here and there, with steps and low mildew-ridden ledges leading up to houses, as in any countryside village. The pervading sense of calm and peace made it difficult to even link it to the kind of turbulent times it once faced.
If only Nature or those dilapidated walls could speak, what endless stories they would tell. Would they speak , one wonders, of some torrid romances within or of lives gone astray; of murders or spine-tingling mysteries unsolved? Or of boys who played medieval versions of seven tiles or of battalions that came thundering along in triumph or in vain? Perhaps. Nevertheless, to be actually standing on the verdant environs of a settlement that has existed since the 12th century was in itself an awesome experience.
With Sher Shah Suri’s Grand Trunk Road connecting it to even far away Afghanistan, wayfarers to the east of the sub-continent often stopped by Sonargaon. Ibn Batuta, the indefatigable Moroccan traveller, who came visiting in 1326 reportedly praised the then ruler for his sagacity and the prosperity of his reign. Even a Chinese 15th century fleet, supposedly had its leaders pay court in Sonargaon. A grand fortified walled city with its madrasas of higher learning and bazaars that sold fine muslin and traded in gold - such was its fame and fortune that at its zenith, it flourished as the capital of an independent Bengal for many years.
Today, Sonargaon looks like a large garden estate. It consists of a single crumbling but beautiful edifice that existed during Isa Khan’s reign in the 16th century and the Sadarbari that houses various artefacts discovered in the area. This 1901 residence of a zamindar is today the folk arts and crafts museum.
A tribute to the Father of the Nation, Mujibur Rehman, and his family who were cold bloodedly shot down also stands nearby.
The ornate façade of the edifice is under renovation and has steps leading to a rather lovely water body. It also houses a few exhibits of the era. A heritage mosque, a few miles away, and a small, but linear Siva temple across complete the cache of Sonargaon relics that are recognisably still around.
The narrow well tarred road leads to a place that has a number of dhabas (eateries) which offer authentic Bangladeshi fare. Within minutes of placing the order, one was presented with some enormous prawns. Delicious, it was accompanied by scrumptious kachi biryani, dhal and fish bhorta. As capital of Bengal till the 17th century, till Jehangirnagar (now known as Dhaka) under the Mughals became the new capital, Sonargaon with over a thousand years of straight historical continuity could tell one so much more, had it not been for the ravages of time and the vicissitudes of Nature.
It is touted as one of the ‘must see’ tourist spots, of which there are so few in and around Dhaka. It takes about 2-3 hours, because of the chaotic traffic, to cover the 30-km stretch on the Dhaka-Chittagong highway. Although it is among the World Monument Fund’s watch list of the 100 most ‘Endangered Heritage Sites,’ what remains now is just an intriguing crust of the old city of gold and a few fascinating lanes of Panam City’s empty doorways that let one’s imagination run riot.
(The caption of one of the photos accompanying the article has been corrected)