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xEurasia Odyssey


BANGLADESH | Monday, 7 November 2022 | Views [209]

Pinkey's house in the village

Pinkey's house in the village


After the Central Bangladesh tour mostly north and west of Dhaka, I decided to take a day trip to Sonargaon, 30 miles SE of the capital. We left at 7:30 to avoid some of the traffic. The fog in the city was so dense that the sky wasn’t really visible, but was still okay to drive in. Azim suggested that we first go on a boat ride on the Meghna River, so that I could experience the third of the country’s major waterways.  We had crossed the Brahmaputra a couple of times, and walked along the shore of the Ganges, but had missed this central corridor. It was now time to correct that. As we got closer to Sonargaon and the river, however, the fog was still so thick that it didn’t make sense to go. We then headed to the Sandarbari Palace Museum, which the website and sign said was open at 9am. It turns out that they only open at 10. So we headed to an abandoned small old Hindu temple in a village nearby. This was a fascinating peak into local village history. As I mentioned in the Central Bangladesh blog, I was struck by the multi-domed mosques. Here there was only one dome, which makes the Goaldi Mosque and its more modern neighbor unique. The tattered and worn sign at the site reads:

“Bara Bhuya chiefs Isa Khan and Musa Khan, and prior to them some independent sultans of Bengal had their capital at Sonargaon. Besides the city and the miscellaneous picturesque establishments of state like royal palaces, court buildings, mint etc., Muslim rulers also erected beautiful mosques, madrasahs, masolea, khangas, bridges, wells and other edifices of diverse nature and uses. Of these stone-built structures the tomb of Sultan Ghiyashuddin Azam Shah is especially remarkable. This single domed mosque built by Mulla Hizbar Akbar Khan in 1519 is the second important erection of Sonargaon and one among innumerable mosques that came up throughout the length and breadth of the sultan’s territory.  The beautiful arabesque design of Muslim traditions of bricks and stones of the mosque is comparable to ornamentation found on monuments in Gaur, Pandua, and other centers in Bengal. Some original decorations survive in the west wall…. Due to lack of proper maintenance and long neglect, or through some unknown natural cause, much of the mosque particularly the back wall collapsed, and the mosque was abandoned and was replaced by the neighboring single domed mosque, which was constructed in 1705 during the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Since then, the Muslims of the locality have been offering their prayers in the new mosque.  This mosque of Housain Shah’s period was declared protected under the Antiquity Act of 1968 and the directorate of archaeology fully restored the original features.”

The Goaldi Mosque, the earlier one, has not be restored and there are large sections of the external walls that look like they might collapse with the next major storm.  Around the back, one of the corner towers has detached and is only held together with the structure at its base. The terracotta figures on the rim look like they are original. It is too bad that the site has been abandoned as nature’s vegetation is taking over. The 1705 mosque, on the other hand, has a modern addition at the back and a set of four very large loudspeakers on the top. The dome is painted green which complements the rose color of the walls. Across the street is a Koranic school and next door is a Technology College (which is like their high school) where a teacher was reprimanding a couple of students for their haircut. School uniforms apparently include hair length and style as well.  As someone who protested a school dress code in the 60s, this struck me as a throwback to times long past, and an interesting insight into students’ lives.


The fog was lifting, so we headed to the Meghna River for our boating excursion. The ferries are of a similar construction to the fishing boats, except that the latter don’t have as much shade inside. The Meghna River is huge; it is much wider than the Danube or even the Mississippi or Detroit Rivers. Its expanse makes it look like one of the Great Lakes. Perhaps it was due to the residual fog, but I couldn’t see the opposite shore, only a large island in the middle.  As we made our way towards the island, we saw fishermen casting their nets and one swimming trying to free something that had apparently gotten caught. River plants were growing not just on the shorelines, but in the middle of the river as well.  They can multiply so quickly that they will eventually clog whole sections of the waterway.  Rivers have been the lifeblood of this region for millennia. And Bangladesh has lots of rivers! Trade occurs and cities are built near the waterways, and they are important today just as they were in ancient times. Wood from the mango and bamboo trees is shipped by the river, and fishing is one of the major industries. Fishing is also one of the major sources of employment for many people. As we floated by villages on the island, it seemed like life on the river hadn’t changed too much over the centuries. Women were washing clothes in the river, fishermen had their nets hanging out to dry on upturned boats, and cattle were grazing outside the tin houses. Ok, the tin is somewhat new. But I learned that as the island’s shoreline is constantly changing, the people make their houses out of metal sheets so that they can easily disassemble them, pack them up and move to a new location. Nomadic island life. I was asked whether I wanted to stop in to see one of the villages and immediately said that I did.  We disembarked next to a young woman washing her sheep. She had shampooed the very muddy animal and was scrubbing his wool; the sheep did not look at all happy. She washed the suds off in the river and it looked like he wanted to bolt as soon as he had a chance. She was determined to get him clean, though.  We walked just a few steps more into a grove of trees where the village houses were.  There was a very nice, non-tin, house right on the side near where a cow was grazing. The owner, Pinkey, came out to greet us and brought two plastic chairs from inside the house into the community space for us to sit on.  As we were talking to her, - through Azim I learned that she has three children, aged five, three and 11 months – and the three-year-old was quite unhappy about something – other villagers came to greet us, and the conversation became increasing more diverse.  Pinkey, brought out another couple of plastic chairs for two of the probably senior members of village to sit, and they explained how the current economic crisis is affecting them on the river. I learned that the cost of electricity and food has increased by 55% over the past two months. While they don’t have to pay rent, have water from their wells, raise their own rice and have fish, they still need to purchase everything else, and the increase in cost is simply not affordable.  I asked how the fishing was going and heard that it is also receding.  There simply aren’t the fish in the river that there once was. One of the two senior gentlemen mentioned that he was in agriculture, which means he takes care of the cattle and harvests medicinal plants as well as rice, and that he can only survive as he doesn’t have to pay for food for the cattle as they can eat whatever grows on the island. The other gentleman, who mentioned that he was 66, but is registered as 59 because he wants to find employment in another country, asked about religion and whether Christians believe in multiple gods. He simply assumed I was Christian without asking.  I explained that the Trinity, is really one God. Call the Divine Allah, call the Divine Brahman, call the Divine Ra, call the Divine Jehovah, it’s still one God. And to put his mind at rest, I mentioned that Christians are Children of Abraham too. He seemed relieved.  As I reflected on his question, I remembered that the only countries where I am ever asked about my religion is in Islamic countries. People in Hindu and Buddhist countries couldn’t care less what religion I do or don’t profess. It was time to go and as I looked at all the villagers’ faces, from the three-year-old to the seniors, men, boys, women and girls, I wondered how these wonderful people are going to deal with the cultural transitions that the next decade will inevitably bring. Even life on the river will change, especially with the rising water levels and lack of fish.  The boat trip turned out to be not only enjoyable but also educational.


From the river, we headed back towards Sonargaon and the abandoned Panam city outdoor museum, which unfortunately closes on Sundays.  I was able to see down the street, though, and visit a few of the houses on the side of the closed off area. The sign by the guarded entrance to Panam, a section of Sonargaon, said:

“Suvamagram, a thousand years old ancient urban settlement was one of the capitals and river ports of East Bengal. From the historical point of view, the present Sonargaon was the ancient Suvarnagram.  Local Hindu king, Danujmadhob Doshoroth Dev established his capital in this Suvarnagram in the 13th century.  Sonargaon was one of the capitals and administrative hubs of independent Bengal Sultanate till 1610 after it came under Mughals occupation.

Panam Nagar lies 30 miles southeast of the capital Dhaka. The rich Hindu traders laid the foundation of Panam Nagar in the early years of the 19th century. It consists of 52 buildings standing on both sides of a road that stretches from east to south and measure 600 meters in length and 5 meters in width.  Most of the buildings are rectangular, north-south stretched up and one to three storied.  As for the architectural design of these buildings, European artistic skills have been blended with those of the Mughals. Moreover, the local architects applied their own artistic skills in building these structures. The buildings have been made up with bricks of various sizes and plastered with lime and brick-dust, mosaics stucco-designed beautiful buildings have trenches on two sides, ponds with ghats and many wells….”

The architecture appeared to be similar on the buildings I could see from the guard post, and from behind the ghat near the entrance. While there, I was struck once again, by a young man taking a selfie with his fully covered girlfriend/wife. Nearby the park-like setting was a pile of trash that seemed completely out of place.

From Panam, we drove back to Sandarpari Palace, which was now open.  The 19th C British-Mughal mix styled palace was renovated in 2012 with the help of South Korean restorationists. From the palace it is a short walk to the Folk Art Museum. This museum has a collection of Hindu sculptures from the 19th C on the ground floor. The second floor has textiles and some smaller Hindu sculptures, along with pottery. The third floor has musical instruments, more pottery, jewelry, and painted ceramic animals that look very similar to those sold throughout Mexico and Central America. The museum was a nice way to end my Bangladesh adventure. It coupled past with present, Hindu and Muslim influences, and dioramas of daily rural life with those along the river. I was also glad to have had the chance to see this part of the country as the more rainforest ecosystem southeast of Dhaka is much different from the rice fields in the central part of the country. 

My short stay in Bangladesh left me with competing and conflicting impressions. Time will tell how the people here will be able to handle the recession and increasing prices.  On the way back to Dhaka, we tried to get natural gas for the car.  All the natural gas stations south of the city were closed as they didn’t have any more. The country produces its own natural gas but given the energy crisis they can’t produce enough, and what they have goes to keep the factories functioning. Regular fuel for the cars cost three times what the natural gas does, so even though the cars are mostly hybrid and can run on either natural gas or regular fuel, the cost of driving, which means all transportation costs, including those for the trucks, is rising at an unaffordable rate. Food costs increase with transportation costs and the cycle continues to spiral. The world truly is interconnected, and the people here too feel the cost of the war in Ukraine and international politics. In today’s Salzburger Nachrichten, our local newspaper, one of the regular opinion piece authors wrote about the issues that will affect the next voting cycle. Koller mentions that inflation, energy costs, health and long-term care are the key issues for Austrians. Basically, that people are concerned about their livelihood and social wellbeing, i.e., what we consider normal life. He also mentioned that people are sick of corrupt government officials. As I read this, I thought about what I had heard in the island village, from other people across Bangladesh, and the concerns of U.S. citizens ahead of next Tuesday’s midterm elections.  The issues – with the exception of long-term care for the island people as they look after their own in extended families – are the same everywhere.  We are a global community.

 My thanks to Azim at Dhaka Holidays and Mr. Habib for an enjoyable and insight trip.

Tags: hindu temples, history, museums, river boat trip

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