Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Friday, May 27, 2011
Nature has a way of reclaiming their sovereignty, and this is all too evident in the neglected domiciles in an eerie street in Sonargaon. I like the way a Lonely Planet article on Painam Nagar describes this once lavish community:
“The once elegant town of
I don’t have this description in my own LP so this must be a later version, but this poetically paints a surreal description of Painam Nagar.
From the Folk Arts and
I was in my cotton shirt and jeans, Karin, all blond and a curious a sight to behold in her dark colored sari, while Mafuz was in an immaculately pressed long sleeved shirt, tucked under his pants. He looked very “official”. And the three of us sauntered around like three distinct peas in a pod.
Mafuz picked a house and wandered around with adequate authority, I'd suspect he owned the place had I not known otherwise. There was a household with an woman doing her chores – she was preparing something on leaves. When I looked closer, these were rice-based food, beautifully “designed” – on specially picked leaves. Were they desserts? Heck, no. This was food. Some of them, they eat; some they sell. They looked like frosted candies in their off-pink color. Mafuz reached down and offered us a piece to taste it. Weird. I expected it to be sweet, but it didn’t taste anything. Maybe this was one of those that acquire taste once you’ve eaten enough? The funny thing is, the lady kept working and didn’t even seem to mind that we were encroaching on her space, on “work” – and we didn’t pay anything for this visit. How much more “up close and personal” could you get?
The house stood like desperate relics; half the house facing the scenic lake has all but disappeared. We navigated through a narrow staircase. I was trying to keep a stable stance; didn't wanna fall into a sundry of accouterments that seemed second or third-hand, rusting in sweet salvation. At some point, it became too dark. I was still afraid I’d step on something I’m not supposed to. Our destination: the roof deck! From there, I could see a good part of Painam Nagar. We just sat and gathered our thoughts while Mafuz jumped on a ledge and started clowning around.
MUSINGS OF A SWISS TRAVELER
I liked Karin. She's from Interleukin, Switzerland. She was mild mannered and toothsome, and she had a sincere smile. She would intermittently regale me with some of her travel anecdotes: the German paraglider who dove to his near-fatal accident in Pokhara Nepal (Karin had to accompany him in Delhi where he was eventually flown back to Germany); her life as a relatively new physician; her passion climbing mountains; what is it like being a single woman traveling around Asia. She mentioned that 40% of a Swiss' salary goes to the government as tax; and that Switzerland isn't part of the E.U. (really?). She just completed General Surgery, and she's seriously looking into Visceral Surgery which, to be honest, I've never heard of. She's taken to wearing sari while navigating around, try to be inconspicuous, although I was sure she was not succeeding all that much. Glimpses of her life in a capsule.
I’ve actually made a friend that day. She has since emailed me about her unforgettable experiences traveling back to
From this short strip of dilapidated mansions, we visited another one – a bigger one actually; the once luxurious abode of a nawab (a muslim prince), supposedly with underground tunnels that reach
And this is the Eye in the Sky!
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Sometime between 1895 and 1905, in a small area in the old part of the ancient city of
Decades of political strife throughout
As a result of this, the whole street of Painam Nagar, including its 50 mansions, has become a ghost town. Despite absence of the most basic necessities – no electricity, no water lines, no sewage disposal system – many of these houses have poor tenants who refuse to leave (nor get relocated). And if you’ve been inside one of the slums of Mumbai or Tondo, you would realize the sheer despondency of the tenant’s living conditions. Mumbai and Tondo slums suddenly seem posh.
Why the Restoration and Heritage Departments of the Bangladeshi government have all but neglected Painam Nagar is such a wonder. I am aware that restoration of 50 mansions wouldn't be cheap, but preservation of history is priceless. I read several articles regarding plans to relocate these tenants (there must have been half a dozen generations since the owners abandoned their mansions) and start restorations, but these have turned out to be mere publicity stunts in the last 5-10 years or so. Nothing concrete has happened.
These present tenants will fight getting relocated, but I really can’t imagine a harder life than staying in Painam Nagar. They hardly look like inhabited homes. At least the other slum dwellings elsewhere in
I am pretty sure that restoration of these mansions would eventually pay off in terms of tourism, not to mention the historical implications in a nation too pulverized by civil war, poverty, cyclones and other disasters, and population explosion.
This is the Eye in the Sky!
Friday, May 20, 2011
Upon arrival in Mograpara, a town in Sonargaon (southeast of Dhaka), my guide Mafuz flagged a rickshaw for the three of us – Karin (a Swiss backpacker), Mafuz, and me. It was short of a miracle to get the driver to agree since he would be pedaling for three. We were rowdy, clowning around on our cams, knowing fully well that it looked like a circus act fitting us together in a craggy rickshaw. It was fun!
We crossed Kanchpur Bridge, then plied through a narrow winding road and not long after, we reached this beautiful 2-story colonial, lavishly decorated with stucco floral scrolls outside. It was a combination of pink and white, with a lake rendering the façade a dreamy countenance.
The building itself was built in 1901 as a rajbari, a Raj-style residential palace of a zamindar (landlord). As a consequence of the exodus of the Hindu traders, this rajbari – a Sadarbari – was abandoned, the property left under government administration. While pretty much neglected, in 1975, a famous national painter Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin (known for his Bengal famine paintings), conceptualized a place that would showcase folk arts, traditional craftsmanship, and everything that encompasses cultural heritage. He picked Sonargaon – and commissioned this rajbari from the government.
It is now known as Folk Arts and Crafts Museum - otherwise locally referred to as Lok Shilpa Jadughar .
The whole complex is huge – around 150 bighas (probably 60 acres) characterized by a big lake and 6 ponds, a documentation center, a library, a craft village, 3 bridges, a garden of fruit-bearing and medicinal trees, and of course the 2 museums (the folk arts and crafts and Zainul Abedin Museum).
The disadvantage of having a guide is that you pass through places without knowing much. It’s perfect for lazy tourists but a bit of a downer for people like me. But hey, it was ok to be lazy for a day. There were 2 entrance fees to be paid: 4 taka to enter the grounds, 3 taka for the museum entrance. Rather ridiculously cheap.
Upon stepping inside the Folk Arts and Crafts, I started snapping away. Though not beautifully preserved or maintained (some parts were stained and molding, plants growing through ledges), you cannot deny the captivating beauty of its intricate stucco designs. Then Mafuz shyly reminded me, no photography allowed. Oopss! Sorry, but I had a naughty smile on my face. What’s done is done, and we weren’t forewarned. Honestly, I didn’t see signs prohibiting photography. The displays at the museum were divided into 11 galleries: terracotta dolls, pottery, iron products and metal crafts, etc. There were traditional handicrafts, sarees, and depictions of local rural life back in the days. Abedin’s Museum had some of his painting (majority of which were stolen and looted).
The complex grounds were as picturesque: a lake where you could go boating, wooden bridges crossing ponds, a crafts center selling those beautiful, colorful sarees (although a bit too expensive). It’s easy to find this a favorite, but then, our next itinerary was even more fascinating – a virtual ghost town, the Painam-Nagar.
This is the Eye in the Sky!
This sculpture in Sonargaon's Sadarbari is based on Zainul Abedin's painting, "The Struggle." The acclaimed painter eventually died from lung cancer.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
There’s always a palpable buzz of excitement when you suddenly realize you’re visiting a part of history. In this case, it is Sonargaon, the ancient – and first capital – of Bangladesh, long before it became a separate country (from India and Pakistan).
Vikramapura was the cultural and political center of ancient Bengal but everything about it has been passed on through word of mouth. It’s a mythical city that has died in the early inhabitant’s failure to document its existence. There are no documents to show the exact boundary of its territorial unit; no relics; no traces of a very distant past, except for historical hearsay handed down from centuries of Chandra, Sena and Varman rulers that stretch from the 10th century to the 13th century. It is believed though that it existed somewhere in the southeast of Bangladesh.
By the 13th century, a Hindu ruler named Danujamadhava Dasharathadeva felt the need to transfer his dominion to an uncharted region called Suvarnagrama, a name that gradually evolved into its present nomenclature. Sonargaon. The “golden village,” as it was literally translated (or “golden town”). It was a promising place bound by its riches, and its rivers: Meghna River to the east, Shitalakhya River to the west, Daleshwari River to the south, and Brahmaputra River to the north. But like most ruling forces, time wasn't kind and the Hindu ruler gradually lost grip of his power and influence, and with the arrival of the Muslim rulers, he was eventually overwhelmed. Sonargaon was soon annexed to Lakhnauti (under the rule of Shamsuddin Firuz Shah). It became an exigent town as a port and source of “mint”.
In the 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Sonargaon boasted of direct trading connection with China, Java (Indonesia) and Maldives, as noted in the annals of Moroccan adventurer Ibn Batuta. Hou Hien, a Chinese translator, described it as a fortified wall city with tanks, bazaars and a bustling emporium of trade.
With time, it had several change of hands in terms of administration - from the Tughlaq rulers then the arrival of the mughals (Isa Khan, then Musa Khan). With the fall of Musa’s regime (1611), Sonargaon was gradually demoted. Dhaka rose as the capital. And Sonargaon gradually slipped into near obscurity – rotting in its rich but ancient past.
During the early 20th century, Painam-Nagar was developed somewhere in the area of medieval Sonargaon which became a trading center of cotton fabrics. Sonargaon soon again flirted with commercial life. Hindu merchants – “cloth merchants” - built showy colonial houses on a narrow single- road, but a cantankerous, albeit impetuous history has halted the rebirth of Sonargaon. There were (1) the great division between Pakistan and India, (2) the anti-Hindu massacre (the muslim population grew tenfold), and (3) the Indo-Pakistani War (1965).
Most of these affluent Hindu merchants fled to India, and Painam-Nagar virtually turned into a ghost town. These days, the southern town of Mograpara is starting to stir into life. This is where most tourists arrive from Dhaka. From here, a rickshaw can be hired to visit sites.
Though most of the ancient Sonargaon (10th to 13th century) have disappeared like Vikramapura, a few reminders of the succeeding epoch have remained: the Goaldi Mosque, a pre-Mughal bridge, a single rajbari (a Raj-era palace built by a landlord called “zamindar” converted into the Folk Arts Museum), a mausoleum, and some minor mosques.
Located 27 kilometers (some say 29, LP says its 23) southeast of Dhaka, Sonargaon magically transports you into the past – into this long forgotten and neglected land that has “dwindled into a village with dense jungle”. If you want local color, and grassroot Bangladesh, this is probably one of the best places to visit.
The bus ride from Dhaka will take 40 minutes to 1 hour, on a measly 15-taka ($0.20 or PhP8.80) bus ride. Be sure to tell the bus conductor that your destination is Mograpara, otherwise, your “Sonargaon” (pronounced “sho-nar-gahn”) will take you to Pan Pacific Sonargaon, says LP. I had great company - my guide Mafuz and a sweet Swiss girl I kept calling Helen, until she corrected me at our last itinerary. “It’s Karin,” she bashfully smiled. She is a doctor too. Ain’t that nice?
This is the Eye in the Sky who feels the need to do a little introductory piece.
Next up: the actual visit in Sonargaon.
Dessert? No, they're supposedly a daily staple eaten like rice - and despite its delectable look, it doesn't have a taste. (They say it does.)
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Lokot - sea cucumber's digested end product, served raw with onion, parsley and a sweet and savory sauce.
Humba - a Visayan pork dish thats sweet, sugary and reddish on sauce. Ingredients include pork hocks, crushed garlic cloves, packed brown sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, bay leaf, pepper, oil, salt, potatoes, and the optional hard boiled eggs. Humba used to be exclusively served in mountain villages and far flung towns but has since enjoyed popularity throughout Visayas and Mindanao.