Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Nawab's Princely Mansion - Surreal Visit Around Sonargaon (Bangladesh)

I wasn't sure if we were still on the street that made up the ghost city called Painam Nagar (Panam City) right in the heart of Sonargaon where an ancient city once stood proud. Painam Nagar was supposedly a single line of narrow street made up of 50 once-lavish mansions owned by rich Hindu merchants. They have fled the country ever since - to escape ethnic persecution against the growing Muslim population. We rode the rickshaw until we reached a crumbling mansion separated from the other dated, but lavish excrescences.


Mafuz, my guide, knocked on a gate until someone opened it. These were the present tenants, and Mafuz seemed to know them. We were allowed in to wander around. This was relatively bigger than those on the street. We were told that this was once the elegant home of a nawab (muslim prince). In fact, it even has an annexed building that's almost overwhelmed by growing foliage, and slithering vines snaked around its dilapidated walls; bricks chipping off. The roof from the annex caved in years ago. A staircase leading nowhere looked like one of those Harry Potter magical moment that's left hanging between incomplete spells. I was told that this particular house has a sinewy basement, with tunnels that go as far as Dhaka. If in case this were true, then they have an even better tunnel system than Saigon's Cu Chi tunnels. We had no way of confirming this, but such stories stoke the imagination - and were always an interesting topic of conversation.

Once again, at the back of these mansion, was a lake or pond. It's mirror-image reflection of the nearby scenery - huge trees, blue skies, each item parading placidly like sweet poetry from this wall-less portion of the tired old mansion. Decrepit it may be, this once grandiose abode still managed to convey its past, albeit in calculated whispers. This surreal experience just cost me 50 taka - not as an entrance fee, but as voluntary gratuities for the opportunity to relive a rich past.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention this sensation of awe that embraced me all throughout this visit.

With my imagination fired up, we moved on to the next stop. Like an Eye in the Sky!

A muslim prince's playground, now it's believed haunted.

Unfinished incantations

Nature overwhelms a once-lavish mansion.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Painam Nagar's Losing Battle with Time and Nature (Sonargaon)

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 Painam Nagar is busy fighting a losing battle with nature, and with every passing year the trees and vines drape themselves a little further over the decaying houses. The result is a delightful ghost-town quality where the buildings appear to hang like exotic fruits from the branches of the trees.

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 Crafts Museum (aka Sadarbari), we took a rickshaw north of the museum. It didn't take long. Karin and I were seated in front while Mafuz (our guide) was at the back – the proverbial “backseat driver”.

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.


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 India, as well as her funny-scary stories visiting Andaman Island off the Bay of Bengal. Later that day, I bought a few Indian rupees from her for my onward travel to Kolkata (India) - I'd need local money for those meal stopovers - while she headed to the southern tip of BangladeshCox's Bazaar, this is Bangladesh's Bali, their Boracay, their Phuket.

A pond just behind this row of run-down mansions.

Karin of Interleukin, Switzerland

Intricate details on the ceiling of one of the mansions.

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 Dhaka (although we weren’t able to see this). Check it out on our next post. This is our date with a grim historical Bangladeshi chapter.

And this is the Eye in the Sky!

Mafuz, our tour guide, up a ledge by the roof deck.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Painam Nagar - Crumbling Opulence in a Ghost Town (Sonargaon)

Sometime between 1895 and 1905, in a small area in the old part of the ancient city of Sonargaon, a single narrow street became a prosperous site of fervent construction of opulent mansions. Rich Hindu merchants, mostly clothes traders, put all the stops to build elegant homes characterized by graceful arches, columns, elaborate stairs, intricately designed pillars, and brick walls. However, during the partition that would eventually separate India and Pakistan, a tumultuous chapter in the Indian subcontinent, this schism resulted to violent in-fighting between the Muslims and the Hindus. The Hindu merchants who practically owned much of Painam Nagar (also called Panam City) fled to India to resist imminent death, leaving their mansions to the care of poor tenants.

Decades of political strife throughout Bangladesh, then under the political tutelage of Pakistan (most were Muslims thus they went with Pakistan during the "partition") hasn’t allowed the merchants to return. These lavish mansions have fallen into decay, their brick walls crumbling along with their rich historical past.

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 Asia have vestiges of home partitions (living room, sleeping quarters, kitchen, bathroom). The ones we saw here have none! Government-aided transfers can’t be worse.

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!

Up next: A travelogue in visiting Painam Nagar - Getting inside some of these decrepit and abandoned houses.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Folk Arts and Crafts Museum (Sadarbari) – Picturesque Rural Bangladesh

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 fa├žade 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.

Lok Shilpa Jadughar

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.

My guide Mafuz and my friend Karin who's a pleasure to watch gliding around in her saree.

Zainul Abedin Museum

Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin

A covered bridge

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sonargaon, Bangladesh – Whispers From an Ancient Capital (An Introduction)

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.

Rajbari Palace turned into a museum.

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.)

Tombs, Sonargaon has a lot of.

"It's Karin," says she. My friend from Bern has traveled far and wide and even scaled mountains.

Intricate designs found at the Goaldi Mosque which has a pre-Mughal design (built 1519).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Habra Covina Cafe Restaurant - Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur

About a kilometer from the fork of the road from Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur, passing through Sta, Cruz Cemetery, straddling barangay Tuban, I found a seemingly misplaced restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The surrounding area are coconut plantations and a sprinkling of small houses. It's called Habra Covina Ihaw-Ihaw Cafe Restaurant facing the national highway that services Davao City to Digos road.

For just PhP99, you can have a buffet of endemic gastronomic servings found in the province - nothing too fancy, but it's the variety that's the catch.

On the buffet table was what they call "lokot", which is believed to be a digested seaweed; some calling it sea cucumber's (trepang) "shit". The whole serving looks like a greenish gelatinous noodle that others erroneously consider "fish shit" - which it isn't. Lokots are usually served raw with a sprinkling of onions, parsley and sometimes, a sweet-savory sauce.

The menu changes daily, but we caught kinilaw, boiled chicken parts, squid dipped in its dark ink sauce, tasty meatballs, clams, some fried fish, a fish-based soup, and my favorite - the sweetish "humba" (must have enjoyed three returns). There are desserts served depending on your day of visit.

This seemingly secluded restaurant is said to be owned by the Otbo family of Digos City, and is competently run by its friendly staff of three (waitress/cashier, cook, janitor). Its clientele are the well heeled denizens of the province who prefer serene dining here. We caught a mayor of a small town and a lady and her daughter on their way to Davao City. Though the restaurant opens at 7AM for a la carte servings, buffet starts at 9 AM onward. Restaurant closes at 7PM and has a "no leftover" policy for their buffet meal.


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.